- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Vice squad officers wearing bulletproof vests and raid jackets used a busy night at the New York Players Club in Upper Manhattan to deal the underground poker scene a losing hand.

The team entered unannounced at 11 p.m., detaining dealers, snatching up piles of cash and sending dozens of card players home with empty pockets. Downtown, another popular card club, Play Station, also was shuttered. In all, police arrested 39 employees and confiscated $100,000.

The raids on May 26 — dubbed “Black Thursday” by one poker Web site — and two more last month have sent a chill through the city’s clandestine poker scene.

Several members-only card clubs closed their doors after 13 arrests Oct. 14 at the Broadway Club in Chelsea.

Regulars at the Manhattan clubs, including professional card player Phil Hellmuth, have questioned the crackdown while predicting that the popularity of poker and its potential for profit make it unlikely that the chips will be down for long.

“People just want to play poker, and because there are no legal clubs in the city, they turn to underground clubs,” said Mr. Hellmuth, a former World Series of Poker champion.

Authorities elsewhere also have taken a hard line.

In Passaic County, N.J., police converged on a shopping center basement that purportedly was home to an illegal parlor posing as a soccer club. They arrested dozens of people and seized about $60,000.

In Baltimore, police arrested 80 poker players in the biggest gambling raid in the city since Prohibition, only to have prosecutors drop the case.

The clubs, unlike casinos, don’t take a percentage of the pot. Instead, patrons pay about $5 per half-hour to sit at tables and play Texas hold ‘em and other card games with buy-ins as low as $40.

The clubs typically ban alcohol but provide other perks. Play Station served Oreo cookies, New York Players Club offered valet parking, and the Broadway Club featured plasma televisions. Front doors are unmarked and manned by bouncers.

Mr. Hellmuth said he was “a bit shocked anyone’s making a big deal over the New York poker scene.” An attorney for a club operator who was arrested shared that reaction.

“This is not the crime of the century,” said the lawyer, Michael Rosen.

Indeed, playing poker isn’t criminal. However, it’s illegal to profit by promoting the game.

Authorities say the clubs, along with evading taxes, could be funneling tens of thousands of dollars to drug traffickers or mobsters.

“We realized that this was the start of a problem because there is lots of money involved,” vice squad Lt. Pasquale Morena said at the time of the Players Club raid. “We don’t know where the profits from the gambling are going.”

Mr. Hellmuth suggested that officials simply start licensing existing clubs.

One proposed law in New York would decriminalize poker in bars and restaurants that sponsor low-stakes games, although it would not protect the poker rooms now under siege.

“Poker’s so commonplace now,” said state Sen. John Sabini, a Queens County Democrat who sponsored the bill. “Businesses should be allowed to cash in on it.”

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