Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The nation’s poker players are enlisting lawyers to keep them from running afoul of gambling laws.

A group called the Poker Players Alliance started operating a Litigation Support Network last week.

The alliance gives members free referrals to lawyers who can advise them on how to avoid overstepping legal limits while betting on their poker games.

“With the myriad local, state and federal laws impacting poker, the Litigation Support Network is an important service that our members can and should use,” said former New York Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman of the Poker Players Alliance.

The nonprofit group claims to have nearly a million members nationwide.

Members play their games at private homes, taverns, charity events or over the Internet.

As long as they do not bet money, no state law allows for prosecution of poker players. Even if they gamble with only small amounts of money between friends in private games, there is almost no chance of prosecution.

But when the level of gambling could be considered a business, state and federal laws either require a license or forbid it outright.

That’s where the Litigation Support Network comes in. The Poker Players Alliance wants poker players to know when they step over the line to operating a business.

“The patchwork of state and local laws relating to poker is leaving [Poker Players Alliance] members confused about what is legal and what is illegal,” said Patrick Fleming, a lawyer who leads the Litigation Support Network.

The proliferation of online poker games and gambling has led to more police raids of suspected gamblers, according to the alliance.

Members of the alliance can contact the Litigation Support Network by phone or e-mail for free to get preliminary legal advice. If they need further representation, the network refers them to lawyers listed at law firms nationwide.

One of the lawyers in the referral network is Ken Adams, a partner in the Washington firm Dickstein Shapiro, who said he likes to play Low Limit Texas Hold-‘em poker.

“Most people who call would be wanting to raise money for a fundraising event and need a license, and maybe businesses or bars that want to participate in bar-league poker,” Mr. Adams said. “People are seeing the popularity of it, and they want to know how to do it within the law.”

The D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board generally grants licenses for poker to charitable organizations for specific events.

In Maryland and Virginia, licensing authorities vary from one county to the next.

Other than charity, they can grant poker licenses that allow businesses to reimburse players with credits, such as food tickets at restaurants.

Otherwise, all three jurisdictions make poker gambling illegal.

Poker Players Alliance officials say they are concerned about a move in Congress to clamp down on Internet poker. Several bills are pending that would ban, restrict or heavily tax the games.

Players can transfer money into an online account, play a poker game on the Internet that is hosted by overseas companies, then cash out their winnings with a series of computer commands. They can be paid by having their winnings transferred back into their account or through a check that arrives in the mail.

Some states have tried to crack down on Internet gambling, but found the offshore Web sites are not within their jurisdiction.

The Poker Players Alliance prefers regulation of Internet poker rather than banning it.

“None of these statutes ever contemplated the world we live in now,” Mr. Adams said. “Until Congress deals with the questions and decides whether it should be legal or illegal, it’s up in the air.”

An issue propelling both local and federal legislation against poker gambling is what happens to players when they lose, particularly if they bet large amounts of money with the hope of getting rich quick.

Laws that allow poker gambling “can be counterproductive in areas where there are high levels of poverty,” said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican.

Confusion about what is legal or illegal under state law led to a police raid last November on the business of Logan Dungan, a Little Rock, Ark., businessman who ran a “National Poker Challenge” franchise out of a shopping mall.

Mr. Dungan signed a franchise agreement with the Memphis, Tenn.-based company, obtained a business license in Little Rock, leased an office and paid taxes.

In the two months he was operating, about 50 customers played poker at his establishment as they competed to win as much as $1,000 a game.

It all ended Nov. 18.

“They came in on a Sunday night,” Mr. Dungan said. “It was like the whole police department came in. They stopped everything that was going on. They let the players go and arrested me and the dealers.”

He is awaiting word from the local prosecutor’s office on whether he will face criminal charges, which he said came as a complete surprise to him as he ran his poker franchise.

“That didn’t even enter my mind,” Mr. Dungan said.

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