I have never been either busted or robbed when playing poker. Considering the enormous number of times I have played poker in a situation in which I was potentially exposed to such threats, my luckBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play. Bob's website is www.pokercoach.us
has been incredible. But, I have had lots of close calls. One time when I failed to show up for my weekly game, an irate loser who got in a fight at the game came back with a gun and killed three of my friends. Another time, I went to Vancouver, Canada, to play, and the game host informed me the Mounties had busted his game two days earlier. When I went to Halifax, the game had been robbed the previous week and was busted by the Mounties the following week. However, I have talked to many friends and acquaintances who have faced such unpleasantness, so I have a pretty good idea of what is going on.
For the Halifax game, my friend Doug told me the police raid was far more frightening than the robbery. This is a statement I have heard from other players, as well. When police bust a poker game, they follow the same procedures that they use on a drug bust. (It is often the police who are from the drug enforcement branch of the department that are called upon to do this type of raid, because they are the most experienced at it.) Among other things, these particular police officers are not known for being gentle and friendly, like those you may well have encountered in a traffic violation stop or other such type of mild infraction. I have been told by a police officer that the “doctrine of overwhelming force” is used. As he explained to me, a large number of officers, heavily armed, are normally used so that no one is tempted to resist arrest. This is considered to be a safer method for both the police and the players.
At the end of September, I received an e-mail from a poker player in South Carolina, who vividly described his experience in a recent police bust there. Here is an abbreviated version of what he wrote me:
“I live in Greenville, South Carolina, and was playing in a little $100 buy-in no-limit hold’em tourney at a clubhouse in a nice subdivision, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, with a group of 16 corporate America-type guys just having a fun time. Two hours into the tournament, the Greer police [Greer is located in Greenville County] and other police officers came busting into the clubhouse just like something out of the TV show COPS, guns drawn, literally shoving us on the floor with guns pointed at our heads. They yelled, ‘Warrant; get down on the ground and don’t move.’ They held us on the floor for some time with our hands handcuffed behind our backs until they made sure the room was ‘clear.’ Why, I still don’t know. They searched our cars and left no item unturned or in the order it originally was. My wife, unfortunately, pulled up to the clubhouse with my two children in the backseat to let me know she was on her way to a birthday party, and the police stopped her, told her to turn off her car and get out, proceeded to question her, and finally told her to leave. Anyway, they made us post $450 bail and said they would give us a court date to appear. They confiscated everything — the chips, the computer that was running the clock, the cards, the payout money that was in the host’s pocket, and even my money clip that was on the table without any money in it. I asked if I could have it back, and they said it was evidence.”
This is an experience that many of you might have if you play in a poker tournament that is not in a legal gambling casino, but an environment where you thought the tournament was in accordance with the law. My first priority in getting better laws on poker is to exempt the player in such an event from any legal culpability. There are presently seven states that give immunity to anyone who is a player and has nothing to do in any way with the gambling activity other than playing in it. I am not looking to go even that far; I just want to make sure that anyone playing in a tournament of a game that is a mixture of luck and skill cannot be charged with a crime. I find that lots of times, the organizer of such an event either thinks it is legal or thinks that nothing will happen to his group because many other people are openly doing the same thing. You cannot expect a player to know whether such an activity is legal or not in his state.
You are going to hear more from me about the “Greenville Bust” in the future. This has the makings of a very interesting court case, for several reasons. First, no one made any money hosting the event, as all of the entry money was put in the prize fund. Second, the warrant was definitely aimed at people exclusively playing poker; they were not caught up in a situation in which they were playing poker in a bookmaking shop or with drugs rumored to be in use. Third, they were not in a public place, or even a private poker club; they were just a bunch of friends who had gotten together to have a poker tournament among themselves. And most importantly, they were in South Carolina, whose laws on gambling are mixed in with laws on game-playing and playing games on the Sabbath. The statute these players are charged under says that no game using cards or dice can be played in South Carolina except whist and backgammon. You cannot even play Monopoly or Parcheesi, according to the letter of the law!
Another South Carolina statute (not pertaining to this case) states that on the Sabbath, you are not allowed to play any game, not even in your own home, whether with cards or dice or not. That statute reads: “Whoever shall keep or suffer to be kept any gaming table or permit any game or games to be played in his house on the Sabbath day, on conviction thereof before any court having jurisdiction, shall be fined the sum of fifty dollars, to be sued for on behalf of, and to be recovered for use of, the State.”
In my 1990 work, A Comparative Study of State Laws on Social Gambling, I wrote the following about this particular statute: “As can be seen, playing a game at one’s house on Sunday, even though no wagering be involved, is declared illegal in South Carolina. Is it constitutional for a state to prohibit people from playing a friendly game of bridge with family members in their own home on a Sunday afternoon? The author thinks not, and finds it hard to believe such a law could have been passed in any state of the United States of America.”
South Carolina is the only state in the nation that puts anti-gambling laws in the same statute with laws against nongambling game-playing. It is my opinion that such a construction violates our constitutional right to due process, and produces an illegally broad statute. The state has no compelling interest in preventing people from playing nongambling card games or games only on specified days. We are not a Taliban-run country!
Stay tuned. You will read more about this critical court case in my next column.