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Poker rooms are booming, but it’s not all for charity

De facto casinos test boundaries of Mass. gambling law

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By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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RAYNHAM — Pit bosses in dark suits escort players to the 28 poker, blackjack, and roulette tables. One man exhales with relief when his pair of aces takes down a $250 pot against wired sevens. Colorful chips clink as they change hands: to tip the dealer, to buy a whiskey, or, for those who have been lucky, to cash out.

The law says Massachusetts has no casinos. But it doesn’t look like that on a Thursday afternoon at Raynham Park, where a clubroom with a long bar and 1970s carpeting has been turned into a de facto casino, where more than $1,000 can be won or lost in a single pot and players pull out $100 bills to restock their chips.

All that is missing from this crumbling former dog track are slot machines and a discount buffet.

“They run a good, solid game here, well organized,’’ said Bob Monsini, a 67-year-old retired police officer and regular at the Raynham poker room, as he pulled out $50 for his nephew to play.

While the Massachusetts Legislature has stalled in its debate over legalizing casinos, several gambling operators across the state have opened poker rooms that take advantage of a law that allows charities to hold casino nights up to three times a year. Raynham operates with dozens of charities on a rotating basis, including Pembroke Football and Cheerleaders and the Holliston VFW Post, and it gives a portion of the proceeds to those groups.

But the operation appears to violate the 1969 charitable gambling law with its large payouts, its paid employees, and the profits kept by the private entity that runs it.

The man who oversees the action, a genial former state racing commissioner in a gray suit and purple tie, insists his setup is legal, for the most part.

“Looking at that statute, we’re trying to come into compliance as much as we can,’’ said Gerald Venezia, Massachusetts’ racing commissioner for five years in the 1980s. “The statute is so restrictive, at times, a strict interpretation might make it nearly impossible to do this.’’

Venezia, who has two partners in a business called JRM Charitable Gaming, does not appear to be hiding much about his poker room, which has attracted a booming business since its January opening. Last week, it expanded to four days a week, with cash games and tournaments from the afternoon until past midnight. It has charities booked as beneficiaries each night through the end of 2011.

Venezia answers most questions, and said he is still tweaking some of his rules in hopes of avoiding trouble with legal authorities.

“I’m not fudging anything,’’ said Venezia, whose company runs the room under a contract with Raynham. “It’s not worth it.’’

But Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office has begun asking questions about the operation at Raynham Park, the only racetrack in the state with a regular poker schedule.

“These issues have been brought to our attention and we are reviewing them. We also have been in contact with Raynham Park to get a better understanding of their practices,’’ said Coakley’s spokesman, Corey Welford.

Last week, Coakley’s office filed emergency regulations banning gambling at certain “cyber cafes’’ and “phone card’’ establishments.

State Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and the Legislature’s designated point person on gambling, said Raynham Park could jeopardize its opportunity to run a full casino — should gambling be legalized — if Coakley determines that the charitable poker room runs afoul of the law.

“Anyone who wished to apply for a casino license in the future, or expanded gaming license in the future in the Commonwealth, really needs to be mindful that you need unimpeachable integrity,’’ Rosenberg said.

A spokesman for Raynham Park, Conor Yunits, said the track sees the poker room as a way to bring extra shifts for the bar staff and more customers to place wagers for its simulcasting business. But he directed most questions about the operations to Venezia.

In an attempt to comply with the law, JRM makes sure the charities apply for permits from the Town of Raynham and send a designee to the poker room to act as the official operator, though Venezia and nearly 60 employees do all the work.

The house — in this case, JRM — takes up to 10 percent from each pot or poker tournament. According to Venezia’s estimate, that will amount to between $2 million and $2.8 million by year’s end.

But he won’t get all of that. Charities will take 25 percent of that, and the state will receive 5 percent in taxes under the charitable gambling law. Venezia’s company will take the remaining 70 percent, as much as $2 million.

Venezia said that even with that payout, he walks away with less than the charities, because he must pay expenses that include employees, equipment, and rent to Raynham Park. Neither Venezia nor Yunits would say how much the track receives in rent.

Dan Arbia, a member of Vega Club, a Brockton social club, said his group earned about $3,000 for hosting last Thursday’s event.

“Looking at the scope of things and the way things are done professionally, there’s no way we could do this in-house,’’ said Arbia, who did little more than fill out some paperwork and look out at the poker room from a bar chair that day.

Several aspects of the operation appear at odds with the charitable gambling law:

■ Cash awards are not supposed to exceed $25. But players interviewed by the Globe say hands in no-limit poker routinely go above $100 and sometimes reach more than $1,000. And poker tournaments pay out thousands of dollars to winners.

Venezia said tournament winners will soon be paid with American Express gift cards, to avoid giving out “cash awards.’’ But he will continue to allow non-tournament games to be played without a limit, and for cash.

■ Casino nights are not supposed to last more than five hours, but the poker room routinely stays open longer than nine hours. To resolve this, Venezia will begin signing up two charities per day, in shifts, he said.

■ The law says only “qualified members’’ of the charity should operate a poker night. Venezia said he is acting as the charity’s designee. The law makes no such allowance.

■ The law bars charities from using paid employees to operate casino nights and says all proceeds must be used for charitable purposes. “I can’t give you a way around that,’’ Venezia said. “It would be essentially impossible for a charity to run a poker room like this using volunteers.’’

Owners of competing Massachusetts tracks say they have considered poker rooms, but so far have held off.

Gary T. Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Racecourse, said he is worried about insulting the Legislature. If Coakley deems poker rooms legal, however, he may reconsider.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s illegal or doesn’t pass the smell test,’’ he said. “This is, I guess, an alternative to legalized gaming, exploit the existing laws.’’

Venezia and his partners ran a similar operation at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire from 2006 to 2009. The owner of that track now runs the business himself. And the State of New Hampshire several years ago decided to start regulating the operation to protect both charities and players and to take a cut.

Ed Callahan, president of Rockingham Park, said charities received $1.8 million from his poker room last year. Without regulation, he said, charities and players are at risk of not getting paid what they are owed.

In Raynham, Nick Karavasiliadis, a 31-year-old Taunton man in a Gucci baseball cap, said he plays poker daily and considers himself a professional. He has come home from Raynham a winner 11 out of 12 times since the poker room opened, including one $2,200 payday. But he is concerned that the competition is getting tougher, as word spreads.

“Eventually, it’s going to fill up with people like me,’’ he said. “You aren’t going to make easy money.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.