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Charity poker venues thriving

Gambling ban carries exception; payouts are high, rules are murky

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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Despite the recent closure of a casinolike poker room at the former Raynham dog track, poker is thriving in at least a half-dozen smaller venues in Massachusetts, with big payouts available any night of the week.

They are tossing chips for thousands of dollars in prizes at a former shoe factory in Holbrook. The Portuguese National Club in Stoughton has posted fliers touting twice-weekly tournaments in its basement. And gamblers looking for Texas Hold’em north of Boston can head over to the Silver Fox in Everett.

Casino gambling is illegal in this state. But rooms like the one at Raynham Park attempt to take advantage of an exception to the state’s prohibition that allows charities to hold Las Vegas nights three times a year to raise money.

As in Raynham, the poker rooms are often run by companies that rely on a rotating group of local sports teams and social clubs to act as official charities. The charity groups fill out paperwork with the state and pay a required 5 percent tax to the State Lottery Commission. The degree to which the operator helps the charities run their tournaments varies by company, as does the amount of money they take in.

The rooms operate openly and with little scrutiny, despite practices at some of them that often test limits of the sometimes murky statutes governing them.

The poker parlors may have little to worry about. Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said in a statement to the Globe that it will review the smaller charitable poker rooms, but probably leave enforcement to local officials. The attorney general has already prompted the closing of what may have been the biggest poker operation in the state, in Raynham.

On a given day, two or three parlors run advertisements in the Boston Herald’s classified section. Holbrook’s South Shore Poker Club welcomes gamblers with a professional-looking website, free buffets, an “early bird special’’ poker tournament, and a sleek black awning over the door. Other websites post photos of women with low-cut tops or grinning men beside giant stacks of chips.

Those operators who spoke with the Globe and not all would — said they run their poker parlors within the law and insist they are well schooled in what is permissible under various interpretations. None, it appears, approach the size or scope of Raynham, with its black jack tables, roulette wheels, and high-stakes cash games.

“They definitely shook things up, and it definitely is frustrating for the people who are trying to do their best’’ to follow the law, said Glenn McCrory, president of Eastern Poker Tour, a Rhode Island company that rents tables for tournaments that rotate among a small group of social clubs in Massachusetts.

The decision to close Raynham came after its operator, Gerald Venezia, met with Coakley’s office amid continuing questions over the legality of his operation. Following that meeting, Venezia said he agreed to keep the room closed indefinitely. Coakley’s office then said it would not investigate Raynham further or attempt to recoup any of the money already collected at the room.

“The agreement of Raynham to stop hosting ‘casino nights’ accomplished substantially what any other investigative or enforcement action by our office might have,’’ Coakley spokesman Corey Welford wrote. “This resolution was quicker, at much less public expense, and equally effective.’’

Venezia said he does not believe he can reopen unless the law changes.

“The attorney general’s interpretation makes it virtually impossible,’’ he said, either for his company or “anyone else to operate within the four corners of the law.’’

The State Racing Commission initially told the Globe it would investigate Raynham Park, which rented its facility to Venezia. That facility, which runs an off-track betting operation, could have faced fines or suspension of its license. But Governor Deval Patrick’s administration backed off after Coakley’s office said it was not investigating.

With no racing licenses, smaller poker rooms have less at stake than Raynham. Yet some of their practices still raise questions.

Several parlors, for example, base their prizes on the number of players who enter a tournament, a practice that is forbidden under a 2005 opinion by the attorney general’s office. And the poker room operators often remain on site during tournaments, though the law says only that the charity’s representatives are allowed to be present.

“Let’s face it: These charities can’t do it themselves, without the proper guidance,’’ said Craig Bradford, a traveling salesman by day who runs tournaments at the Vegas Lounge in Norwood.

State law also forbids paying dealers. Paul Anastasio, operator of the South Shore Poker Club, said he does not pay anyone, yet an advertisement on his website promises “professionally trained dealers.’’

Anastasio insists that they are volunteers who work for free several nights a week and that he makes no money either.

“We’re not doing anything that we shouldn’t be,’’ said Anastasio, an electrician.

That part of the law could soon change. This week, the Massachusetts House passed a measure in its budget that would allow charity poker operators to pay employees. To become law, the measure would need to clear the Senate and win approval from Patrick to become law.

A significant loophole within the existing law now used by many of the clubs was created in a 2005 opinion from Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. It allows clubs to circumvent the rule against prizes above $25 in cash by handing out Visa gift cards in unlimited amounts.

“The player can go right to the ATM right after and get $500 cash,’’ McCrory said. “It seems like a formality.’’

Not all poker operators were willing to talk. A contact listed on ads for the Stoughton poker room run by Boston Poker Events did not return three phone messages. During a visit to the Portuguese National Club last Tuesday by a Globe reporter, a bartender said the regular game had been canceled, without explanation.

A woman named Kim, who answered a phone number listed for Bay State Poker of Wakefield and identified herself as one of its owners, said she could not talk because she was on her way to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The next day, she said she was too sick to answer questions and promised that her co-owners would respond. They did not.

Representatives of a poker school in Fall River did not reply to a phone request either.

“After what was done at Raynham, probably no one wants to talk to you,’’ said Anastasio, who answered questions for an hour.

Several owners who were willing to speak said they hoped the situation at Raynham would lead to better clarification from the attorney general.

Coakley’s office did not provide a specific plan for how it will review the smaller operations, but added that “some of these issues may be better addressed at the local level through the permitting process, and we are in the process of contacting communities to provide guidance about laws relating to this issue.’’

Local authorities, however, may have little incentive to get involved. That is because most poker rooms are especially careful to follow one legal requirement to the letter: They hire members of the local police force as security detail.

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

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