Big Apple Busts

78

Originally published by Isabelle Dupuis on Published: Dec 27, 2005.

A curtain has fallen over New York City’s cardrooms. A series of police raids that began last spring and peaked again in October have effectively put an end to a chapter in the city’s poker history. First they stormed the Playstation and the Player’s Club, two of Manhattan’s most established cardrooms. The poker community assumed big rooms were the target and changed little to its habits. Cardrooms adopted a business-as-usual stance, while card players attended their regular games undaunted. Cardrooms even continued opening across the city. But when the police came crashing into The Broadway Club on Oct. 14 and raided smaller clubs in the following weeks, everyone held his breath and ducked. Cardroom owners have closed their establishments or gone on self-imposed “vacations,” players are regrouping in home games, and many dealers, now out of work, are trying to figure out how to make ends meet. An intrepid few have decided to brave the risk and stay open, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. At one time, the city boasted more than two dozen cardrooms, the most it has ever had in its recent history.

So far, there is little explanation for the raids. Although operating a cardroom in New York state is illegal – and everyone involved in the business is clear on this fact – in the past, rooms would get shut down not because of the poker playing, but because of another criminal offense such as drug or weapon possession. So far, within the context of the recent crackdown, no such allegations have surfaced. The Manhattan DA’s office, citing that investigations are still under way, is keeping mum on the issue. Many people arrested in the raids – as many as 40 during the spring sweeps – were quickly released and given only a fine. Others are still facing trial, with charges ranging from “possessing gambling equipment,” a class A misdemeanor, to “promoting gambling in the first degree,” a class E felony that can lead to up to four years in jail.
Because of the absence of hard facts, minds are rife with speculations, rumors are spreading, and fingers are pointing. Ace V., a cardroom owner whose establishment was spared by the authorities, echoes what is on many people’s minds when he mentions the media. On April 10, The New York Post, the city’s tabloid, ran a substantial piece about cardrooms, listing the establishments’ names and giving approximate locations for each. Then, on Oct. 3, that same paper ran the famous picture of A-Rod playing with Phil Hellmuth in an underground club. Both articles appeared before the May and October raids, respectively. “The media is what precipitated everything,” says Ace V. “They made it look like there were casinos in NYC and that the authorities were helpless. Now [the authorities] have to show they are in control.” The papers “get read by politicians,” notes Peter Alson, co-author of One of a Kind, the Stu Ungar biography, “It’s a source of embarrassment for them that illegal activities are going on under their noses and are reported in the papers.” There are also rumors – all unfounded and with varying degrees of dubiousness – that the police is helping itself to the cash found during the raids or that casinos in Atlantic City or Foxwoods have a stake in the raids and are trying to redirect potential players to their establishments. More troubling, there has even been talk that some cardroom owners, growing desperate in an increasingly competitive niche – or just plain greedy – may have tipped off the police.
Contrary to cities like New Orleans, gambling houses were not always popular in New York City. During the 18th century, they had a hard time even getting a foothold anywhere in the Big Apple, as New Yorkers had developed a soft spot for the lottery after it was legalized by the state in 1721. A century later, in 1834, the course was reversed. Lotteries were abolished and gambling houses began to flourish. They crawled throughout downtown New York, up Broadway and the Bowery, while penny poker dens sprung up in the notorious Five Points neighborhood. By 1850, gambling houses of all kinds numbered 6,000. If Herbert Asbury’s historical account in Sucker’s Progress is correct, the main purpose of these establishments was to fleece unsuspecting customers of their material possessions. It was an era when cardsharps contributed their skills to the management’s bottom line. Times have changed, and most recently, New Yorkers considered their cardrooms to be safe environments, with professional staffs capable of spotting a cheat a mile away, or so they say.
Before the current poker craze, in the mid-’90s, a new generation of New York poker players was already being groomed in the Diamond Club, a cardroom that revolutionized the way poker was played in the city. Before it opened, New Yorkers could mainly choose between the “goulash joints” tucked away on the Upper East Side and nicknamed after the hearty stew served to boost the player’s stamina, and the Mayfair Club, an old-school bridge and backgammon club that kept a low profile in a basement close to Gramercy Park but represents a milestone in the city’s poker history. Some of the country’s best bridge and backgammon players passed through its doors since the club opened in the ’50s. It was common for patrons of such clubs to break the monotony of their game by starting a poker game in a corner, and the Mayfair’s establishment willingly obliged, setting up an entire section for poker tables. Eventually, anyone who is somebody in the world of poker today played his share of high-stakes, no-limit poker at the Mayfair: Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, Jason Lester, and all the others who are inching their way closer to boldface-name status in the mainstream press.
When the Diamond Club opened, poker players discovered a different type of cardroom, modeled after casinos, with professional dealers – all the games at the Mayfair were dealt by the players – and tournaments. The games were low-stakes, attracting a crowd of players who were either intimidated by or could not afford the risk of playing at the Mayfair. The Diamond Club “created a new crop of poker players,” remembers Alson, a once longtime member of the Mayfair who switched to the competition, attracted by the new club’s youthful vibe and novel concept. Alson and nine other players from the Diamond Club, including Phil Laak, won their way to the 2000 World Series of Poker.
Neither the Mayfair nor the Diamond Club saw much of the 21st century, however, as they were packed away in 2001, along with the city’s striptease joints, squeegee men, and other so-called creatures of nuisance by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani during his notorious “Quality of Life” campaign.
Then came the poker craze. Hoping to cash in on it, poker lovers and entrepreneurial types opened cardrooms across New York City and rejuvenated the local poker scene. Rooms sprouted citywide, often operating as “parties and special events” venues to escape the radar of the authorities. They dotted the concrete canyons of the Financial District, found nooks along the West Side’s nondescript streets, or set up shop in the hipper downtown districts. Some were in buildings with doormen and hallways lined with plush carpets, while others preferred the anonymity of a small lobby bathed in the sterile glow of a single fluorescent lightbulb. Some opted for a bare-bones décor, while others indulged in lounges outfitted with plush leather couches, flat-screen TVs, and an abundance of snacks to keep the players content and focused. One place is reputed to have served the best pasta in town. In addition, these poker dens were relatively safe, with few incidents reported or known of. “That’s amazing for an unregulated industry,” notes Ace V. Contrary to the image popularized in the 1998 film Rounders, the crowd frequenting these joints was as banal and diverse as one waiting for a New York subway: all walks of life, many ethnicities, willing – and eager – participants in the country’s biggest gambling craze since bingo was legalized in 1957.
The local press followed suit. New York Magazine listed poker as a “trend that mattered in 2004” in its end-of-the-year issue that year; The New York Times deemed the subject worthy enough of front-page coverage and created a gambling beat; and one of the Daily News’ columnists writes weekly about the issue, although not positively.
But despite the craze, with so many cardrooms vying for the business of a finite group, cardroom owners and managers soon found themselves struggling to fill the tables. They became less vigilant about security – some establishments did not even have the camera-outfitted peephole that usually adorns the entry door of illegal gambling halls and could be entered as easily as a corner deli – and accepted almost anyone who wanted to play a game. The Internet – craigslist.com, in particular – became the promotional tool of choice. The word spread, indeed, but too openly, no doubt. Likewise, some players, new to the scene and not indifferent to the attention lavished on the game across the country, lacked the know-how to navigate the murky legality of NYC’s poker. “The climate was such that anyone who had ever played anywhere expected to play everywhere,” remembers Ace V., who once had to kick out a group of uncomprehending players who did not have membership to his club. Forums, blogs, and chat lists were full of tips and information that no one even tried to conceal. Even after the raids, some players used the Internet to tip each other off about the location of the remaining cardrooms with disconcerting heedlessness.
Reality has now sunk in. The current mood is one of resignation, and keeping a low profile is the new modus operandi. No groups are forming to storm city hall, sue the police department, or take to the street in protest. But passions rise when conversations address the discrepancy between the star-studded place given to poker in the national media and the Big Apple’s reality. “If you play in Atlantic City, you’re wined and dined; you get VIP treatment,” said one cardroom manager who wished to remain anonymous. “If you play in New York, you get treated like the scum of the earth.” When the topic has to do with the legality of poker, taciturn faces suddenly become animated and voices rise in a chorus of arguments. Indeed, poker is one of those perplexing “unlawful” activities: No law sanctions it, no law condones it. Considered by New York state as a game of chance (poker players, of course, vehemently argue against this), it is illegal to profit from poker, but OK to play it. As such, winning a $2,000 pot is not considered profiting, while selling a $2 can of soda or renting out a chair while hosting a game is, and this is regardless of whether the game is being held in a gambling hall or a private house. Other forms of gambling in which chance plays a significant role, such as horse racing, bingo, and the lottery, have been legalized, but so far the state has no intention of adding poker to the list. Many players grumble at the thought. “It’s part of the American character to be hypocritical,” remarks Alson, “and there is nothing more hypocritical than letting the state sponsor certain forms of gambling and call other forms of gambling illegal.”
The fate of poker in New York state’s legal realm hinges on determining whether or not chance is a material element of the game. The equation is simple: Games of skill are legal, games of chance are not. On the surface, the task seems simple: Convince a judge that chance is of no significance to the outcome of a game and, bingo, a new era in poker is set to dawn. But even if a court were to decide so, no less than a constitutional amendment would be required to make poker legal, even for charitable play. Horse racing, bingo, the lottery, and other legal forms of gambling were legalized after such an amendment. New Yorkers have the option of lobbying their legislators, but so far there is little indication that this is ever going to happen. Legalization, if ever, is not around the corner.
Poker aficionados predict that cardrooms will eventually resurface in the city, but will be accessible only to players with excellent connections within the already existing community. The Internet will most likely be replaced by old-fashioned word of mouth and the game will be pushed further underground. But some New Yorkers have long relished the edge of playing in illegal surroundings, and like the distinctiveness this shines on their clubs and games. According to Alson, who has patronized the city’s cardrooms for 25 years, “If poker were ever legalized, it would lose some of its romance.”

A curtain has fallen over New York City’s cardrooms. A series of police raids that began last spring and peaked again in October have effectively put an end to a chapter in the city’s poker history. First they stormed the Playstation and the Player’s Club, two of Manhattan’s most established cardrooms. The poker community assumed big rooms were the target and changed little to its habits. Cardrooms adopted a business-as-usual stance, while card players attended their regular games undaunted. Cardrooms even continued opening across the city. But when the police came crashing into The Broadway Club on Oct. 14 and raided smaller clubs in the following weeks, everyone held his breath and ducked. Cardroom owners have closed their establishments or gone on self-imposed “vacations,” players are regrouping in home games, and many dealers, now out of work, are trying to figure out how to make ends meet. An intrepid few have decided to brave the risk and stay open, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. At one time, the city boasted more than two dozen cardrooms, the most it has ever had in its recent history.
So far, there is little explanation for the raids. Although operating a cardroom in New York state is illegal – and everyone involved in the business is clear on this fact – in the past, rooms would get shut down not because of the poker playing, but because of another criminal offense such as drug or weapon possession. So far, within the context of the recent crackdown, no such allegations have surfaced. The Manhattan DA’s office, citing that investigations are still under way, is keeping mum on the issue. Many people arrested in the raids – as many as 40 during the spring sweeps – were quickly released and given only a fine. Others are still facing trial, with charges ranging from “possessing gambling equipment,” a class A misdemeanor, to “promoting gambling in the first degree,” a class E felony that can lead to up to four years in jail.
Because of the absence of hard facts, minds are rife with speculations, rumors are spreading, and fingers are pointing. Ace V., a cardroom owner whose establishment was spared by the authorities, echoes what is on many people’s minds when he mentions the media. On April 10, The New York Post, the city’s tabloid, ran a substantial piece about cardrooms, listing the establishments’ names and giving approximate locations for each. Then, on Oct. 3, that same paper ran the famous picture of A-Rod playing with Phil Hellmuth in an underground club. Both articles appeared before the May and October raids, respectively. “The media is what precipitated everything,” says Ace V. “They made it look like there were casinos in NYC and that the authorities were helpless. Now [the authorities] have to show they are in control.” The papers “get read by politicians,” notes Peter Alson, co-author of One of a Kind, the Stu Ungar biography, “It’s a source of embarrassment for them that illegal activities are going on under their noses and are reported in the papers.” There are also rumors – all unfounded and with varying degrees of dubiousness – that the police is helping itself to the cash found during the raids or that casinos in Atlantic City or Foxwoods have a stake in the raids and are trying to redirect potential players to their establishments. More troubling, there has even been talk that some cardroom owners, growing desperate in an increasingly competitive niche – or just plain greedy – may have tipped off the police.

Contrary to cities like New Orleans, gambling houses were not always popular in New York City. During the 18th century, they had a hard time even getting a foothold anywhere in the Big Apple, as New Yorkers had developed a soft spot for the lottery after it was legalized by the state in 1721. A century later, in 1834, the course was reversed. Lotteries were abolished and gambling houses began to flourish. They crawled throughout downtown New York, up Broadway and the Bowery, while penny poker dens sprung up in the notorious Five Points neighborhood. By 1850, gambling houses of all kinds numbered 6,000. If Herbert Asbury’s historical account in Sucker’s Progress is correct, the main purpose of these establishments was to fleece unsuspecting customers of their material possessions. It was an era when cardsharps contributed their skills to the management’s bottom line. Times have changed, and most recently, New Yorkers considered their cardrooms to be safe environments, with professional staffs capable of spotting a cheat a mile away, or so they say.
Before the current poker craze, in the mid-’90s, a new generation of New York poker players was already being groomed in the Diamond Club, a cardroom that revolutionized the way poker was played in the city. Before it opened, New Yorkers could mainly choose between the “goulash joints” tucked away on the Upper East Side and nicknamed after the hearty stew served to boost the player’s stamina, and the Mayfair Club, an old-school bridge and backgammon club that kept a low profile in a basement close to Gramercy Park but represents a milestone in the city’s poker history. Some of the country’s best bridge and backgammon players passed through its doors since the club opened in the ’50s. It was common for patrons of such clubs to break the monotony of their game by starting a poker game in a corner, and the Mayfair’s establishment willingly obliged, setting up an entire section for poker tables. Eventually, anyone who is somebody in the world of poker today played his share of high-stakes, no-limit poker at the Mayfair: Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, Jason Lester, and all the others who are inching their way closer to boldface-name status in the mainstream press.
When the Diamond Club opened, poker players discovered a different type of cardroom, modeled after casinos, with professional dealers – all the games at the Mayfair were dealt by the players – and tournaments. The games were low-stakes, attracting a crowd of players who were either intimidated by or could not afford the risk of playing at the Mayfair. The Diamond Club “created a new crop of poker players,” remembers Alson, a once longtime member of the Mayfair who switched to the competition, attracted by the new club’s youthful vibe and novel concept. Alson and nine other players from the Diamond Club, including Phil Laak, won their way to the 2000 World Series of Poker.

Neither the Mayfair nor the Diamond Club saw much of the 21st century, however, as they were packed away in 2001, along with the city’s striptease joints, squeegee men, and other so-called creatures of nuisance by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani during his notorious “Quality of Life” campaign.
Then came the poker craze. Hoping to cash in on it, poker lovers and entrepreneurial types opened cardrooms across New York City and rejuvenated the local poker scene. Rooms sprouted citywide, often operating as “parties and special events” venues to escape the radar of the authorities. They dotted the concrete canyons of the Financial District, found nooks along the West Side’s nondescript streets, or set up shop in the hipper downtown districts. Some were in buildings with doormen and hallways lined with plush carpets, while others preferred the anonymity of a small lobby bathed in the sterile glow of a single fluorescent lightbulb. Some opted for a bare-bones décor, while others indulged in lounges outfitted with plush leather couches, flat-screen TVs, and an abundance of snacks to keep the players content and focused. One place is reputed to have served the best pasta in town. In addition, these poker dens were relatively safe, with few incidents reported or known of. “That’s amazing for an unregulated industry,” notes Ace V. Contrary to the image popularized in the 1998 film Rounders, the crowd frequenting these joints was as banal and diverse as one waiting for a New York subway: all walks of life, many ethnicities, willing – and eager – participants in the country’s biggest gambling craze since bingo was legalized in 1957.
The local press followed suit. New York Magazine listed poker as a “trend that mattered in 2004” in its end-of-the-year issue that year; The New York Times deemed the subject worthy enough of front-page coverage and created a gambling beat; and one of the Daily News’ columnists writes weekly about the issue, although not positively.
But despite the craze, with so many cardrooms vying for the business of a finite group, cardroom owners and managers soon found themselves struggling to fill the tables. They became less vigilant about security – some establishments did not even have the camera-outfitted peephole that usually adorns the entry door of illegal gambling halls and could be entered as easily as a corner deli – and accepted almost anyone who wanted to play a game. The Internet – craigslist.com, in particular – became the promotional tool of choice. The word spread, indeed, but too openly, no doubt. Likewise, some players, new to the scene and not indifferent to the attention lavished on the game across the country, lacked the know-how to navigate the murky legality of NYC’s poker. “The climate was such that anyone who had ever played anywhere expected to play everywhere,” remembers Ace V., who once had to kick out a group of uncomprehending players who did not have membership to his club. Forums, blogs, and chat lists were full of tips and information that no one even tried to conceal. Even after the raids, some players used the Internet to tip each other off about the location of the remaining cardrooms with disconcerting heedlessness.
Reality has now sunk in. The current mood is one of resignation, and keeping a low profile is the new modus operandi. No groups are forming to storm city hall, sue the police department, or take to the street in protest. But passions rise when conversations address the discrepancy between the star-studded place given to poker in the national media and the Big Apple’s reality. “If you play in Atlantic City, you’re wined and dined; you get VIP treatment,” said one cardroom manager who wished to remain anonymous. “If you play in New York, you get treated like the scum of the earth.” When the topic has to do with the legality of poker, taciturn faces suddenly become animated and voices rise in a chorus of arguments. Indeed, poker is one of those perplexing “unlawful” activities: No law sanctions it, no law condones it. Considered by New York state as a game of chance (poker players, of course, vehemently argue against this), it is illegal to profit from poker, but OK to play it. As such, winning a $2,000 pot is not considered profiting, while selling a $2 can of soda or renting out a chair while hosting a game is, and this is regardless of whether the game is being held in a gambling hall or a private house. Other forms of gambling in which chance plays a significant role, such as horse racing, bingo, and the lottery, have been legalized, but so far the state has no intention of adding poker to the list. Many players grumble at the thought. “It’s part of the American character to be hypocritical,” remarks Alson, “and there is nothing more hypocritical than letting the state sponsor certain forms of gambling and call other forms of gambling illegal.”
The fate of poker in New York state’s legal realm hinges on determining whether or not chance is a material element of the game. The equation is simple: Games of skill are legal, games of chance are not. On the surface, the task seems simple: Convince a judge that chance is of no significance to the outcome of a game and, bingo, a new era in poker is set to dawn. But even if a court were to decide so, no less than a constitutional amendment would be required to make poker legal, even for charitable play. Horse racing, bingo, the lottery, and other legal forms of gambling were legalized after such an amendment. New Yorkers have the option of lobbying their legislators, but so far there is little indication that this is ever going to happen. Legalization, if ever, is not around the corner.
Poker aficionados predict that cardrooms will eventually resurface in the city, but will be accessible only to players with excellent connections within the already existing community. The Internet will most likely be replaced by old-fashioned word of mouth and the game will be pushed further underground. But some New Yorkers have long relished the edge of playing in illegal surroundings, and like the distinctiveness this shines on their clubs and games. According to Alson, who has patronized the city’s cardrooms for 25 years, “If poker were ever legalized, it would lose some of its romance.”

This article was found at http://www.cardplayer.com/cardplayer-magazines/65579-18-25/articles/15167-big-apple-busts

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