For years the Nutz Poker League, along with several competitors, has been running free tournaments at bars and restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. It makes money by taking a cut of what players spend on food and drinks. The players accumulate points based on their spending as well as their poker performance and can ultimately win prizes such as vacations, cruises, laptops, cameras, and "various unique poker gifts." Twice a year the winner of the league's "grand championship" receives "a trip to Las Vegas and a Buy In to The World Series of Poker." Since there is no fee to play and no money is wagered on the games, Nutz owner Richard Danford believed he was complying with Florida's gambling laws. Evidently the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco disagreed. It expressed this disagreement by sending its agents, assisted by black-masked local police officers "in full riot gear" with "weapons drawn," to raid a Texas Hold 'Em tournament at Louie's Grill and Sports Bar in Largo the Saturday before last. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Danford and five of his employees "were arrested, accused of working for a gambling house," while "the restaurant owner was charged with keeping a gambling house." Those are third-degree felonies, punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Joshua Riba told the Times that Florida's definition of gambling, rather counterintuitively, does not require betting. "The statute itself does not require anybody to ante in," Riba says. "If they are playing cards, and they have an opportunity to win something of value, then they are technically violating this particular gambling statute." In fact, the offense of keeping a gambling house is defined as, among other things, letting people use a place "to play for money or other valuable thing at any game whatever, whether heretofore prohibited or not." On its face, this so-called crime is not limited to games of chance; a Scrabble tournament with a cash prize or a trivia contest that gives a bar tab to the winning team seemingly would qualify. The Times notes that Florida has an exception for private "penny-ante games," but it does not apply to public tournaments—even, according to state regulators, if the amount of money wagered is zero.
The Times says the Nutz Poker League raid followed "a months-long undercover investigation dubbed Operation Cracked Aces." It took months of undercover work to build a case against a poker league that operates openly and advertises its rules on its website? Doesn't the fact that Danford conducted his business completely in the open suggest he did not think he was doing anything illegal?
"We don't understand what's the law," one league member complained. "The league's been going on for years, and all of a sudden it's against the law?" Danford told the Times the raid was his first inkling that state officials considered his business a criminal enterprise. "Had there been even a sniff or a phone call or a cease-and-desist order," he said, "we would have stopped at once." The Times says the incoming speaker of the state House, Rep. Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), plans to address the confusing condition of Florida's gambling law. "There needs to be what I've called an adult conversation of what gaming should look like in the state," he said. In the meantime, it is hard to see how someone like Danford or the bar owners with whom he works can be accused of knowingly violating the law.
[Thanks to Robert Woolley for the tip.]