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Poker Craze Stirs Gambling Regulators
David Bischoff thinks he got a raw deal last year when state gambling regulators raided his bowling alley, shut down his weekly Texas Hold'em poker tournament and confiscated his cards and chips.
For months afterward, the threat of criminal charges hung over Bischoff - and his card tables sat vacant - until prosecutors concluded that Minnesota's laws against poker were too vague to enforce.
Minnesota is now one of several states in which legislators are looking to rewrite their laws to strengthen their hand against card games at a time when poker is becoming an all-out craze.
"These are just people who have been watching poker on TV and they want to come out and play and be like the people on TV," said Bischoff, whose tournaments are up and running again. "It's not about spending money and winning money. It's just about the competition and seeing who can be the best."
The game at the center of the poker mania is Texas Hold'em, in which players are dealt two cards each and can use five community cards flipped over in the middle of the table to make the best hand.
As the popularity of the game has grown, so have problems for gambling regulators.
In Iowa, a couple of American Legion posts heeded warnings and halted their regular tournaments rather than jeopardize their charitable gaming licenses. A similar concern led a firehouse outside of Pittsburgh to call off its games.
Police in Wyoming started breaking up Texas Hold'em tournaments in bars, and the state's attorney general advised that the events were probably illegal. In Texas - where the game thrived in smoky back rooms before becoming a hit on cable TV - prosecutors are questioning whether bars are improperly profiting from tournaments.
"The popularity of the poker shows has created a whole new beast for us as far as regulations," said David Werning of Iowa's Department of Inspections and Appeals.
Minnesota law allows card tournaments at bars and businesses as long as the hosts do not directly profit from the play and players do not gamble with real money. Bischoff said he complied with those rules by charging no entry fees and limiting awards to hats and T-shirts.
His situation drew the attention of state Sen. Dave Kleis, who last month introduced legislation that would define Texas Hold'em as a "social skill game" and lump it with card games such as cribbage and rummy - games in which players are allowed to win money in Minnesota. Kleis' bill would explicitly permit poker tournaments as long as the prizes do not exceed $200.
"It's no different than cribbage, 500, euchre or bridge. Those are played all over the state, whether it be in nursing homes, restaurants or bars," Kleis said. "Why don't you raid the nursing home for playing cribbage and bridge?"
Kurt McPhail of the Amateur Poker League, a Kansas City-based business that runs more than 400 events a week across nine states, complained that regulators are unfairly clamping down on poker tournaments.
He said that regulators in some states are blurring the distinction between high-stakes games and those that do not require players to put in their own money.
"You hear poker and you immediately think gambling. We've taken the money issue out of it and are doing it strictly for entertainment," said McPhail, the league's vice president.
For now, Minnesota regulators are not wavering from their hard line on Texas Hold'em, even while acknowledging that it will be difficult to keep a lid on it.
"It's the soup of the day. It's very popular," said Frank Ball, director of Minnesota's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division. But, he said, "It's not gin rummy. It's not 500. It's not hearts. Those are all games of skill. This is a random game, and it's a gamble."