Crackdown raises the ante for underground poker clubs - Monday 28th of November 2005

On a busy night at the New York Players Club in upper Manhattan, vice squad officers wearing bulletproof vests dealt the underground poker scene a losing hand.

The raids on May 26, dubbed Black Thursday" by one poker website, and two more last month have sent a chill through the citys clandestine poker scene.

Several members-only card clubs closed their doors after 13 arrests on Oct. 16 at the Broadway Club in the Flatiron District. On Oct. 28, a second-floor parlor on the Upper East Side, the EV Club, was the site of more vice squad arrests.

Regulars at the Manhattan clubs, including such professional card players as Phil Hellmuth, have questioned the crackdown while predicting that the popularity of poker, and its potential for profit, make it unlikely that the chips will be down for long.

People just want to play poker, and because there are no legal clubs in the city, they turn to underground clubs," said Hellmuth, a former World Series of Poker champion.

Authorities elsewhere also have taken a hard line.

In Passaic County, N.J., police converged on a shopping center basement that allegedly was home to an illegal parlor posing as a soccer club. They arrested dozens of people and seized about $60,000.

An undercover investigation in Palmer Lake, Colo., led to the arrest of the owner of a Mexican restaurant that held a Texas Hold em tournament. And in Baltimore, police arrested 80 poker players in the biggest gambling raid in the city since Prohibition, only to have prosecutors drop the case.

In Manhattan, at least a dozen clubs -- with names like Ace Point, High Society, Hudson, and All-In -- once operated up to 10 tables in rented offices, back rooms, and other nondescript locations, according to regulars. Countless others have sprung up in the outer boroughs and Long Island, offering local alternatives to casinos in Atlantic City and Internet games.

The clubs, unlike casinos, do not take a percentage of the pot. Instead, patrons pay about $5 per half-hour to sit at tables and play Texas Hold em and other card games, with buy-ins as low as $40. Their ranks include Wall Street brokers, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, along with the occasional celebrity.

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