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Fort Wayne’s poker underground

When having a full house is breaking the law…

By Jim Fester

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-04-10


“There is a poker game in Fort Wayne any hour of the day, seven days a week,” says John. “There’s probably half-a-dozen regular poker games in Fort Wayne, and one of them is usually going at any given time.”

The kind of poker game “John” is talking about isn’t the kind of game where you invite a half-dozen of buddies over to your basement for a few friendly hours of beer, cigar smoke and Texas Hold ‘Em. The kind of poker game “John” is talking about is where a carefully selected group of people gets together at an undisclosed location and plays for money, sometimes serious money. John runs the game as a business, which means in short that the “house” takes a cut. “The games are raked, which means a certain percentage comes out of each pot,” John says. That cut makes up the card room’s income. “We’re sort of like a club. That rake is what pays for all the expenses. Basically, it’s like membership dues.”

And like your basement card game with your friends, John does not have a license to do this, which in Indiana (in fact, pretty much anywhere in the U.S.), makes it illegal.

John runs an illegal poker game in Fort Wayne. He’s been doing this for a few years, running the game four days a week and renting it out to other people the other three days. Running this poker game is how John — not his real name (obviously) — makes his living. “It’s my only income,” he says. “Before I had my own game, all I did was play. A good player can make a decent living. A good player (in Fort Wayne) can make what a blue collar factory-worker might make.”

John adds that there aren’t too many people in Fort Wayne making a living off gambling, but they’re out there. You have to put in your time, though — it’s certainly not a 9-5 job — and you have to be patient. “If you’re serious about it, you’ll probably put in 40, 50, 60 hours a week…” John says.

Of course, you could also get cracked. “There have been times I’ve lost huge pots against someone who didn’t really know what he was doing,” he says. “It’s tough to not be upset about that, but you have to keep it together. You can’t allow yourself to get beaten up. You’re gonna lose. The best players in the world lose. You just have to maintain your composure, and keep a cool head if you run into a bad streak.”

John seems to keep a pretty cool head in general. The game he runs is casual and not particularly exclusive; you have to know someone to get in, and if you behave yourself and don’t act like a jerk, you can come back. If you act like an idiot and get drunk and disorderly, you’ll be asked not to return (and you probably won’t want to, since you’ll get fleeced by a smarter and more experienced player). As far as stakes go, John will only say it’s not the biggest stakes game in town, but it’s not the lowest either. It ranges from tournaments with $20 winner-takes-all, to guys buying in for $500 - $1,000 regular cash game.

He says he’s learned from mistakes other people have made, mistakes like bragging, or being too exclusive, or trying to be high rollers when Fort Wayne, for the most part, is just not a “high roller” kind of town. He estimates about 100 – 150 people have gone through his game in the past year, and he hasn’t had any trouble yet. A couple years ago a game in town was robbed, but that’s probably the scariest thing he’s heard. He has security — cameras, double doors — and provides a safe environment, and that seems to be enough. “It’s not really an underworld,” he says. “There’s not much of the criminal element to it. The people who are playing are decent people. They’re business owners, professionals, regular people, church-goers, and they’re just there to have a good time.”

And if you think that it doesn’t sound much different than having a few friends over for a game… well, you’d be right. “Really, there’s not too much of a difference to be honest. We just provide a place for them to play, provide a meal, some beverages and snacks.”

Actually, John is speaking more truth than even he might be aware. Hosting a free poker game in your home with family and friends is legal in about half the states — but Indiana is not one of them. If you’re playing for money, you’re breaking the law.

“About half the states allow ‘social gambling,’ which is gambling in a private place where no one other than the players makes a profit from the game,” says Bob “The Coach” Ciaffone, a professional poker player and teacher. “Since Indiana does not have an exemption for social gambling, such gambling is illegal.”

Ciaffone is an award-winning poker player who has published a number of books on gambling and contributes regular columns and articles to several gambling publications. He is the founder of F.L.O.P., which stands for Fair Laws On Poker (www.fairlawsonpoker.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving local, state, and national laws that apply to poker. When I ask him about gambling in Indiana, Ciaffone quotes me chapter and verse from Indiana law: “’Gambling’ means risking money or other property for gain, contingent in whole or in part upon lot, chance, or the operation of a gambling device; but it does not include participating in: bona fide contests of skill, speed, strength, or endurance in which awards are made only to entrants or the owners of entries.”

Under this “bona fide contest” clause, says Ciaffone, “poker is not considered to be a bona fide contest of skill, speed, strength, or endurance.”

But try telling a serious poker player that poker isn’t a game of skill. “Poker is a totally different animal than casino gambling, than slot-machines or roulette or dice,” says John. “Some people devote their entire life to it. They try to make themselves the most informed educated people possible.”

“It really is a game of skill. You have a percentage of chance, but all in all, a good poker player, someone who really knows what they’re doing, is going to win more money than a novice.”

As last year’s mini-controversy over electronic gambling machines in Allen County illustrated, Indiana’s attitude towards gambling is wishy-washy. At times, it seems the legality of gambling is determined by how willing the local authorities are to pursue it. John claims there are a couple “poker houses” in a town about an hour south of here that operate more or less in the open. He hasn’t had any problems with the law. If a casino came to town, then he thinks he’d have trouble, but otherwise… “If you’re not doing anything besides playing poker, I don’t see the harm in it,” he says. “If you keep quiet, you shouldn’t have any problems. I’ve never spoken with a prosecutor or whatever, but I know there’s a private game that goes on in town that… you know, some big local people play at. I think the police have a lot more to worry about than poker.”

Poker has enjoyed an enormous explosion of popularity in recent years, thanks to the celebrity poker show on the Bravo network’s Celebrity Poker Showdown. John says at the game he runs they play a lot of No-Limits Texas Hold ‘em — it’s a fast game, a “young player’s game.” The new converts see it on TV, and that’s the game they want to play.

You might think that serious poker players would resent having some bandwagon jumpers intrude on what resembled a closed society not too long ago, but John says that’s not the case. “Serious poker player’s think it’s great,” he says. “It’s changing the style of play maybe, but the lifeblood of a poker game is new players. The more money in the spectrum, the better the game.”

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