Virginia tried to crack down on unlicensed poker. It always happens in the open.

When a rescue of kittens in the Hampton Roads area lost its court case challenging a new state law punishing unlicensed charity pokerthis seemed to be the end for the handful of recently opened poker rooms in Virginia.

But a poker room in Virginia Beach is back in business and advertising on Facebook despite the new law threatening civil fines of up to $50,000. The Beach Poker Room’s Facebook page went silent when the law went into effect in July, but the establishment now says it’s open daily and holds tournaments three days a week with buy-ins ranging from 120 $ to $160.

Anything at the Beach Poker Room could be against the law, say lawmakers who have pushed to shut down poker rooms until the state can better oversee them.

If it’s charity poker, said Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, this is the same type of unauthorized activity that the General Assembly wanted to stop. create civil fines of $25,000 to $50,000 per violation. If the Beach Poker Room eschews the rules of charity poker by dropping the charity aspect altogether, Krizek said, it’s no longer the type of poker Virginia legalized.

“If it’s poker, it’s illegal,” Krizek said.

Several people who could potentially explain the situation at the Beach Poker Room, which operates out of a bingo hall called Bingo Palace that is connected to a member of the state’s Charitable Gaming Board, did not respond to requests from the Virginia Mercury or declined comment for this story.

The Beach Poker Room did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails for several days. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), which regulates charity bingo and poker, declined to comment. Senator Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, an attorney who worked with Beach Poker Room managers earlier this year to try to fight the poker room’s closure, also declined to comment.

Others involved in the charitable gaming industry argued that it was the fault of the General Assembly, no one seems to know what is going on with poker in Virginia.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Charitable Bingo Association says the legislature’s “totally flawed” handling of the industry’s attempt to expand into poker is to blame for the continuation of unlicensed games, possibly without no benefits for charities.

“I think Virginians should ask their lawmakers if what they wanted with this legislation was to put operators in the position of having to say, ‘Rather than incur these absurd fines and risk jail time, we will simply remove the charity aspect of these games. said Liam Gray, whose bingo organization helped fight General Assembly attempts to curb charity poker.

Amy Solares, a partner in the business entity behind Bingo Palace and vice chairman of the Charitable Gaming Board, did not directly respond to phone calls and emails. In a statement given to the Mercury by Gray, she said she did not own the facility herself and was not involved in poker.

“If no one is certain in what manner or even whether or not the Beach Poker Room or any other poker operator can play poker, it strongly suggests that these laws are too ambiguous and problematic to be of any use to anyone,” said Solares.

Solares has worked closely with charitable gaming regulators due to his position on the state board. She is also currently running for the Virginia Beach school board as a Republican and has received donations from Senator Bill DeSteph, Del. Glenn Davis and Del. Tim Anderson.

The group behind the Beach Poker Room applied for a poker license last year under the corporate name 2 G’s Business Inc.

“We just need the existing legislation to be applied”

Virginia has loosened its once-strict stance on gambling significantly over the past four years, and some think it’s okay for people to get together to play cards with real money on the line. But everyone agrees that the state needs consistent gambling laws and someone to make sure they are enforced, and many see in the latest twist from poker rooms another sign of failure on that front.

“I don’t think we need new legislation, we just need existing legislation to be enforced,” said Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, who sponsored this year’s bill that has temporarily closed all poker rooms. “I will be working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who will ask the Governor, Attorney General and Commonwealth prosecutors to make sure existing laws are enforced.”

The casinos that will offer poker games in Virginia are governed by a long set of regulations and a licensing process overseen by the Virginia Lottery. The state does not have regulations in place for stand-alone charity poker rooms, but VDACS is working on creating them.

Some would-be poker operators in Virginia have attempted to exploit the legal gray area between games of chance and games of skill, where the skill and ability of the player determines the outcome. A 2013 legal challenge seeking to exempt poker from the state’s Unlawful Gambling Act, which prohibits certain unauthorized gambling, failed after the Portsmouth Circuit Court ruled the law was not unconstitutionally vague. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld this decision without resolving the question of jurisdiction over chance. If the authorities were to crack down on the Beach Poker Room, it could create a new opening to try to legalize poker through the courts.

Previous lawsuits

In the past, it seemed clear that anyone trying to make money from underground poker games was breaking the law.

Fairfax County Police made headlines in 2015 when heavily armed officers raided a high-stakes poker game taking place in the basement of a private home in Great Falls. A 2011 poker raid in Virginia Beach led to criminal charges against the man accused of hosting the games at a house across from the seafood buffet he owned. He faces up to 30 years in prison but agreed to a plea deal with a two-year suspended sentence, a $5,000 fine and the forfeiture of nearly $275,000 in cash and equipment of game. according to the Virginian-Pilot.

“This office’s position is that poker is a game of chance, and we have prosecuted cases of illegal gambling in the past,” said Macie Allen, spokesman for Commonwealth of Virginia Beach Attorney Colin Stolle. “If the Virginia Beach Police Department brings us evidence of illegal gambling, we will evaluate it and take appropriate action.”

Asked about the Beach Poker Room, the Virginia Beach police spokesperson said the department is “investigating the matter.” Last year the Richmond Free Press reported that Richmond police officers were performing off-duty security work at a similar bingo/poker hall in South Richmond. The Virginia Beach police spokesperson did not immediately respond when asked if officers were doing similar work at the Bingo Palace/Beach Poker Room.

The fight for the rules of charity poker

Virginia legalized Texas Hold ’em charity poker tournaments in 2020 to boost a declining charity gambling industry best known for bingo halls. Charitable gaming operators were also looking to expand into new areas and protect their turf in anticipation of the opening of several casinos in the state that will offer poker and other table games.

The rollout of state-sanctioned poker, long considered a form of illegal gambling, quickly turned into a contentious litigation between the Charitable Gaming Board, run largely by industry insiders who profited from poker, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charitable gaming.

Agency officials felt the board was overreaching by writing poker regulations to maximize industry revenue and minimize state oversight. A major concern was the lack of clear separation between charities, for-profit poker operators, and landlords who charge them rent, a setup that state officials say is susceptible to financial conflicts of interest. and corruption.

Charitable Gaming Board chairman Chuck Lessin, who opened an unlicensed poker room at his South Richmond bingo hall last year but closed it this summer to comply with the new law, has accused VDACS of undermine the authority of the board and work to block regulations approved by the board. taking effect. Lessin argued that the General Assembly was taking a tougher line on small charitable gaming operators to eliminate competition for large out-of-state companies opening casinos in Virginia.

The General Assembly largely sided with the VDACS in 2021 by passing legislation to completely freeze charity poker. Several poker rooms have opened anyway, although none of them are officially licensed or regulated by VDACS.

Lawmakers took a tougher stance this year, passing a new bill threatening poker operators with crippling fines, a move to halt all unlicensed games until the VDACS can hammer out a new set regulations and start issuing licenses.

This summer’s lawsuit was an attempt to prevent the law from taking effect, with Petersen claiming the state was hurting charities such as the Virginia Beach cat rescue Billy the Kidden by legalizing charity poker but refusing to give licenses for it.

Krizek, who headed a General Assembly committee last year that looked into the charitable gambling industry, said he hoped the situation would improve soon with Virginia State Police expected to fill a Games Enforcement Coordinator position that the Legislature created this year. But he said he was worried “time is running out”.

“When more and more of these illegal gambling dens show up, the harder it’s going to be,” Krizek said. “It’s going to be like a mole trying to get rid of them all.”

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