Betting Underground in Semi-Legal Gambling Lairs

Major League Baseball officials have chastised New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez for frequenting "underground" card rooms. Mike Pesca gets the lowdown on these semi-legal gambling lairs from the people who frequent them.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we'll hear about a school in a small Missouri town where aspiring pro wrestlers go to learn the ropes.

But first, a story about some other pro athletes. Baseball's American League MVP Alex Rodriguez was seen recently in a New York City poker room with one of the world's top card players. No big deal, right? Poker is hot these days and everyone seems to be in on it. The trouble is in New York, these poker rooms are illegal. In the last few weeks, police raids have closed most of them down. NPR's Mike Pesca talked to a few of the players from those clubs and he got the lowdown.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Think of the photos you've seen of FDR, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. When great men get together it's almost as if they're greatness increases exponentially, leaving us, the commoners, in awe; like when Aristotle contemplates a bust of Homer or those pictures you've seen of Richard Nixon slapping Elvis on the back. Well, a few weeks ago, a photograph was circulating of Alex Rodriguez, the world's best--or at least richest--baseball player sitting next to Phil Hellmuth, the world's best--or at least whiniest--poker player. If you're the type of guy who spends hours in New York's cards rooms, this was a validation of your passion.

STEVE (Visits New York City Poker Clubs): To me this is the coolest thing in the world.

PESCA: Steve--no last names here--is a poker club regular.

STEVE: I got an e-mail the next day, and it's got a picture of the greatest poker player in the world with the greatest baseball player in the world, you know, with their arms around each other at, you know--at a card room that I've played at. You know, to me that's just like, you know, any two stars in their respective fields being together.

PESCA: But major-league baseball had a different opinion. They all but ordered A-Rod to stay away from the clubs because owners are breaking the law by running them, even if patrons don't believe they're doing anything illegal by playing in them. Steve says the status is confusing even to poker players like himself.

STEVE: When I first started playing, I was--it took me a couple times to be comfortable because I was, you know, worried about the cops coming in. I thought I was doing something wrong. I didn't know--nobody knows the legality. I mean, it's--there's a total cloud over the whole thing.

PESCA: The NYPD has cleared things up through a series of busts. The players, as Steve suggested, weren't prosecuted, but owners and employees were charged. A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA confirms that it is legal to play poker, even for money, or at least they won't prosecute it. But if the cops arrest someone running a poker club, the DA will press charges. This is why the clubs have to be underground, even if they're not exactly secretive. John has played in five or six New York City poker clubs.

JOHN (Poker Player): Initially you could just walk right up and they'd just ask for your name and that was that. As time went by and places got raided, they started implementing security cameras, buzzers, security guards. In fact, a place on 61st Street was held up at gunpoint at one point, I'd say about four months ago. No one was in there. It happened at like 5:30 PM.

PESCA: But even that stickup didn't dissuade John from playing in the clubs. Gamblers embrace some degree of chance in every transaction, and for John and others like him, the skills gained by playing against top players was worth risking a raid. And it was a risk because while there would be no jail time for those playing at the time of a raid, they did face a de facto fine, John says.

JOHN: If they had a lot of money on the table, it's all gone all of a sudden.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

JOHN: Because I know people who had 3, $4,000, $5,000 on the table.

PESCA: Confiscated, not to be returned. Steve says police raids were just about the only thing unsavory about the clubs, which were filled with mostly white-collar poker players who held down 9-to-5 jobs, often in finance. In fact, Steve says, the clubs are superior to the legal off-track betting parlors.

STEVE: You know, I have an OTB on my street. I won't let my wife walk the dog past that place. I mean, it's--the type of person that's there is far more sketchy than what we'd find in these card rooms.

PESCA: Steve says the city should legalize and tax card rooms exactly like they did with OTB. As for the argument that the sport pages have put forth, that the gamblers at a poker club could bribe a multimillionaire baseball player, John just laughs.

JOHN: There's no way for the amount of money that they can make off of someone at a poker club that they would be willing to risk their career to throw a baseball game. That's pure insanity.

PESCA: Anyway, he notes, there's a far greater chance that a player working out at a gym will be offered steroids than a player at a card room will be approached to throw a game. There hasn't been proof of a fixed baseball game in over 80 years, but just this year 12 major-leaguers were suspended for steroids. So maybe poker pro Phil Hellmuth will be asked by the World Poker Tour to stop consorting with a known power hitter as it's bad for poker's image.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

BRAND: And Mike has a weekly report on gambling issues exclusively for NPR's podcasts. It's legal. You can download them at npr.org.

More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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