The explosion of poker in the U.S. has put many bars and restaurants on a tough decision. Faced with an inexpensive yet productive way to bring people into their establishments, restaurants and bars are more and more having to dodge and dance around often century old laws about what constitutes gambling. Many bars are holding promotional Texas Holdem Tournaments, and poker nights that give players seats in a free roll tournament for prizes. The prizes given out at these events range from T-shirts to trips. Players simply sign up for the event; there is no entry fee or buy in. Many of the prizes are donated by sponsors, and thus do not have a clear cash value attached to them.
So, does this constitute gambling? Often times the answer lies more in where you are, than in what you are doing. Many areas of the country do have legalized gambling, but even in areas where gambling is outlawed, the answer often depends on the attitude of local authorities and residents. Tim S., owner of a Los Angeles area bar and eatery has been running a poker night weekly at his bar for about six months now. "Throughout the summer, it was our biggest night" Tim says. "Only recently has it been eclipsed by Monday Night Football, which has been huge for us for years." Players come to Tim's bar, play in a Hold'em tournament, and compete for prizes, which usually consist of a bar tab. However, over July 4th weekend, the bar had a two-night tournament where the top prize was a trip to Las Vegas.
Tim has never faced any scrutiny from authorities, and indeed upon walking in to his bar, one can't help but notice the five-foot high sign in the window promoting the weekly poker events. "If we are just giving away our product, I really don't think it is illegal" Tim says. However, after reading about recent arrests in Louisiana and Virginia, his plans for future tournaments have changed. "I was planning a series of weekly tournaments in the spring, and the top prize (based on points accumulated over weeks of play) was going to be an entry into a big poker tournament, maybe even the World Series" Tim states. Plans at this point, however, seem on hold. "I'm just going to stick to bar tabs for now."
No situation more clearly shows the confusion over this tricky issue than the problems the state of Wyoming has had grappling with the problem. Three of the main cities in Wyoming - Cheyenne, Laramie, and Casper have all approached the problem of free poker tournaments in bars in different ways, at least initially. In the capital city of Cheyenne, these promotional tournaments were initially allowed, but now local police have asked bar owners to shut the games down on a voluntary basis. Local officials in Casper, Wyoming have determined the games are legal, and are allowed. In Laramie, one bar based tournament was shut down, only to be told the next day that it was OK and to shuffle up, and deal.
Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank has said that the games are illegal. Mr. Crank's contention is that if the bar hosting them gets any financial benefit from hosting a game of chance such as a poker tournament, then that game is illegal. The bars are profiting from hosting a game of chance that draws more people to the bar. The increased attendance results in increased revenue, and thus represents a gain.
Crank feels if two friends in a bar decide to shoot dice for money, that is between those two private citizens, and thus not illegal. But a poker tournament that is open to the public is being hosted, and therefore endorsed by the establishment, and is illegal.
Crank does not have authority to stop bars from hosting poker nights, as in Wyoming this is a local issue. Any citations, or arrests for hosting games would have to be handled by local county or city officials.
Fifteen hundred miles away in traditionally conservative Georgia, Dan Miller, manager of Atlanta's Madison Grill, has had a surprisingly relaxed experience. "We run poker tournaments two nights a week, and it is our most popular promotion" says Miller. But Miller has been aware from day one that treachery was out there if he wasn't careful about how he ran the events. "We have tried to stay away from anything that remotely could have been construed as gambling." Miller says. The prizes at the bar's weekly tournaments mainly consist of dollars usable only at the restaurant, but they have given away a trip or two.
"I think this (restaurant hosted poker) has become an bigger issue than local authorities have been able to properly address". Miller continues "We haven't been scrutinized yet at all, but we go to great lengths to make sure we are playing by the rules."
But the rules are inconsistent, and this inconsistency has some frustrated with the lack of clarity. "It just seems silly that people are getting arrested for this. Bars have bikini contests, raffles, liquor promotions, all of which give away cash." Tim S. says "Yet, people playing a game for a bar tab is somehow wrong? It's confusing, and frustrating." Sounds like someone is about to fold.