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Poker rooms operate with impunity in the Valley

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Poker room operators in the Valley are not shy about broadcasting their locations.

There are no discreetly placed signs. No secret handshakes to get you in the back door. These establishments are setting up shop in local strip malls and advertising with big signs above their front doors and bold letters on shopping center marquees.

Poker has increased in popularity over the years. Games are now televised and casinos are cashing in on the players excitement of the game. The only place you can legally gamble on poker in Arizona is at a casino located on an Indian reservation.

So, it would seem these poker rooms are operating with impunity and that the operators do not feel as though they are running an illicit operation.

"There are so many gray areas in the law. Just the definition of gambling in the state of Arizona is gray," says former card room operator John Schnaubelt.

Schnaubelt ran his own card room until he ran out of money to continue supporting it. Herein lies the problem for gambling promoters in Arizona; by running a poker room, state law says the organizer cannot profit.

"I don't think its as gray as area as people claim it is," says former prosecutor Mark Brnovich, director of the Arizona Department of Gaming. "If someone is getting a direct or indirect benefit from the gambling. It is illegal."

Under that literal definition, if you were to organize a poker game at your home and the players all tipped you for hosting the game, that would be you receiving a benefit. Meaning, you would be breaking the law.

At the AZ Clubhouse off of Thunderbird Road in Phoenix, owner and Texas hold 'em dealer Don Heitz says he consulted an attorney before opening his establishment. No money changes hands and no chips leave the table. Heitz says his is a members-only club with no high stakes and at no profit to him.

"No. I have not made any money yet," Heitz says with a laugh.

Heitz says he knows for a fact that other card rooms are operating illegally.

CBS 5 News also met the owners of the Camelback Card Club off of 32nd Street near Shea Boulevard. They actually advertise their establishment in the newspaper.

They tell CBS 5 News they feel comfortable they are operating a legitimate, social and nonprofit operation.

But, they also acknowledge that others are not, by charging membership fees and taxing players in other ways.

"If there's folks operating casino operations inside of a strip mall, that would cause me a lot of concern because that is unregulated gambling," says Brnovich.

Brnovich says the Arizona Department of Gaming is five for five. The department has seen convictions in all five illegal card room operators they have raided during Brnovich's tenure.

John Schnaubelt says there are 36 card rooms open in the Valley and he wonders why none are being investigated, because he believes all of them are operating illegally.

"All they need to do is walk into a card room and see a dollar or a chip leave the table," says Schnaubelt. "Boom. It's a conviction."

"You have a limited amount of resources and you have to prioritize what you can and can't do," says Brnovich.

A Department of Gaming intelligence unit follows up on tips and complaints about possible illegal gambling locations, according to Brnovich. If no one complains, however, the Department of Gaming generally will not know what establishment is obeying the law and which ones are not.

"It's an issue that needs to be politicized," says Schnaubelt, "It's something people need to be aware of."

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

 

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