Risk of Robbery Raising Stakes Of Poker Nights

To protect poker games, hosts have kept guest lists more exclusive and at times have risked charges by skimming the pot to pay for security.
To protect poker games, hosts have kept guest lists more exclusive and at times have risked charges by skimming the pot to pay for security. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The first time Doug Thomas looked up from his cards to see a gun pointed at him, the chips on the felt-topped poker table were piling up to about $100 a pot. The Texas Hold 'Em game was just revving up last month at the Manassas electrical shop when two masked men, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, ordered players facedown on the floor.

The second time was less than two weeks later and just a few blocks away. Nine players had paid $500 each for a seat at the poker game at his Manassas apartment, but Thomas wasn't making any money, other than the few bucks he skimmed off each pot to pay for food and drinks. The pizza and wings had just arrived when the police officers showed, weapons drawn.

"It scared the hell out of us," said Thomas, 42, a mortgage broker. "When we figured out it was the cops, there was a sense of relief." But it was a relief that lasted only for a moment, a fleeting exhale. Thomas was busted.

As poker's popularity explodes, swallowing basements and living rooms in its wake, the danger also has increased, police say. No one tracks the number of poker-game heists because they are recorded simply as robberies, and many go unreported by hosts fearful of gambling charges. But police across the region and nation say private games are ripe for robberies.

The games' hosts acknowledge the danger and are reacting by keeping guest lists more exclusive and often risking serious criminal charges by taking money from players to pay for armed security.

For police, the mixture of a high-stakes game in a low-security spot such as a home is cause for worry.

"It can be a situation for a very volatile event to occur," said Lt. Rich Perez, a Fairfax County police spokesman. "Throw in there just one person wanting to capitalize on the money, and you are going to end up with a robbery or shooting or something. Those are the things we try to prevent."

Police say that in the past year and a half, calls about private poker games have increased steadily, including complaints from relatives worried about depleted savings accounts and from neighbors tired of watching cars clog cul-de-sacs the same night each week.

Although gambling laws differ from state to state, those who host games at home are more likely to face criminal charges if they "rake the pot," taking a cut of the proceeds. In Virginia, a person caught gambling can be charged with a misdemeanor, but running an illegal gambling operation is a felony. The District does not consider private poker games illegal, the attorney general's office said. Both acts are misdemeanors in Maryland, but Montgomery County police said they do not target "friendly" games.

"If it's a bunch of neighborhood guys who get together on Friday night, and they all chip in $15 to buy beer and pizza, and their wives are in the next room playing Bunko, that's something we don't investigate," said Detective Michael Herbert of the Montgomery vice section.

"What we're looking for is when someone is profiting. We figure, on average, these guys make $2,000 to $3,000 a night for every night they run a game."

In Fairfax in November, police investigated a robbery in which two masked men took about $5,000, watches, cell phones and car keys from players at a Texas Hold 'Em tournament in a private home. Two of the players that night were also present for the Manassas robbery in late January, leading police to investigate a possible link.

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