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.
In December, police arrested two off-duty Haymarket police officers standing sentry at an illegal poker game in Great Falls. The people running that game were concerned enough about security that they hired the officers as guards.
"You used to have to worry about the guys at the table taking your money. Now you have to worry about cops and robbers," said Thomas, who was charged with running an illegal gambling operation.
"There's a bunch of us passionate poker players that can't play poker anymore unless we want to drive three hours up to Atlantic City. We're not trying to be a menace in our community. We're just trying to play poker.
"There's guys that love to play tennis, love to play golf. We like to play cards."
They're not alone. Advertisements for local games abound on the Internet. The National Council on Problem Gambling said that 80 percent of adults admitted gambling at least once last year and that one in five calls to its help hotline was about poker. The Bravo and ESPN cable networks dedicate hours to the subject. Caesars Palace in Las Vegas just opened a $12 million, 8,500-square-foot poker room.
But for those not able to flee to Vegas on a whim, there is the homemade version. Treadmills and weight-lifting benches in basements have given way to tables with cup holders. Living rooms have become gaming rooms.
Mike "Wingnut" Goodwin's regular Woodbridge basement game is the modern face of poker. Even with the recent robberies shading his thoughts, he took the same stance as many poker devotees earlier this month: The games must go on.
As players poured in at 8 p.m. for a $50-a-person game that would stretch to 4:30 a.m., they walked across a doormat depicting playing cards. Inside, there were five pictures of dogs playing poker and a neon sign flashing "Las Vegas" in pink and blue. The movie "The Cincinnati Kid" played on a video screen. If there was any confusion about the purpose of the night, across a red electronic ticker above one of two poker tables scrolled the words: "Welcome to the Wingnut Casino and Saloon. Home of Texas Hold Em!"
The game is poker's latest craze. Each player is dealt two cards facedown, and then there's a round of betting. Five cards are dealt into the center of the table for the players to share, with betting after the third, fourth and fifth card. The player with the best five-card hand wins the pot.
"All right, listen up, guys," shouted Goodwin, who was in his poker gear: dark sunglasses and a golfer's cap. "Here's the house rules. Show one, show all. No coaching. Cards call themselves. And the big rule: When you go outside, the missus is sick tonight and the little one had trouble going to bed, so, quiet, please."
Most of the people gathered -- 10 men and four women -- have known one another for years. Brothers, wives and friends of friends. They have nicknames such as "Lunch Box" and "Bill Dog." In the cup holders, the few bourbons on the rocks were outnumbered by Starbucks cups and water bottles.
"Might as well call me Big Daddy," said Curtis Barger, 32, as the first round of cards was dealt. "This game is called 'I Win.' "
Players around him laughed and started fingering their chips.
"Wait till I start losing. That's when I get funny," he continued.
But thinking about the robberies, Barger suddenly turned serious. If he had been at the Manassas heist, he said, he would have fought back against the two robbers, who took jewelry as well as money. "I would have caught a bullet for my grandfather's wedding ring," he said, touching the silver band on his right hand.
Goodwin, who has a gentle Kentucky flow in his voice, said he is torn about whether he should arm himself on poker nights. He usually keeps his gun locked upstairs, but he's not sure that's the right move anymore.
"Before, I didn't bat an eye about it. Now it makes you think," said Goodwin, 31, a print shop owner. "I've seriously begun to ponder whether I should have it down here with me. I haven't decided yet. I think it would add a new dimension, and I don't know if I want to go there yet."
As the risks increase, the friendly home game is changing. The list of Internet invitations, once sent to hundreds of strangers, has narrowed. Guns were once prohibited as an unspoken rule, but players might now be packing heat. And some hosts are willing to take in some profit -- and risk arrest -- so they can pay for security.
"These games aren't going to stop, no matter what," said Thomas, who is awaiting a March 30 court date. "We should do something to make it more secure."
"We're still playing now," he added. "Just because we got guns pointed at our heads, doesn't mean we stop."