Florida Raises Poker Stakes (A Little)

#160 © Copyright 2003, all rights reserved worldwide Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I Nelson Rose, Whittier Law School, Costa Mesa, CA

It is difficult to get a state to legalize a new form of gambling. But it is nearly impossible to get the stakes raised once the cards have been dealt.

Florida is the latest example of this political rule.

Racetracks in Florida, like racetracks everywhere, have been searching for years for a way to bring in more gambling dollars. Consistently denied the right to operate slot machines and video lottery terminals, the tracks turned to card games.

Banking Blackjack would have been best, but did not look like it could get through the State Legislature. But poker was a different (political) game.

In 1989, the Legislature decided that the government should not be wasting its time going after small-stakes games. In fact, the law literally called the games “Penny-ante” defined as “a game or series of games of poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes, or mah-jongg in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value.”

Over the years, penny-ante games were allowed to be played not only in people’s homes, but also in mobile home parks and publicly-owned community centers.

So, in 1996, the Legislature passed a law that beginning January 1, 1997, licensed pari-mutuel facilities could open commercial cardrooms.

Great idea, with just one hitch: cardrooms were stuck with the same penny-ante limits: “The winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game may not exceed $10 in value. The fee charged by the cardroom for participation in the game shall not be included in the calculation of the limitation on the pot size provided in this paragraph.”

Notice the club can charge a fee, which was a good thing, considering it had to supply not only the facilities but also a non-playing dealer.

The plan was to lobby first for penny-ante poker and then get the Legislature to raise the limits. It did not happen.

Imagine what those game were like. The total pot could not be more than $10. I talked with players and operators who said if you had five players at a table, everyone would chip in $2.00 and that was it, no raising, no more bets of any kind.

To get around the low limit, operators tried to expand the definition of “poker.” I testified as an expert witness on behalf of the State that a game where each player got two cards and tried to get closer to 21 than his opponent was not poker.

We won, but even the State attorney thought the $10 limit on pots for poker games was silly.

Every attempt to get the Legislature to raise the stakes failed; until this year, when a bill finally made it through both houses. In August, 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush (R.) decided to not to veto the bill. He said limits placed last year on when cardrooms could operate made the bill acceptable. But Gov. Bush’s main reason for letting the bill become law was, according to TheLedger.com, “It is changing, kind of, the rules of a poker game, taking away one thing and adding another and that really doesn’t expand gambling.”

Was he correct?

The bill, HB 1059, eliminates the $10 pot limit. But it replaces it with these new limits: “The cardroom operator may limit the amount wagered in any game or

series of games, but the maximum bet may not exceed $2 in value. There may not be more than three raises in any round of betting.”

It will certainly change what was nothing more than a lottery into something resembling true, low stakes poker. But will it greatly expand the games.

My guess is yes.

Although there is a limit on bets and the number of raises per round, there is no limit on the number of rounds. Games like 7-Card Stud can get pretty expensive, but there is now every incentive to be inventive. I bet the first thing we see is the rules of Texas Hold’em being changed, so that there is a round of betting after the first down card and after each individual up card.

The lesson is: If you are fighting to legalize a new form of gambling, start with the stakes you want from the beginning. Your chances of getting the Legislature or voters to raise the limits once the law has been passed is about the same as your winning the World Series of Poker.

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HB 1059

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Professor I Nelson Rose is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on gambling law. His website is www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com