In a letter sent to hundreds of card club owners across California, the state attorney general's office issued a warning Wednesday that the state considers jackpot poker a type of illegal lottery and gave club owners until Nov. 1 to halt the game.
The proposed ban, based on an opinion issued last month by Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, would affect half a dozen clubs in Los Angeles County, including four clubs whose owners filed a suit in Superior Court last month to block the ban.
Attorneys for the four clubs seeking an injunction against the ban--the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club, the California Commerce Club, and the Eldorado Club and the Normandie Casino in Gardena, said they were awaiting the outcome of the Superior Court hearing, scheduled for Oct. 2.
The letter "really doesn't change the status much for our claims," said Bicycle Club attorney Alexander Pope, who is also representing the Commerce club on the issue.
Pope estimated that the two clubs, among the largest in the state, could each lose as much as $1 million a month in gross revenue if the ban goes into effect.
Letter Sent to Owners of 335 Clubs
The letter was sent to 730 individuals statewide who hold gaming registration certificates, including the owners of 335 clubs, said Mike Broderick, manager of the state Gaming Registration Program in Sacramento.
In his Aug. 21 opinion, Van de Kamp said jackpot poker is illegal because it meets three elements of the state's definition of a lottery: It involves a prize, it involves more chance than skill, and players pay a fee to participate.
"The playing of jackpot poker is an illegal activity and will no longer be tolerated," the letter said. "The playing of illegal jackpot poker constitutes a violation of the Penal Code . . . which may result in administrative disciplinary action being taken by the state Gaming Registration Program as well as possible criminal prosecution."
Administrative penalties could include possible revocation of the state gaming certificate, officials said. Criminal penalties for violating the state Penal Code, a misdemeanor, could include up to a year in jail and a fine.
In Los Angeles County, the ban would be enforced by the Sheriff's Department. Deputy County Counsel Kevin Brazile, who represents the county in the case, said individual players as well as club owners could be arrested if attempts to block the ban fail.
Club representatives argue that success at the game depends mostly on knowledge of the rules, not chance, and that the game has been played locally for about 10 years and throughout the state for about 100 years.
"The game requires skill, technical judgment, exercising of discretion, analyzing plays of others," said Richard Dear, an attorney for the Normandie and Eldorado clubs.
"To suggest, as the attorney general does, that this is a mechanical, dum-dum thing, that you sit and throw your money out and wait for something to happen, flies in the face of everyone knowledgeable in the field who describes draw poker as a game of skill," Dear said.
George Hardie, managing partner of the Bicycle Club, said the game is a popular attraction that increases card club business.
"It enables a person with a very small amount of money to play some cards and win a large amount of money in relation to what he invested," Hardie said.
The definition of jackpot poker, according to state officials, is any form of poker that involves a fund of money separate from that played for each hand.
According to state officials, jackpot poker is most often played in the form of low-ball poker. In low ball, the player with the second-lowest possible hand can win the pot--as long as another player in the game holds the lowest hand possible.
The lowest hand, called a "wheel," occurs when a player holds an ace, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The second-lowest, called a "six-four," occurs when a player holds an ace, 2, 3, 4 and 6. The cards do not need to be of the same suit.
Players contribute to a communal jackpot, which builds until one player gets a wheel and another gets a six-four hand. Jackpots can build to as much as $30,000, $40,000 or more over a period of weeks, card club owners said.
Card players are attracted by the large jackpots, club owners said.
"We all want a rainbow," Hardie said. "We all dream of making that little score, that little hit."