FRIENDLY GAME: John Eichler wants a poker game, but for now it can't be in bars.
A poker craze is sweeping the nation, and Arkansas is no exception, but some attempts to organize formal leagues to play the game here are running afoul of the law.
The United Poker League, founded last September by John and Chad Eichler, operated no-money poker tournaments two to three times a week at bars in Little Rock, Hot Springs and Fayetteville before the Little Rock Police Department told them to stop.
“The Little Rock police contacted us and all of our host establishments in Little Rock,” John Eichler said. “They said if we did not stop playing these games, arrests would be made of not just the bar owners, but the players, too.”
As a result, the League canceled all of its games in Central Arkansas, although it still sponsors games in Northwest Arkansas.
This episode is merely one battle in a national war over Texas Hold’em, a form of poker attracting new fans across the country. The game’s current rise in popularity can be traced to 2003, when a young amateur player named Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker, which is normally dominated by veterans.
(In Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt two cards, face-down. After an initial round of betting, five cards are eventually turned face-up in the middle of the table. Players try to assemble the best hand using their cards and the cards on the table.)
Since that time, various cable television channels have devoted air time to Texas Hold’em tournaments, and many private games have started. The poker bug also has landed on the Internet, where players around the world can face off, often with significant amounts of money at stake.
Arkansas has strict gambling laws, however. In short, to avoid being illegal, a competition must not have an entry fee, must not involve games of chance, and cannot offer money or prizes to the winners.
“We were comfortable the competition was legal,” Eichler said, pointing out that the United Poker League followed those provisions, although he conceded that there is some argument over whether poker is a game of chance.
“People who think poker is a matter of flipping cards over aren’t familiar with the game,” he added.
Although the United Poker League does not charge participants to play, it makes money by collecting fees from the host establishments (mainly bars) for organizing the games and providing the equipment. The businesses are eager to accommodate the tournaments, because they attract a large crowd of free-spending customers.
Eichler said he discussed his venture with officials from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division, which regulates activities in places that serve alcohol. He says he received assurances that the United Poker League’s activities complied with the law.
However, a Nov. 22 letter to Eichler from ABC director Robert S. Moore Jr. said that the business plan for United Poker League constitutes “gambling in violation of various statutes and regulations.” An ABC licensee may not permit any form of gambling with cards or keep gambling apparatus on premises. He also cited Eichler’s original proposal to award prizes to winners. (Eichler said he assured the ABC that the league and participating businesses would abide by the law and refrain from awarding prizes of any kind.)
The Little Rock Police Department has a different take on the law. Sgt. Terry Hastings, the department’s spokesperson, says that even though the United Poker League would not award money or prizes, the games could lead to cash prizes if the local winners qualified for national tournaments.
“They may not get the money here, but down the line, there is money involved,” Hastings explained.
The varied interpretations of Arkansas gambling regulations have led state Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock and Hot Springs Prosecuting Attorney Steve Oliver to separately request Attorney General Mike Beebe’s opinion on the subject.
Hutchinson told the Arkansas Times that he doesn’t have a position on the issue, although he said his intention was to “delineate the distinction between what is commonly thought of as gambling” and the United Poker League’s activities. Furthermore, Hutchinson writes in his letter: “I believe that there is some confusion as to the breadth of our current gambling statutes and the exact activities which are prohibited.”
Hutchinson said that he was waiting for Beebe’s opinion to determine whether to submit a bill addressing the issue. However, even though his letter was dated Dec. 22, Beebe’s office had not rendered an opinion by the March 7 legislative filing deadline, leaving Hutchinson to suggest that ABC could change its regulations on its own if the attorney general’s opinion offered clear guidelines.
Arkansas is not the only state confronting the question of whether poker without prizes is gambling. A recent article in the New York Times discussed similar debates in Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Louisiana and other places.
United Poker League claims that it registered more than 600 members in the two months that it operated, testifying to the fervor of Texas Hold’em fans. The Eichlers launched a website (www.unitedpokerleague.com), and they say that they would expand to other Arkansas cities if given the chance. Already they are facing competition from a Fayetteville-based outfit called the American Amateur Poker League, which continues to organize games at bars there in spite of the legal problems faced by its Central Arkansas counterpart.
“We’ll get back to it if the [attorney general’s] opinion is in favor,” Eichler said, clearly a betting man.