Poker home games can be dangerous and illegal

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By M. Elizabeth Lanier

Every once in a while, my husband will mention he’s heard about a great home game that promises huge payouts. It always seems to kill his enthusiasm when I tell him to leave enough money so I can use it for bail. That usually leads to a discussion about whether home games are legal — “everybody does it” isn’t a good argument — and eventually he goes to a card room where there’s no question about whether he’ll need bail money.

So, what’s the Florida law on home games? While this is by no means an exhaustive discussion on the topic, in general, state law prohibits gambling or gaming unless it’s done in a legally authorized place, such as a card room. There are criminal penalties for people who operate and work in gambling houses, which would include illegal card rooms.

There is, however, an exception in the statute for the friendly home game, or the “penny-ante game.” Games covered under this exception are poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes and mahjong. Winnings can’t exceed $10 in a round, hand or game. Also, to qualify, the game must:

1. Take place in the home of a participant; common areas of a condominium, cooperative, residential subdivision, or mobile home park where a participant lives; facilities of an organization which is tax-exempt under § 501(c)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code; or college dorm room or the common recreational area of a college dorm or a publicly owned community center owned by a municipality or county.

2. Not have an admission charge, rake or other consideration for the game occurring there;

3. Not be advertised in advance; and

4. Not have any player younger than 18.

If the home game meets all requirements then it meets the penny-ante game exception to state law. However, before assuming participation is 100 percent legal, home-gamers should check their county and city laws to make sure these local laws are not more restrictive than what the state statute allows.

Clearly, the kind of “great” home games my husband talks about do not meet the penny-ante game exception, and it seems that once games like these get big enough or draw attention, trouble quickly follows. For example, in January four people in Clearwater were arrested and taken into custody (one for running a gambling house, two for working there and a fourth for gambling and drug-related charges), and 19 were charged with misdemeanor gambling and given notices to appear in court. Among other things, police found $20,000-$30,000.

Operators and participants in illegal home games can draw criminals as well. In January 2007, armed robbers hit an illegal Jacksonville home game and stole more than $7,000. The operator called the police, but they arrested him on felony charges of running a gambling house and money laundering. Several poker game invasions have resulted in deaths. In New Smyrna Beach robbers shot and killed a player in 2007. Palatka saw two poker-related shootings in a two-month span in 2008. In the first game, a man killed three others because he suspected them of cheating. In the second incident, one man, who coincidentally was at the first game, was wounded.

Home games can be legal, under the very narrow penny-ante game exception. Straying from the exception could lead to jail or worse.

— Liz Lanier is an attorney and mediator in Tampa. The focus of her practice is civil litigation and she is licensed to practice law in Florida and Georgia. Her e-mail address is: liz@lanierlawoffice.com.