Portsmouth, Va.: Tiny Town, Big Courage

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By Dave Forster

The Virginian-Pilot © 2010 • Reprinted with permission

Charlie Daniels blazed a trail for card players in Virginia when he opened a charitable poker hall on Airline Boulevard in Portsmouth, Va., in 2006.

Four years later, Texas Hold’em poker halls are flourishing in Portsmouth, unlike anywhere else in the state. The Circle Restaurant, a landmark building that was closed for more than a year, reopened recently as a poker hall, and another new location – the fifth in the city – just opened on George Washington Highway.

The growing profile of the games is catching the attention of City Council members, some of whom wonder if it’s a good thing, and of charities eager to get in on the action. Even the operators are curious where all this is headed – will it help them win regulation from the state, as some would like, or will bad apples spoil the fun for everybody?

Mark Tibbitt, manager of Victory Poker Lounge, which started last year, said his outfit was on pace to donate more than $25,000 in March. To prove it, he showed signed receipts from the charities he helps: the Portsmouth Community Health Center, Disabled American Veterans Chapter 22, and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 539.

“We’re really looking to give the players a permanent place to stay, and if it helps keep everything legal, if the higher donations help, we’re going to give higher donation amounts,” Tibbitt said.

Portsmouth is the only city in Virginia where poker halls have been allowed, according to local operators and state legislators. That’s because of the stance local Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle C. Mobley has taken on the games.

Mobley determined Texas Hold’em is a game of skill, not chance, and therefore does not fall under the state’s prohibition against gambling. That position hasn’t changed. Mobley maintains state law is not clear enough to prosecute, and he has continued to push legislators to change the law so it explicitly addresses poker.

“We take serious issue with the lack of effort by the legislature to clear this up, and we don’t want to be put in a position to have to do it for them,” said Bill Prince, a spokesman for Mobley.

Del. Johnny Joannou, who represents Portsmouth, tried to get some clarification this past session, with an amendment to a gaming bill that would have stated poker is a game of chance, thereby making it illegal.

Joannou, an attorney, said recently he believes the law already says enough to ban poker halls, but he sought the amendment to address the situation in Portsmouth. The amendment didn’t survive because it was deemed non-germane to the bill.

“I’ve always assumed that playing poker is gambling, and I always thought it was illegal,” Joannou said.

Mobley bucked his counterparts in other cities, including some in Hampton Roads, when he said he didn’t believe the law was clear enough to prosecute charitable poker hall operators as the law stands. Prince said it’s an ironic stance for someone who isn’t big on gambling, but Mobley is standing by his interpretation of the law.

“If he found out you were doing an office pool for the tournament, he would go ballistic,” Prince said.

The poker halls are not regulated by the state. Virginia’s Charitable Gaming Department oversees bingo but has nothing to do with poker. Permitted bingo operations must give at least 10 percent of their proceeds to their charitable mission and are subject to inspections and audits.

There’s none of that for a poker hall. Daniels, who runs the Poker Palace in Portsmouth, said he wishes there were.

Daniels said his organization has donated more than $700K since 2006 to its charities, which include the March of Dimes, Portsmouth Catholic and the H.E.R. Shelter. They will soon donate $12,000 in Rowena’s cakes to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Charities contact the Poker Palace weekly, Daniels said. If the games were regulated, the state would open a new revenue stream for nonprofits besides bingo and raffles, he said.
As the number of poker places grows in Portsmouth, so does the competition for customers. Recently, Tibbitt threw out someone he suspected of trying to gather information and poach players for the newest operation in town, Portsmouth Bingo on George Washington Highway.

At thepokeratlas.com, players can leave reviews.

“Facility is average, however they have police security inside and outside,” a person wrote about one spot. “By far the friendliest poker room in Portsmouth. Variety of player levels. They have the best tournaments ‘bang for your buck.’ ”

City leaders aren’t sure so much variety is a good thing. Vice Mayor Bill Moody Jr. said he needed to know more about how each operation is run before he could comment on them, but they could be a positive for the community if they help charities.

“Apparently they’re spreading, and I guess the question would come to mind: who’s regulating them, or are they required regulations?” he said.

Councilwoman Marlene Randall said she’s adamantly opposed to gambling. “We sure don’t need a reputation as a poker haven,” she said.

Prince, Mobley’s spokesman, said the commonwealth’s attorney would prosecute a poker hall if it were operating solely for profit and without a charity.

Another question the poker halls have raised for local officials is how to treat them for business-license purposes. Commissioner of the Revenue Frankie Edmondson said there is no apparatus under state law to tax proceeds from a poker operation, unless there are related sales such as for food and drink.

“We are concerned with making sure that we accurately assess any and all legal businesses in the city of Portsmouth,” Edmondson said.

He said his office is conducting a compliance review on some of the poker halls, but he could not disclose which ones.

The Portsmouth Police Athletic League hopes the poker games that just started at The Circle Restaurant will help it fund its programs for local children. The league started last summer after a period of dormancy and has no regular funding stream, said Mike Hayes, a police lieutenant who serves as the group’s treasurer.

The games at The Circle have only recently started, so the Police Athletic League (as of April 1) hasn’t received any donations, Hayes said. The partnership doesn’t include a written agreement on the terms, he said.

“There’s no kind of percentage or anything like that,” Hayes said. “We’re just happy to get whatever we can.”

— Dave Forster is a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot and you can email him at dave.forster@pilotonline.com