Colorado's Confusing Poker Laws

February 15 2006, 5:35 AM

How is the ordinary citizen or business owner supposed to know what's legal and what's not when it comes to Texas-holdem? In the wake of this weekend's raid of two social clubs that netted 41 arrests, the Rocky Mountain News tries to clarify the law for readers. I'm still confused. It sounds easy: Poker is OK at games where (1) the people have an existing social relationhip and (2) the host doesn't charge people to play or take a piece of the action. The News puts it this way:

  • To constitute gambling, three factors must be present -- consideration, chance and reward. These also can be described as "payment, luck and prize."
  • If an organization charges a donation, fee or other buy-in for a poker tournament or other event, it cannot legally distribute prizes based upon who wins or plays well in the tournament or event. Prizes must be randomly awarded.
  • Even if the activity meets the legal definition of "gambling," it still can be a legal activity if it meets the "social gambling" exception. This exception allows "gambling" that is incidental to a bona fide social relationship,which means the parties must have an established social relationship based upon some common interest other than the gambling activity.

Put into practice, here's how the rules are enforced: In this weekend's raids, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation believed the social clubs only served food and beer as a secondary activity.

"The game here has nothing to do with selling food or drink and has everything to do with profiting from high-stakes poker," said CBI agent Bob Brown. "This is a way of life. It's a business. The bar and restaurant down there was secondary."

But it's OK for a bar or restaurant to advertise a game and then hold one, so long as it doesn't charge. It just can't require players to buy food or drink. It has to hope the players get hungry and thirsty and decide to order on their own. The social clubs raided this weekend say they didn't charge players to play or take a piece of the action.

....a man identified only as Jonathan, who was not among those arrested and who described himself as a "trustee" of the Hop Sing Tong Club, said players donate money to help pay rent and other bills for the use of the building. The club does not charge anyone to play, he said. "We're just a bunch of friends wanting to get together to play the game of poker," he said. He gave a brief tour of the operation, which consisted of four tables, numerous chairs and two TV sets perched above. He called it "a dump."

That brings us to the definition of "social relationship."

The state law's definition of friends gambling together is that the group must have "a bona fide social relationship." That means each person playing poker has to have an established social relationship based upon some other common interest other than the gambling activity. Brown didn't believe that was the case at the two places raided over the weekend.

When a bar or restaurant conducts citywide advertising of a game, what kind of "established" social relationship is there, other than playing poker, between those who show up to play? Yet CBI Agent Bob Brown sees no problem.

On the other hand, many restaurants advertising poker games on banners throughout the city aren't charging players to play, Brown said. Many of those legal games are run by the Denver Poker Tour.....Brian Masters, the tour's president, said...."The locations pay me to be there."

It seems to me that the neighborhood social club, which provides a place to play and some beer and snacks, for which players chip in to cover the cost, is more social and less profit-driven than the bar or restaurant which advertises for players and pays a professional poker tour person for his presence. The bottom line seems to be this: There are more poker games than the authorities have the manpower or inclination to bust. But when they feel like making a raid, they are the ones who get to determine what's a profit, what's a social relationship, what's a primary motive for holding the game. That's a little too arbitrary for my taste.

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