Column: Shuffle up and steal

By Chris Kozak

You sit down at the table, pull out your wallet, slap a wad of small bills on the table and receive your chips – all $20 worth. You’re drinking a beer, making small talk, and winning the occasional pot. The next thing you know, a player in this game of Texas Hold ’em – who also happens to be an undercover cop – signals three of his colleagues to help bust it up. This must be a joke, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not. An incident similar to this recently occurred at a poker game between college students in a Chicago apartment. Poker is no laughing matter for the Windy City’s finest. In fact, playing poker for cash and prizes is illegal throughout all of Illinois. The cops snatched up all $160 on the table that night, and took it away as evidence. These kids now face a February court hearing, and possible fines ranging upwards of $200. I’d like to imagine that the police officers of a city home to 445 murders last year would have better things to do than lift chump change off college kids in their own homes. But, when Gov. Blagojevich passes you over as a member of his overly-elaborate security detail, petty work must be found elsewhere.

The last three winners of the World Series of Poker’s main event have been amateur players – two of whom qualified for the tournament online. This “anybody can win” mentality, in addition to the rise of online poker and the raging popularity of television shows, like ESPN’s World Series of Poker and the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, have ignited the poker resurgence.

As a result, poker games are springing up everywhere, and the sad fact is that the police must devote time to enforcing poker laws instead of hunting for the real thugs in our society – the 18- to 20-year-olds who consume alcohol with their friends who are of age. Oh, I’m sorry. I intended to mention people who actually committed crimes with a victim involved – you know, murderers, rapists and other assorted felons. Why waste time going through the effort of a potentially difficult apprehension when you can just crash someone’s game of Seven-Card Stud and make off with the dough?

Police officers, of course, are here to enforce the laws and not write them, which is why the state government is to blame for this atrocity. Someday they might be the ones who will have to explain to an armed robbery victim that her attacker hasn’t been caught because the police are too busy executing a robbery of their own – at the fraternity house that’s hosting a poker tournament for charity and giving noncash prizes away to the winners.

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There is no logical reason for poker to be illegal – especially poker games played in a private residence. If my friends and I want to sit at a table, watch a basketball game, gulp down some Molson Light and haphazardly throw our money around over a game of Pot Limit Omaha, we should have the right to do it. Excluding the rare paper cut caused by a flying five dollar bill, who exactly gets harmed in this situation?

One could argue that those who lose money are those who have been harmed. I disagree. Anyone who plays poker is taking as much of a gamble, if not less of one, as the person who decides to short sell a volatile technology stock. Heed the advice of Matt Damon’s character in the movie Rounders – caveat emptor, pal.

A more likely scenario is that the state is worried about losing gambling revenue because of people trading the casino slot machines for a neighborhood card game in their friend’s basement. Interestingly, of the state’s nine casinos, only one – the Hollywood Casino in Aurora – has a poker room.

While gambling revenue is important for Illinois, the crackdown on leisurely poker games is cockamamie. Although, for a state so badly needing cash, taking from harmless college kids looks to be the new fad. After all governor, having an entourage isn’t cheap.