Judge rules against blackjack-style card games

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A Jacksonville pari-mutuel is breaking the state’s ban on blackjack-style card games, an administrative law judge said Monday.

In what is considered a test case on wildly popular poker-type games, Judge Suzanne Van Wyk determined that Jacksonville Kennel Club, operating as the bestbet Jacksonville poker room, was “conducting unauthorized card games” and recommended a $4,500 fine.

Though such games reportedly bring in about $10 million a year to the pari-mutuels, “due to the precedential nature of the case, the (state) asks the undersigned not to impose any penalty beyond that amount,” she wrote.

Her 54-page order is a recommendation that must be adopted by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling in the state through its Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering.

The challenge began when state regulators came down on card rooms across the state earlier this year, filing administrative complaints against seven racetracks that offer poker-style card games.

That enforcement happened at the same time that lawmakers were considering whether to approve a new revenue-sharing “compact” with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, whose casinos compete with tracks in South Florida and elsewhere that also offer cards and slots.

Only the Seminole Tribe can offer “banked card games” such as blackjack. The Legislature did not act on the compact by session’s end, and a lawsuit by the state against the tribe is still pending in federal court.

Pari-mutuels, or horse and dog tracks, can and do offer card games in which people play against each other and not the “house.” These are known as “designated player games.”

Regulators said card rooms offering such games were flouting state law by allowing third-party companies to buy their way into the games, using a worker to act as a virtual bank.

Each designated player is “required to bring a minimum of $30,000 to each table, and takes no active role in the game,” Van Wyk’s order says. “(M)ysteriously, the same number of designated players walk through the door each morning as the designated-player tables (at) Jacksonville open.”

Van Wyk agreed that the set-up amounted to a sham, saying the “games cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the current manner.”

“The basic (tenet) of the cardroom statute is that authorized games are not (illegal) casino gaming because the participants ‘play against each other,’ ” she wrote. “As currently operated, the designated player is a player in name only. The existing operation of the games does no more than establish a bank against which participants play.”

She added that “the Division proved that the designated players are industry insiders, likely dealers at other locations.”

The judge, however, dismissed another part of the case in which the state alleged the third-party company workers did not have occupational licenses.

The “role of the designated players at Jacksonville was passive—not actually playing the games, but rather watching over the chip racks belonging to their corporate employer,” Van Wyk wrote.

The parties now have 15 days to file written exceptions to her findings. Final agency orders can be appealed to a district court of appeal.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.