Designated player games not dead yet in Florida

Designated player games not dead yet in Florida

  • Nick Sortal
September 6, 2017 10:53 PM

Late last month, Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (PMW) took action to stop “designated player” poker games at two card rooms. At the same time, the division approved the launch of such games at two other pari-mutuel facilities.

What gives?

Maybe it’s all about nuance. And about a button.

The roller-coaster storyline of gambling during Rick Scott’s tenure as governor in Florida can best be described through the continuing narrative of on-again, off-again attempts by poker rooms to offer games such as Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em, Three-Card Poker, and Casino War.

Five years ago, copying a model that made such games popular in California, lawyers in Florida successfully persuaded the state to allow those games and others. That prompted a complaint by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which had paid the state via a compact about $250 million a year for exclusive rights to those games. Eventually the tribe filed a suit and won.

This July the tribe and Scott settled the suit creatively (which didn’t need legislative approval), including the end of designated player games by the pari-mutuels. But though the state was to take “aggressive enforcement action,” according to the settlement agreement, nothing happened until late August. The card rooms at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons continued to offer their designated player games.

In late August, the state’s PMW took action, saying that two locations, Sarasota Kennel Club and Pensacola Greyhound Racing, were running the games illegally. Meanwhile, Casino Miami and its sister property, Fort Pierce Jai-Alai & Poker, introduced designated player games in August, without any objection by PMW.

How’d that happen?

Well, it appears that Sarasota and Pensacola were not sufficiently sharing the opportunity to be the dealer in their games. For those games to be defined as poker, they must truly be player versus player, not player versus the house. And everyone must have the dealer button passed to them. (While being the dealer is the most profitable position on the table, it’s also the riskiest, because it means paying out if a player hits a large wager. For example, players hitting a mini-royal flush in Three-Card Poker are paid 200-to-1 on their bets. But high-payoff bets are also sucker bets, which is why a person would normally want to be the banker: the math is in their favor.)

And attention to detail is why the two new venues had an OK from the state to open, says Dave Jonas, Casino Miami CEO. “The problem is that some of the places are using the games illegally,” Jonas says. “If you run ‘em properly, and pass the button along, you’re fine. But if you’re in cahoots with the banker, the state’s going to come down hard on that.”

That’s the explanation given by the state, too. “We are continuing to review all the actions of cardroom facilities throughout Florida,” the state’s Kathleen Keenan says.

Casino Miami mirrored the setup at the Isle Casino and Racing in nearby Pompano Park, to the point of using the same designated player company, which provides a group of people with big bucks who are available as bankers so a game won’t stop if no player wants that position. The card rooms take a rake of the total action, rather than winnings from the house as banker.

“I’ve been told the state’s not going to look to hurt us, as long as we do the games the right way,” Jonas says.

But it might not be that clear-cut.

The Seminoles could point at the settlement agreement, especially Paragraph 3, which, on page 7, says that the tribe will continue making payments to the state “provided the state takes aggressive enforcement action against the continued operation of banked card games, including Designated Player Games that are operated in a banked card game manner…” The Seminoles could interpret that to mean all such games, whether the button gets passed around or not.

What is the state’s point of view? Well, they’re not specifically saying, and that’s just how the Scott administration rolls, giving just the PMW’s “continuing to review” comment mentioned above. So there still could be a genuine misunderstanding, with the tribe thinking their settlement agreement reads one way and the state thinking another. Or maybe there isn’t, and the only pari-mutuels being called out are those who don’t properly pass the button.

To complicate matters, PMW Director Anthony Glover resigned his post Tuesday to start a boutique law firm specializing in “complex corporate and government affairs issues,” he told Florida Politics in an email.

He’s outta there. Pass the button…