January 18, 2008

Underground Poker: The Hand That Feeds You

Latinos Dominate Illegal Gambling Scene

By Gustavo Rangel
Rumbo Newspaper

Editor’s Note: Illegal gambling houses are cropping up across Houston, with profits so high that it has become a full-time job for the organizers, many of whom are Lati-no, reports the Texas Spanish-language newspaper Rumbo.

HOUSTON — It’s almost 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night and Carlos Escobar’s cell phone won’t stop ringing.

“Yeah, man, I have a game tonight. We have 11 players so far. Why? Do you want to come?” asks Escobar — not his real name — to the person on the other side of the line. “Okay, hurry up; hold on, I have another call. Hello? Yeah, we’ll start around nine; I already have a full table, but come over anyway, man,” he tells the second caller.

At Escobar’s house, they are preparing for a long night of poker. His wife is barbecuing steak and cooking mashed potatoes for the guests who are about to arrive.

But this isn’t just a gathering of friends who like to play cards. Escobar, 32, manages a small gambling house in his garage and it’s an activity that is so lucrative that it has been his full-time job for the last seven months. The visitors come to bet, try to win money, and often go home with less cash in their pockets or in debt.

The phenomenon of underground gambling houses cropping up in private homes and small shopping centers in Houston is in vogue and increasingly attracts more people.

Police say they don’t know how many of these illegal gambling houses exist and aren’t sure how to deal with the growing illegal industry.

Marc Brown, an official at the District Attorney’s misdemeanors division, says it’s not illegal to play poker for money in a house as long as the winner takes all the earnings and there is no entrance fee to get in the game. “It’s illegal to gamble when it is in a public place and (also) when the person who is organizing the game makes money,” says Brown.

On a typical night at Esco-bar’s house, players have to pay $5 to participate in each hand, and they can buy as many or as few chips as they’d like. If it’s a tournament, where more money is on the table, it costs $25 to enter and each participant must buy a minimum of $100 in chips.

If the police discover an underground game in a house and arrest the participants, the players will receive a class C infraction and could get a fine of $500. The organizer will get a class A infraction and could be sentenced to a year in jail.

“If we can prove that the people who organize (the games) have been laundering money and have acquired property with that money, the charge becomes an offense that could end in two years in jail,” Brown says.

Living Off the Game

“I make a living from poker,” Escobar says. “I used to deliver merchandise all over the city and it was really hard. I tried to do both but I couldn’t; I started to miss work and before they could fire me, I decided to quit,” explains Escobar, a native of Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Escobar transformed his garage into a room that looks like a casino. His house, which he bought a year and a half ago, is in a new neighborhood of the city where the cheapest houses cost $150,000.

The entrance to the garage is covered in sheetrock. There are two large tables that sit 12 players each and a shelf where they keep boxes of chips.

The walls are decorated with movie posters from Scarface, Goodfellas and The Godfather. There is a television, a table with candies, and a refrigerator full of beer, water bottles and soft drinks. Food and drinks are free for the players. “I try to keep my players happy; I spend about $80 on food and beer but the investment is worth it,” says Escobar.

Last Friday night, Escobar made $950 in cash and $500 in loans he made to other players. On Sunday, when he organized a tournament, he made $1,100 in cash and $600 in loans.

His clients, as he calls the players, start to arrive at his house at 9:00 p.m. “How much do you want?” Escobar asks the first five who arrive. Some are still wearing their work uniforms. One is a messenger for a delivery company; another is an auto mechanic.

“I want $200,” one of them says as he hands Escobar money. “Just give me $100,” says another. In exchange for the money, Escobar gives them chips and the players take their seats at the table to wait for the others. A few minutes later, the table is full and the dealer is ready. The game begins.

In less than two hours, a married couple has lost $300; another player has won $150.

Escobar says about 60 players come to his house. The majority are Latinos between the ages of 23 and 45; there are also some Anglos and African Americans. Since not all of the players speak Spanish, the language is prohibited at the game table.

During the games, tension runs so high that it seems like a fight is going to break out. Escobar carries a gun during the games because he admits that sometimes, when there is a lot of money on the table, things can get tense. He is also afraid of being robbed.

Escobar hosts three games a week: Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Friday is the most popular; sometimes both tables are filled. On weekends he organizes tournaments, which guarantee a minimum income of $1,000.

Awards are paid with the earnings, but since the tournament lasts up to 10 hours, the house gets the extra money generated from entrance fees paid throughout the day.

Each poker night at Escobar’s house lasts an average of nine hours. Escobar hires professional dealers who earn tips from the players.

Fish of All Sizes

Escobar says he knows dozens of people like him who host games in their homes, and says they support each other by attending each other’s games when they aren’t hosting their own.

Police admit that they don’t have much information about the underground games because they are difficult to detect. “If people don’t report them to us, it’s very complicated for us to be able to find them,” says Charlie Vázquez, a Houston police investigator.

“We only find out about these games when violent acts are committed,” Vázquez explains. “For example, someone who is robbed will take matters into his own hands, since he can’t go to the police because he is doing something illegal, so he gets into fights or sometimes shoot-outs.”

According to Brown, there has been an increase in illegal poker games in public areas like small shopping centers. “In the last year, we have found four that were processed in court,” says Brown.

But not all underground gambling is on such a small scale. “There are bigger places where people play for more money but they are in public places and it’s very risky (to play there, because of the greater risk of being robbed, or being discovered by police). So a lot of people prefer to do it in someone’s house,” says Escobar.

Translated by Elena Shore

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