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The dealer's hand is spitting cards as the players' eyes flicker from side to side, up and down, from cards to faces and back again. Chips fly and clink into the pot as the betting goes round the table.
Here on the second-level card deck of the Swath, a cruise-to-nowhere gambling boat owned by the embattled South Florida gambling concern called SunCruz Casinos, the regular poker tournament is clearly under way.
The tourney didn't take long to get started. At the moment the Swath is less than 45 minutes into its scheduled five-hour cruise and still steaming north along the Intracoastal, a little more than halfway from the Dania Beach Boulevard Bridge to the Port Everglades channel. It is evident that SunCruz is allowing high-stakes poker to be played before the ship hits the high seas.
And that, says Jon Glogau, the assistant attorney general responsible for enforcing Florida gaming statutes, is a blatant violation of Florida statutes. "What's going on is just flat illegal," Glogau says. "There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is gambling, and it is against the law."
Just what SunCruz needs -- another allegation of law-breaking at a time when it is already knee-deep in legal hassles.
Glogau, in fact, is astonished the company would operate such a questionable tournament in state waters at a moment when it's already the target of related investigations by an array of federal, state, and county law-enforcement agencies.
Just weeks ago, on August 4, agents of the U.S. Customs Service served a warrant and then spent an entire day carting off business records from the SunCruz headquarters on Dania Beach Boulevard, a short walk from the Swath's regular berth. That raid was timed to coincide with the filing of a federal civil lawsuit accusing SunCruz owner Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis of a number of questionable dealings, including the allegation that he had tried to hide the ownership of some of his ships by appointing his then-girlfriend, Margaret Hren, as president of a company under which the ships were registered. At stake: more than $45 million in civil damages being sought by the government.
And yet, amid the swirling controversy, SunCruz has gone ahead with its daily gambling cruises, including the semiweekly poker tournaments. The day after the raid on his headquarters, in fact, Boulis used an interview with the St. Petersburg Times as an opportunity to plug that evening's "Greek night" cruise. "Everybody will have fun," he told the reporter.
Regulars say the SunCruz poker tournament is one of the most popular in South Florida because of the stakes. Although the advertising flier promises a first prize "based on 50 players," there were at least 70 people playing on August 10. "It's the best tournament around," says James Min, who started out on a winning streak but had to drop out about midway through because "I couldn't catch a card."
Min says the SunCruz tournaments, in which contestants pay an initial fee of $55 for the opportunity to compete for an advertised $5000 first prize (with additional winnings spread among the top 10 percent of players), offers one of the biggest poker purses in South Florida.
And Min also says that tonight's start within the three-mile limit is standard operating procedure for SunCruz. A regular himself, Min says the first game always begins within a half-hour or so of the ship's 7:30 p.m. unmooring. Indeed, the hot-pink flier that SunCruz uses to promote its tournament warns, "Players, please be prepared to take your assigned seat no later than 8:00 p.m." Tonight, at least, the start of the game sees the ship barely approaching the southport berths in Port Everglades.
It's all perfectly legal, says Ace Blackburn, Boulis' attorney. Florida law, he says, is superseded by a federal law.
"It's the Johnson Act that governs gambling cruises," he says, "And that act allows the activities operated by SunCruz. It also allows states to opt out if they want to, and Florida so far has not chosen to exercise that option."
How does the attorney general's office characterize Blackburn's argument of federal jurisdiction? "Bullshit. Absolute nonsense," says Glogau. "The Johnson Act in no way prevents states from prohibiting gambling within their boundaries. It simply has nothing to do with this case."
But Blackburn doesn't rest his case on the Johnson Act alone. "You know, the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] is federally controlled and maintained," he says, making the argument that this fact limits the state's jurisdiction over the waterway. To that Cathy Porthouse of the Florida Marine Patrol responds, "I don't know where he's getting that. Those are state waters, baby. All the way out to three miles and including the Intracoastal."
According to Glogau it's really a simple matter, this question of whether poker -- tournament play included -- is legal within Florida territory. "Look, it's illegal to play poker for high stakes in Florida, and there are only two exceptions: if you're playing for penny-ante stakes in a residential setting, or if you're running a licensed card-room in a pari-mutuel establishment."
The SunCruz tournament, he says, fits neither of these criteria. "Obviously this ship isn't residential, and the SunCruz boat isn't a pari-mutuel establishment."