By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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."
The SunCruz practice of beginning its tournaments within the three-mile limit is by no means standard operating procedure in the South Florida cruise-to-nowhere industry, says Alan Brechman, poker-room manager for Tropical Gaming Inc., which operates gambling operations aboard ships owned by SeaEscape Limited, a cruise-ship line headquartered in Port Everglades.
"We do a lot before we get out to the three-mile line," he says. "We get everything set up -- get the chips together, get the tables ready -- but we never start playing until we're outside the line," Brechman says. "When we hit the line, I get a call from the captain, and I make some big announcement, like 'Let the games begin!' or something. And then the dealing starts." Why doesn't Brechman start the tourney sooner? "Because it's illegal," he says.
But Brechman can see why a company would want to start its tournament as soon as possible. The house take, or vigorish, on a poker tournament normally falls somewhere in the area of 20 to 30 percent of the total amount of buy-ins, and that amount doesn't vary with the length of the game. A tournament could last all night or it could last two hours; either way the house take is the same. So, from the house point of view, it makes sense to get the game started and get it over with as fast as possible.
"Tournaments are like loss leaders," Brechman says. "We don't really make money on those. Where the real money comes from are the side games that start up between players who've dropped out of the tournament. On those games, the vig is usually about 10 percent a hand, or a $5 max. It adds up."
SunCruz can't possibly be oblivious to the consequences of allowing gambling to occur within the three-mile limit; just last week the captain of a SunCruz boat based in Key Largo was arrested by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office for allegedly doing just that. According to a press release from the sheriff's office, the captain claimed that the ship's navigational equipment had malfunctioned. The press release goes on to dryly note, "More arrests are expected in connection with this case."
Meanwhile, investigators working on the SunCruz case say that, although they'd known about the poker tournaments, they weren't aware they began in the Intracoastal. "I had heard that they do a lot of instructional stuff before they get started, and that took them long enough that by the time the playing started, the ship was three miles out," says Gary Morton, of the Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit (MIU), a South Florida task force made up of several local law-enforcement agencies.
In fact, during last week's cruise, the announcement of rules lasted less than three minutes and was largely unintelligible over the ship's fuzzy PA system. Few of the players appeared to be paying any attention to it, and most didn't seem to need to do so.
Most of the crowd -- at least 75 percent, according to Min -- consisted of regulars who didn't require any explanation of the rules of the tournament's game, a complicated variation of seven-card stud known as Omaha Hi-Lo.
Meanwhile, those who have mixed it up with Boulis in the past can only sigh and say they're not surprised by his company's apparent flouting of the law. "Look, Boulis is the type of guy who just doesn't seem to care about the rules," says Steve Welsch, a community leader in the North Beach area of Hollywood who has fought SunCruz on a number of development issues. "If there's an ordinance limiting parking, he'll go ahead and start building a parking lot anyway." (Boulis himself didn't return phone calls from New Times.)
Hollywood City Commissioner Sal Oliveri says he isn't shocked by any of the alleged crimes of Boulis and company. "I feel that as long as you have that type of industry operating in this state, there are always going to be those kinds of abuses.