With bigger pots at stake in the track poker rooms, the workaday pros are lining up to get in

The more lenient betting rules couldn't have come at a better time for the Kennel Club and the state's 13 other trackside poker rooms. Gambling, and especially poker, has never been more popular. In the past decade, gambling has moved from a few remote resort towns to within driving distance coast to coast. Meanwhile, the World Series of Poker and celebrity games are broadcast nationally. Last year, casinos saw four times more visitors than the number of tickets sold to Major League Baseball games, perhaps making gambling the new national pastime.

It used to be that card sharks like King moved to Las Vegas or Atlantic City or made a few trips a year there to collect some extra dough. Now, the Kennel Club helps support at least a dozen card players who claim to make their living off the bad luck of losers. Like most who claim to be local pros, King says he's really not a gambler at all. He describes himself as a "grinder," playing only first-rate hands, with a goal of winning maybe one in nine. "I'm not a gambler, and I've never been one," King says, dismissing the high-stakes pros, who play a risky roller-coaster kind of game. "I've been playing cards all my life, but never once -- never once -- have I gambled on a hand. I stay in if I'm going to win."

Counterclockwise from right sit Panama Jack and Chris Lawhon. At right, Jimmy and the others check their hole cards old-school style, guarding them from potential cheats.
Colby Katz
Counterclockwise from right sit Panama Jack and Chris Lawhon. At right, Jimmy and the others check their hole cards old-school style, guarding them from potential cheats.
Panama Jack, his starched sleeves showing, stays in again, while Jimmy drops out and goes for a walk.
Colby Katz
Panama Jack, his starched sleeves showing, stays in again, while Jimmy drops out and goes for a walk.

The Kennel Club's poker room closes on Tuesday, but on every other day, somewhere near 50 or 60 card players line up at the doors like impatient Christmas shoppers. Many arrive an hour before the opening deal at noon to make sure they get their regular seats. Mostly they're retirees. Some are unemployed or have jobs that don't miss them at midday. Many come and play as if it were an occupation, eating lunch right there at the table and checking out around 5. Sometimes, regulars stay right up until closing time at midnight, for a full 12 hours of gambling. King is always there for at least six hours, usually more like eight. He never misses a day. "People kept asking me, 'King, you gonna have a good Christmas?' And I told them no, because Christmas didn't fall on a Tuesday, so now I got two days off that week."

The poker room, with its plastic chairs and discarded losing tickets scattered across the floor, is quite a contrast to the rest of the Kennel Club's beige main hall. The card room looks plucked from the bowels of a Trump casino, with cushy chairs in front of tables with leather padding along the edges. A tuxedo-shirt-wearing employee takes names of gamblers at the door and shows them to a waiting area in the foyer where they'll wait for one of the tables spread across two rooms the size of a full basketball court. There's a bar in the back, and everywhere is velvet, shag, or leather in calm, soothing crimson, green, and black.

By noon every day, King buys $100 in chips and spills them out in front of seat number nine at table number three. Unlike most card players, he doesn't leave his chips in neat stacks so they can be counted and sorted after each hand. His chips sit haphazardly in a mess that spreads to his crossed elbows. Right at noon, the poker-room manager, Carmine Mamora, calls out over the intercom "Put 'em in the air," and games begin for the 200-plus card players. Immediately, the room fills with an overwhelming sound of clanking chips. By midday, dozens have streamed in and put their names on waiting lists for tables. Every few minutes, Mamora calls out for those who are waiting when a seat becomes available or a new table is formed: "Dan for Hold-'em. Steve for Omaha."

Those who have been here for a while note some big changes. When the state first allowed poker rooms at greyhound parks, horse tracks, and jai-alai frontons in 1997, the Kennel Club's room didn't fare as well. It was a novelty at first, and gamblers filled tables for the first couple of months. But serious gamblers moved on to better games elsewhere. It was impossible to bluff someone with a half-dollar, and a good poker player would be lucky to go home with $20 in winnings. The stakes were so low that homeless men would sometimes bet with a couple of scrounged dollars, and the city erected a no-panhandling sign outside the Kennel Club.

So the tracks began to lobby for changes. At first, Gov. Jeb Bush was adamant in his opposition to changing the rules, having campaigned against expanding gambling. In 2002, Bush vowed to veto a bill that would have greatly expanded trackside poker. In response, the tracks hired former Florida House Speaker John Thrasher, a politician turned lobbyist, who was clearly armed with a history of favors owed to him in Tallahassee. Thrasher helped pen a new law that lifted the pot limits and raised the betting restrictions. Thrasher, who didn't return several phone calls to his Jacksonville office, somehow convinced Bush last year to approve the increased stakes. Asked to comment on Bush's reasoning for allowing the law to go into effect, Bush's press office issued a copy of a letter he penned August 5 that reads in part: "While I strongly believe that gambling should not be used as a generator of new revenue or promoted as value-neutral public policy, recommended changes to last year's legislation were made to make this bill acceptable."

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