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Isaac Delvalle is pacing in the desolate atrium outside the poker room of the Magic City Casino. The tan 49-year-old takes a few steps, checks his watch, and sneaks a drag from his bummed cigarette. He's practically twitching. It's midnight, an hour till close, and the air reeks of smoke, bad cologne, and desperation.
Delvalle is a Cuban Fredo Corleone, a deadbeat optimist who's been chasing luck ever since he exited one of the last freedom flights from Havana in 1971. Sometimes he gets a break — last year, he won a freak $30,000 bad beat jackpot at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood — but he's a professional squanderer. He's blown triple that prize since then, he says. All of it was spent on his two vices: cards and girls.
Delvalle has been trying to avoid card rooms since losing his job as an electrician, but that's not easy. The old dog track on NW 37th Avenue and Seventh Street in Miami that now houses the casino has a poker room that's been busy lately. The 18-table hangar has been filling up early with players in search of the $175,000 Royal Flush jackpot. In April, a man won a Florida-record $195,423 at one of these tables.
Earlier in the night, Devalle sat down at a Texas Hold 'Em table, the kind preferred by serious regulars because the $2 and $4 minimum bets keep out both cheap riffraff and nutty high-stakes gamblers. "I'm unemployed — what else am I going to do?" he asks.
Things started off well after Delvalle cashed in his last $20 around 8 o'clock. He got an ace and a queen on his opening hand. He casually bet two white chips, and sipped from his free minibottle of water. "First rule of poker: Don't drink when you play," Delvalle says, smirking.
All but two players folded, leaving about $16 in plastic gold on the black felt tabletop. An intimidating buddha bet $4, and Delvalle called. The dealer copped a glance at both players, waited a beat, and unholstered an ace of clubs. And just like that, with his queen kicker, Delvalle won a tidy $24. "That asshole tried to raise me with a pair of nines," he hisses.
But at these midstakes tables, money can disappear faster than a shot of cafecito. "Hold 'Em is cards, cards, cards, just throw away cards again and again," he says. "The money is gone faster here because when you start winning, you get cockier and you bet on more hands." Slowly, the neat pile of white chips before him, stacked high like a jenga tower, had vanished.
Four hours after starting, outside the poker room, beneath the klieg lights that illuminate the nearby empty dog track, Delvalle is restless. He asks everyone on a smoke break for change. He's lost all his money. Well, not all. In his hand he has four quarters, which he shuffles like chips. "I just need gas money to get home to Miccosukee, where I live."
Delvalle is in some ways the ideal casino customer. He's single, excitable, and willing to spend money even when he's dirt broke. He stalks poker rooms as furiously as a junkie trawls for his next fix. Lancey Howard from The Cincinnati Kid would describe him as "loose money." The chieftains of Florida's pari-mutuel industry view Delvalle that way too. To them, he's the future. For years, gambling in the Sunshine State meant old-timey pastimes like dog races and jai alai. But the past decade has seen a breakneck race toward Las Vegas-style gambling, with all the major players donating escalating millions to politicians and lobbyists to see who can penetrate one of the country's largest untapped gambling markets.
Last month, those campaign contributions resulted in a $1.5 billion compact with the Seminole tribe that opens the door to expanded gambling for the first time since 1978. The tribe gets a five-year monopoly on blackjack, baccarat, and chemin de fer, while South Florida pari-mutuels, among the biggest campaign donors to state legislators, get expanded operating hours, no-limit poker, and a 30 percent tax cut on their slots revenue that wil likely generate $140 million.
Legislators defend the pact — and the casino tax cut — as a way to plug the state's billion-dollar budget hole and help the struggling pari-mutuel industry. But multibillion-dollar corporations own most of these pari-mutuels, and some people see the pact as the result of an industry with too much influence. Nathan Dunn, a lobbyist for the Christian conservative group Florida Family Action, says the industry preys on the poorest Floridians. "This amounts to a bailout for gambling executives," he says. "The suggestion that we're going to give tax breaks to certain industries in this toughest of economic times while families are struggling is highly irresponsible."
These days South Florida pari-mutuels — including several in Broward County — are staking it out for the long term through lobbying, union-busting, and shady political alliances. No pari-mutuel tells the story of gambling in Florida quite like Miami's Magic City Casino, a glitzy parenthesis in the heart of a working-class neighborhood. Despite irate governors, corporate takeovers, and cultural relevance, one family — the Hechts/Havenicks — has run it since the '50s. They've accumulated a multimillion-dollar fortune and stand to earn much more.