Ambushed by Seminole Blackjack

Gamblers are lined up three-deep just to get a seat at one of the new blackjack tables at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where they can have a stiff drink, rub elbows with a stranger wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt, and bet away their life savings $25 at a time (at least $25 at a time, because that's the minimum bet at the cheapest tables — most tables have $50 to $100 minimums). But you know that story.

Tailpipe, though, is an around-the-edges sort of dude. You won't find truth at the main banquet table, the 'Pipe has discovered, but in the dark alley outside the kitchen.

The truth of Las Vegas-style gambling in Broward County is this:

In November, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida allowing the Seminoles to operate games like blackjack and baccarat, which are not legal anywhere else in the state. In exchange for permission to run those games at all seven Florida Seminole casinos, the tribe agreed to pay the state about $100 million per year. They paid $50 million upfront to seal the deal.

Where did that leave the other Broward gambling establishments — the so-called racinos, which already fork over more than half their profits to the state? Basically, up the creek (or, to continue Tailpipe's metaphor, in the back alley).

Check 'em out yourself.

With the blackjack party going full-blast at Hard Rock in Hollywood, the Gulfstream and Mardi Gras casinos, both in Hallandale Beach, display depressing rows of empty slots, vacant poker tables, and collections of attractive cocktail waitresses standing around gossiping about the fate of non-Seminole casinos. At Isle of Capri in Pompano Beach, some of the regulars have defected south to reservation land.

One card room even reportedly fired a dealer after he called in sick, then was spotted at — you guessed it — the Hard Rock, playing what the kids like to call "BJ."

The worst situation is probably at Dania Jai-Alai. The entire fronton has been dead since the start of 21 kicked off amid much hoopla on June 22. Last week, a low-stakes poker tournament in Dania Beach that ordinarily draws more than 100 brave souls could bring in only four players. The tournament was canceled.

When the 'Pipe made a quick trip last Wednesday to what is now becoming a cavernous memorial to frontons from years gone by, he saw for himself exactly how desperate the situation has become at Jai-Alai.

The place is usually packed, with 15 tables full of poker players stretching their necks to keep an eye on the jai alai and simulcast tracks. On this night, the casino was even offering $1 beers and hot dogs. But there were almost no takers, only a handful of bettors downstairs watching the simulcast horse and dog races, a few loyal fans sprinkled across the huge jai-alai grandstand, and two poker tables going upstairs. In the absence of younger players — presumably spending hours trying to play a few hands of 21 down the road at Hard Rock — the old regulars decided to start playing "double flop," a poker game most dealers in South Florida have never even heard of. A few young men joined in, mostly out of curiosity.

At another table, there are no cards, no chips clacking, no players at all. Six dealers sit around in pressed white shirts, their dealer badges prominent, discussing how slow the room has been since the Seminoles started blackjack. Dania just remodeled all the poker tables in the room, replacing the traditional green felt with a slick, shiny, light-green nylon. Most of the dealers like the smoother surface, where the cards rarely flip up like they do on felt, but they aren't used to it yet because they don't have many people to deal to.

The old auto cylinder had seen enough to know he'd seen too much. There's nothing sadder than a few desperate gamblers with nobody to play against.

Ah, but things were looking up late last week, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the governor did not have the authority to sign such a compact with the Seminoles. Joy bloomed at the racinos — or at least in their front offices.

"The fly in the ointment here is the governor agreeing to allow games that are not legal in this state," says Dan Adkins, general manager of Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center in Hallandale Beach. "That's what screwed it all up."

Aside from the flat fees agreed to in the compact, the tribe does not pay taxes on the money coming in to the casino. Pari-mutuels like Mardi Gras pay 50 percent in taxes, though Adkins says it's more like 62 percent. He says that on top of 50 percent going to the state, 3.2 percent goes to the city and county. They pay another $3 million for an annual licensing fee and millions more in contributions to help gambling addicts and the greyhound industry.

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Edmund Newton