At Racetrack Casinos, Card Game Ruled Illegal Continues

Although the state and courts have declared a game normally found in blackjack pits illegal, South Florida racetrack casinos just keep on dealing. Now, an appeal will prolong this WTF Florida standoff.

About ten card rooms operate "designated player" games. Poker is legal at racinos, but as many wanted the simpler thrill of blackjack, they found a workaround. They introduced three-card poker, Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, and other games. One player sits in a corner seat at the table, and everyone plays the games against him. (In blackjack, everyone competes against the house.)

“If a mannequin was sitting in the designated player’s seat, or you just put a Coke can there, the games would play no differently than if a living, breathing human being was sitting there," Department of Business and Professional Regulation lawyer William Hall said during a June 1 hearing. To make things worse, the designated player must be approved by the card room.

The state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering blundered in 2012 by approving the games, and the card rooms went to the expense of bringing in special tables, reconfiguring their floor space, and hiring staff. 

The Seminoles didn't like this. They argued the state violated its compact with the tribe. They believe the state should shut down designated player games. 

The state agreed and filed to shut down the games this past December, just as the Seminole Tribe and Florida Gov. Rick Scott were announcing an agreement that could have brought $3 billion in revenues to the state over a seven-year period. That agreement died in the Florida Legislature without a vote.

Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk agreed with the state on August 1. She specifically addressed a poker room in Jacksonville. “As currently operated, the designated player is a player in name only," Van Wyk wrote in a 54-page ruling. "The existing operation of the games does no more than establish a bank against which participants play.”

The racetrack casinos have appealed that finding — and so the game continues to be played. You can’t really blame the racetrack casinos for battling for every dollar they can, especially in South Florida, where they are competing against the Seminole casinos.

This concept of games continuing while legalities are being worked out is a familiar to Florida gamblers, including the tribe. A five-year, $1 billion state compact with the Seminoles, for exclusive rights to table games, expired on July 31, 2015, but blackjack, baccarat and other table games have continued at Seminole casinos. That’s because the tribe has filed suit against the state, arguing that legislators have not negotiated in good faith. (The Seminoles still send the money that rightfully goes to the state in escrow while the lawsuit plays out.)

It's also important to understand context. The banked card games lawsuit and the Seminoles good-faith complaint are two significant matters that legislators cite as delays for rewriting state gambling laws. They reason that it’s not urgent to hammer out compromises and approve a compact when it
all could come undone. Another pending lawsuit pending could bring slots to at least six Florida counties, ending a monopoly the Seminoles have outside of South Florida. 

What’s the bottom line? Short of lawmen storming card rooms and making mass arrests, the August 1 ruling doesn’t mean much. It took a visit to the Florida Supreme Court for Hialeah Park, which was not part of the original referendum, to open. It took another trip to debate the slot expansion case. So why the hell expect one side to give in on this particular gambling controversy?

No way.  That’s just how we roll here in Florida.

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Nick Sortal is South Florida’s expert journalist when it comes to the gambling scene. He covered the openings, expansions, poker tournaments, entertainment, and human-interest facets of the industry for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 2007 until taking a buyout in November 2015, capping a 30-year career that included state and national awards and features about naked yoga. He now writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald and also reports about gambling on his site, The Southern Illinois native worked for papers in St. Louis and Indianapolis before joining the Sun Sentinel in 1985. He likes triathlons, country music, basketball, and bragging about his family.
Contact: Nick Sortal