Three-card poker is one of the games that could cost the state its compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. A judge ruled just last month that such “designated player” games infringed on the tribe’s monopoly for blackjack and other house-banked card games. And because the state violated its agreement, the tribe would no longer be required to pay about $250 million per year to the state.
So guess what game surfaced this month at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach?
Yep: three-card poker.
A revised version of the game being played at many Florida card rooms began December 9 at the Pompano Beach. The casino had received state approval back in August 2015.
For you to really understand this story, I’d like you to spend a minute learning about three-card poker. It’s fun because it gives players a shot at big money: A player receives three cards and can either fold or play, which requires another bet. Players then turn the cards over, and if they have beaten the dealer, they win the amount they bet. But then there are bonus payouts: If a player was dealt three of a kind – extremely rare considering you’re getting only three cards – the patron often receives 30 times the amount originally wagered. Smaller payouts are for straights and flushes, etc.
The Isle, a publicly owned company that’s been among South Florida’s most obedient when it comes to following state edicts, has tweaked the game. Their adjustments have prompted their version to truly be called “poker” in the state’s eyes, which is loosely defined as “player vs. player.”
Old problem: Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that because card rooms had arranged for “designated players” to act as the bank – and required them to meet such onerous requirements as having $100,000 available – games such as Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, three-card poker, and War were nothing but a front as a card game that pitted the player vs. the house. (Which the Seminoles had sole rights to, as part of a $1 billion, five-year agreement with the state.) Hinkle went so far as to call the games an "egregious example of the card rooms' attempt to evade the prohibition on banked card games."
Solution: The Isle game allows players to take turns as the banker, with the money they have placed on the table being the maximum they can lose. So if an opponent would hit, say, a straight flush, which might pay 40 to 1, the most they could win would be the amount that hand’s banker has in the game. The Isle also requires at least two patrons seated at the table be willing to act as the banker. Being banker is an advantage because the odds are in your favor — but you could get smoked for a big loss.
The designated games are offered in about half of Florida’s card rooms and take in an estimated $15 million, about 10 percent of the state’s $147 million annual poker revenues. (Slots, offered only in South Florida, took in $537 million, to put that $15 million in perspective.) Supporting the notion that they are not poker: In casinos outside of Florida, these games are not located in poker rooms but in blackjack-like pits.
There is a complicated background of legal cases. First, the state approved the games in about 2012, and card rooms began offering them. Then the Seminoles complained and in December 2015, Gov. Rick Scott asked that they be shut down. Judges’ rulings have ping-ponged since then, with the horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai-alai frontons arguing that they went to the expense of installing the games based on state approval, so they should be allowed. Opponents state that the games should be stopped, whether or not they were once wrongly approved.
Magic City Casino in Miami has been among the leaders in game activity, along with its sister properties in Naples and the Palm Beach Kennel Club. Mardi Gras, Hialeah Park, and Casino Miami never tried it, Gulfstream Park started it but stopped to cooperate with the state (they could use the good will), and the Isle’s corporate office in St. Louis urged the Pompano Beach to stop it once a decision went against the pari-mutuels. But Isle officials say they applied for this game on their own and went through the usual state procedures for approval. Look for a similar version of Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, Pai Gow, and/or War to be on its tables soon. This is in line with the Isle’s way: For example, the card room tried Multi Action Poker, dealing two games at once on a color-coordinated table (one hand on blue, one hand on gold) and a game called Wild Tallahassee Poker. Neither caught on, although the Isle leads all South Florida pari-mutuels in poker-room action.
Side note: Eldorado Resorts in September announced the purchase of the 14 Isle casinos, spread across seven states. The deal doesn’t close until next year, and Isle officials said the three-card poker initiation is unrelated to the sale.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles and the rest of the state are awaiting a ruling on a Florida case in which a northwest card room is attempting to add slots based on a county referendum. Slots currently are allowed only in Miami-Dade and Broward, and that's only because of a 2004 statewide constitutional amendment that specified only those two counties. There’s a whole lot more to be written about that element of Florida gambling, but it can wait until another time.
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