Seminoles Now Hold the Cards, So Florida Might Negotiate

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Judge Robert Hinkle ruled on Wednesday that Florida violated a deal allowing the Seminole Tribe exclusive rights to blackjack and other table games. The unintended result might be a long-term gambling deal in Florida.

Hinkle said that racetrack card rooms' versions of Ultimate Texas Hold 'em, three-card poker, and Pai Gow cut into the 20-year monopoly the tribe negotiated with the state.

“The order declares... the tribe may conduct banked card games for the Compact’s 20-year term,” Hinkle wrote. For those lacking a calendar, that means until 2030.

Hinkle called the games, in which a player stands in for the bank, an "egregious example of the cardrooms' attempt to evade the prohibition on banked card games." Card rooms had tried to set up the games as poker — defined as "player vs. player" — instead of "banked," which is player vs. the house.

The games are offered in about half of Florida’s card rooms and take in an estimated $15 million of the state’s $147 million annual poker revenues. In casinos outside of Florida, these games are not located in poker rooms but in blackjack-like pits.

So now the Seminoles have big-time leverage with the state. Blackjack is here to stay, and the state isn’t going to be able to use the threat of pulling it as a bargaining chip.

“The Seminole Tribe is very pleased with Judge Hinkle's ruling and is carefully reviewing it,” Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said. “The Tribe believes the ruling provides for its future stability and ensures 3,600 Seminole Gaming employees will keep their jobs.”

Don’t look for an appeal. Though state officials say they are reviewing it, Hinkle’s ruling was carefully worded and covered every point.

The Seminoles have paid the state a cut of blackjack revenues even since that agreement expired, but they could now threaten to stop doing that.

This whole thing means the state is motivated to sit down at the bargaining table pronto. Florida Gov. Rick Scott last December worked out a deal that would allow the Seminoles to add roulette and craps (and to give South Florida racetrack casinos the ability to offer blackjack), but it did not get through the state legislature.

Sure, there’s still going to be a pocket of legislators who are anti-gaming. And they still might not budge. But others, who objected to the specific terms of Scott’s proposal, are more likely to hop on board. The Seminoles’ deal was for $3 billion over seven years.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles and the rest of the state are awaiting a ruling on a northwest Florida case in which a Gadsden County 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.

Just over 50 percent of the state’s voters approved that narrow allowance. That ruling, too, could void part of the Seminoles’ compact because the tribe could easily argue that those slots would compromise their behemoth Hard Rock Tampa operation, which nets almost $1 billion annually.

In the run-up to the ruling announced Wednesday, the Seminoles had also argued that the state violated the compact by allowing racetrack casinos to offer electronic forms of blackjack. Because he already declared the compact breached, Hinkle declined to rule on the electronic table games portion.

My money is against the Seminoles on that one: Every U.S. jurisdiction that allows electronic table games classifies the machines as slot machines because they operate via a random number generator. Florida was simply following the pattern laid out everywhere else.

Twitter: @NickSortal

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