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Underground gambling in NYC

The headline screamed out from the pokernews online site: “Former World Poker Tour Champ Sentenced to Prison for Operating Illegal Gambling Ring”. The former WPT champ is Vadim Trincher and he was one of 34 persons indicted last year on illegal gambling charges, all focusing on sports betting and high stakes poker games being operated in New York City. Of that total, 28 have either been convicted in court, pleaded guilty to the charges or brokered plea bargains. The others are still twisting in the wind. The evidence has to be pretty damn strong for prosecutors to have this kind of batting average and, apparently, it is — implicating the charged in illegal gambling, money laundering, extortion, tax evasion and a couple of other more esoteric crimes including racketeering and conspiracy.

A couple of things about this story got to me — the first being that for a number of years I was a part of that “underground” world in NYC. When I wasn’t being a good boy and doing my job as a professor and cognitive scientist, I was a regular there, first at the original Diamond Club and, after Giuliani’s boys shut that down, the PlayStation that opened to fill the void. Part of my forthcoming novel (Xero to Sixty) is based on those days. But what’s so nutty about this recent spate of indictments and convictions is that playing poker and betting sporting events aren’t heinous crimes. Both are legal in Vegas and poker is played in nearby casinos in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and up in Connecticut.

What’s the draw, why run these games in the city? Well, for one, the games were held in midtown so players didn’t have to take a limo (or drive — depending on how fat your bankroll was) to Philly, AC or Foxwoods. They were also running a sports book and, so the charges read, were handling a lot of money from Russian wise guys of questionable integrity. But, trust me, they weren’t the only ones making book in town. There are hundreds of bookies in the city, some “connected,” many independent. One of my best friends back in my NYC days ran a decent-sized book out of the local race tracks; go here for his story. There was also apparently a well-stocked cocaine hamper on site and this, no doubt, added to the draw.

But, importantly, Trincher and friends let out lines of credit. Unlike legit casinos and sports books where it’s cash up front, in these games you could play on promissory notes.[1] If you won, you got the cash. If you lost you were expected to pay up asap. This angle caused trouble because, big surprise, some of the donkeys couldn’t cover their losses and it got a bit weird when the boyz brought in their version of a collection agency, thugs from the MMA world (that’s “mixed martial arts” to the uninitiated).

By the time the dust settled, Trincher and two of his sons were heading for prison and more than a few of his colleagues from the Russian underworld were caught up in the dragnet. Several prominent poker pros were indicted on tax evasion charges including Bill Edler, a lawyer turned poker pro who has a WSOP bracelet and some 3.5 million coconuts in tournament winnings to his credit and Justin Smith and Abe Mosseri, both of whom have chalked up over a million in tournament winnings. And a whole bunch of celebs who enjoy poker got more exposure than they wanted including, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Alex Rodriguez and Matt Damon. This was especially distressing to A-Rod who had earlier been reprimanded by MLB when he was photographed playing in the PlayStation. Alas, I was not there the night he made his well-documented appearance.

All right, so what’s the point of this blog? Simple. This whole fiasco, from the underground games, the drugs, money laundering, the Russian Mafia, celebs caught in compromising settings, hired leg-breakers, tax evasion and over two dozen mostly reasonable folks now either behind bars or socked with huge fines and penalties, is bizarre and totally unnecessary. It is nonsensical, idiotic, indefensible, ridiculous, moronic, stupid beyond reckoning.

Why? Because the clowns in charge of passing the legislation by which we all live made these activities illegal in NYC. When you criminalize an activity that people want to engage in, when you make it illegal to do things that are desirable and popular you’re asking for trouble. Sumptuary laws criminalize activities based on religion or personal sensitivities. They have never worked as the moralists hope. They can’t. Ultimately they restrict individual freedom and hand over to the state responsibilities that normally sit with individuals and, of course, they invariably backfire.

Why? Well, it’s bloody obvious, isn’t it. Who do you think is going to fill this void when legit folk can’t? Certainly not the Wynn Corporation or Caesars/Harrah. It’s going to be the Russian mobsters, guys looking to launder some dirty money, drug dealers, hired enforcers and folks who don’t acknowledge the existence of the IRS.

This isn’t some recent revelation. Prohibition made the mob. The Mafia was a bunch of small-time punks fighting with each other over ancient tribal animosities left over from spats back in Sicily. When booze became illegal they were handed the keys to the mint. In 1961 Congress passed The Wire Act making it a federal crime to use a “wire” (i.e., any communication device such as a telephone) to place a bet on a sporting event. Every bookie in the land rejoiced.

Will the morons ever learn? I dunno. I guess not. Even today, when some have begun to understand these issues and individual states are reinstituting intrastate poker online, when most  states allow online and phone wagering on racing, when all but two states have some form of legalized gaming we still have these crazy-quilt sets of laws that make activities like a penny ante poker game or putting down a couple of coconuts on your alma mater’s chances in March Madness a felony. If governments make it impossible for a legitimate, well-organized and above-board company to set up a sports book or spread a poker game you know who will.

So, who wins here? Not you, not me. Just a bunch of lawyers and a couple of prosecutors who get to put a couple of notches in their belts. No one else. It is, as I said, stupid beyond reckoning.


[1]This practice of giving regular customers credit is common in illegal gambling. The underground numbers rackets, which have been largely displaced by state-run lotteries, would keep their clientele loyal by extending credit, which the legal lotteries cannot do.

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