Virginia tried to crack down on unlicensed poker. It’s still happening in the open.

State charitable gaming regulators refuse to comment on reopening of Beach Poker Room

By: - September 30, 2022 3:45 pm

(Getty Images / Caspar Benson)

When a Hampton Roads-area kitten rescue lost its lawsuit challenging a new state law cracking down on unlicensed charitable poker, it seemed like the end for the handful of poker rooms that recently opened in Virginia.

But a poker room in Virginia Beach is back up and running, advertising on Facebook despite the new law that threatens civil fines of up to $50,000. The Facebook page for the Beach Poker Room went quiet when the law took effect in July, but the facility now says it’s opening daily and running tournaments three days a week with buy-ins ranging from $120 to $160.

Whatever’s happening at the Beach Poker Room could be against the law, according to legislators who led the push to shut down poker rooms until the state can get a better handle on overseeing them.

If it’s charity poker, said Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, it’s the same type of unlicensed activity the General Assembly wanted to stop by creating civil fines of $25,000 to $50,000 per violation. If the Beach Poker Room is avoiding charitable poker rules by dropping the charity aspect altogether, Krizek said, it’s no longer the type of poker Virginia legalized. 

“If it’s poker, it’s illegal,” Krizek said.

Several people who could potentially explain the situation at the Beach Poker Room, which operates out of a bingo hall called Bingo Palace that’s connected to a member of the state’s Charitable Gaming Board, either didn’t respond to inquiries from the Virginia Mercury or refused to comment for this story.

The Beach Poker Room didn’t respond to multiple phone calls and emails over several days. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), which regulates charitable bingo and poker, refused to comment. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, an attorney who was working with managers at the Beach Poker Room earlier this year to try to fight the poker room shutdown, also refused to comment.

Others involved in the charitable gaming industry argued it’s the General Assembly’s fault no one seems to know what’s happening with poker in Virginia.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Charitable Bingo Association said the legislature’s “totally flawed” handling of the industry’s attempted expansion into poker is to blame for unlicensed games continuing, possibly with no benefit to charities.

“I think Virginians should be asking their legislators if what they intended with this legislation was to put operators in a position to have to say, ‘Rather than incur these absurd fines and risk jail time, we will simply remove the charitable aspect of these games,’” said Liam Gray, whose bingo organization helped fight the General Assembly’s attempts to rein in charitable poker.

Amy Solares, a partner in the business entity behind Bingo Palace and vice chair of the Charitable Gaming Board, didn’t respond directly to phone calls and emails. In a statement given to the Mercury by Gray, she said she doesn’t own the facility itself and isn’t involved with poker.

“If no one is certain in what manner or even whether or not Beach Poker Room or any other poker operator can play poker, that strongly suggests these laws are too ambiguous and problematic to be of use to anyone,” Solares said.

Solares worked closely with charitable gaming regulators due to her position on the state board. She’s also currently running for the Virginia Beach School Board as a Republican and has received donations from Sen. Bill DeSteph, Del. Glenn Davis and Del. Tim Anderson.

The group behind the Beach Poker Room applied for a poker license last year under the corporate name 2 G’s Business Inc. State records show the corporation’s status as “pending inactive” because of an overdue annual report.

‘We just need the existing legislation enforced’

Virginia has significantly relaxed its formerly strict stance on gambling over the last four years, and some feel there’s no harm in people getting together to play cards with money on the line. But there’s widespread agreement the state needs coherent gambling laws and someone making sure they’re followed, and many see the latest poker room twist as another sign of failure on that front.

“I don’t think we need new legislation, we just need the existing legislation enforced,” said Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, who sponsored this year’s bill that shut down all poker rooms temporarily. “I will be working with a bipartisan group of legislators who will ask the governor, attorney general and commonwealth’s attorneys to ensure the current laws are enforced.”

The casinos that will offer poker games in Virginia are governed by a lengthy set of regulations and a licensing process overseen by the Virginia Lottery. The state has no regulations in effect for standalone charity poker rooms, but VDACS is working on creating them.

Some would-be poker operators in Virginia have tried to exploit the legal gray area between games of chance and games of skill, where the player’s talent and aptitude determines the outcome. A 2013 legal challenge attempting to exempt poker from the state’s illegal gambling law, which bans certain unsanctioned games of chance, failed after the Portsmouth Circuit Court ruled the law was not unconstitutionally vague. The Supreme Court of Virginia upheld that ruling without resolving the skill versus chance question. If authorities were to crack down on the Beach Poker Room, it could create a new opening to try to legalize poker through the courts.

Past prosecutions

In the past, it seemed clear anyone trying to make money from underground poker games was breaking the law. 

Fairfax County police made headlines in 2015 when heavily armed officers raided a high-stakes poker game happening in the basement of a private home in Great Falls. A 2011 poker raid in Virginia Beach led to criminal charges against the man accused of running the games out of a house across the street from the seafood buffet he owned. He faced up to 30 years in prison but agreed to a plea deal that came with a two-year suspended sentence, a $5,000 fine and the forfeiture of nearly $275,000 in cash and gambling equipment, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

“It has been this office’s position that poker is a game of chance, and we have prosecuted illegal gambling cases in the past,” said Macie Allen, a spokesperson for Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle. “If the Virginia Beach Police Department brings us evidence of illegal gambling we will evaluate it and take appropriate action.”

When asked about the Beach Poker Room, Virginia Beach police spokesperson said the department was “looking into the matter.” Last year, the Richmond Free Press reported that Richmond police officers were doing off-duty security work at a similar bingo hall/poker room in South Richmond. The Virginia Beach police spokesperson didn’t immediately answer when asked if officers are doing similar work at the Bingo Palace/Beach Poker Room.

The fight over charitable poker rules

Virginia legalized charity Texas Hold ’em poker tournaments in 2020 as a way to boost a declining charitable gaming industry best known for bingo halls. Charitable gaming operators were also looking to expand into new areas and to protect their turf in anticipation of several casinos opening in the state that will offer poker and other table games.

The rollout of state-sanctioned poker, long considered a form of illegal gambling, quickly turned into a contentious dispute between the Charitable Gaming Board, run largely by industry insiders who stood to profit from poker, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charitable gaming. 

Agency officials felt the board was overstepping by writing poker regulations to maximize the industry’s revenue and minimize state oversight. A major concern was the lack of clear separation among charities, for-profit poker operators and landlords who charge them rent, a setup state officials have said is susceptible to financial conflicts of interest and corruption. 

Charitable Gaming Board Chairman Chuck Lessin, who opened an unlicensed poker room at his South Richmond bingo hall last year but closed it this summer to comply with the new law, accused VDACS of undermining the board’s authority and working to block the board-approved regulations from taking effect. Lessin has argued the General Assembly is taking a harsher line on small-scale charitable gaming operators to clear out competition for the big out-of-state companies opening casinos in Virginia.

The General Assembly largely sided with VDACS in 2021 by passing legislation to freeze charitable poker altogether. Several poker rooms opened anyway, despite none of them being officially licensed or regulated by VDACS.

Legislators took a harder stance this year, passing a new bill threatening poker operators with crippling fines, a move meant to stop all unlicensed games until VDACS could craft a new set of regulations and start issuing licenses. 

The lawsuit this summer was an attempt to block that law from going into effect, with Petersen arguing the state was hurting charities like Virginia Beach’s Billy the Kidden cat rescue by legalizing charitable poker but refusing to give out licenses for it.

Krizek, who led a General Assembly committee last year that scrutinized the charitable gaming industry, said he’s hoping the situation improves soon with the Virginia State Police expected to fill a gaming enforcement coordinator position the legislature created this year. But he said he’s worried “the clock is ticking.”

“When more and more of these illegal gambling dens pop up, the harder it’s going to be,” Krizek said. “It’s going to be like whack-a-mole trying to get rid of them all.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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