Virginia has some pretty strange laws. For example, it is illegal to tickle a woman, drive a motor vehicle without shoes, or have sex with the lights on. It is perfectly permissible, however, to marry your cousin, or for candidates to practice corrupt bribery tactics. Most of Virginia’s ridiculous laws are not enforced, but if you happen to arrange a game of poker where dealers are paid for their services out of the pot, expect the SWAT Team to come barreling through your doors with rifles loaded.
That’s exactly what happened at a quiet home in the Great Falls area of Fairfax County last November. There were 10 gentlemen, all respected members of their community, seated around a friendly poker table in the basement of an affluent home, enjoying a friendly, albeit high-stakes, game of poker. The next thing they knew, a group of fully armed SWAT Team agents came bursting through the door, pointing rifles at the players and demanding cooperation.
Frightened beyond belief, each of the men was quick to comply, raising their hands and remaining quietly in their seats as police seized $150,000 from the host. Afterwards, 8 of the 10 men were charged with illegal gambling, a Class 3 Misdemeanor in Virginia that carries a maximum penalty of up to $500 in fines.
It certainly wasn’t your run-of-the-mill home poker game. The minimum buy-in for those present was $20,000, with an option to re-buy if one’s chips were depleted. Comparatively speaking, that’s twice the entry fee for the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas.
The identities of the men arrested that night have not been revealed to protect their families and reputation, but two of the players, as well as the host, are said to be professional poker players. The host confessed that he did skim 1.5% of the buy-ins, but that it was not intended as a profit, but rather payment for the employment of two dealers and two assistants, whose responsibilities were to serve coffee and massage the shoulders of tense players.
But Fairfax County police didn’t see it that way. According to Virginia law, “taking a cut” turns a friendly home poker game into an illegal gambling enterprise. That, and a supposed search warrant, gave the SWAT Team the authority to raid the home.
Interestingly enough, the search warrant remains unsealed, and the host, who by all legal accounts should have been the primary suspect, was not charged in the case.
One of the players at the table gave his account of the raid to the Washington Post, but asked not to be named. He said that he looked out the window of the basement’s French doors and, “saw these helmets bobbing up and down”. The dark figures, barely visible in the cover of dark, shouted that they were Fairfax County police, and had a search warrant. At that point, the player said about eight SWAT Team officers entered the home. “They were all yelling, ‘Does anybody have a weapon?’ and ‘please don’t move’. One pointed his assault rifle at me and said, ‘Hands up,’” recounted the player, who said he couldn’t believe what was happening.
He went on to explain that there were no guns or weapons at the table, and none of the players resisted. “They could’ve sent a retired detective with a clipboard and gotten the same result.”
The Fairfax police have come under fire for their radical enforcement of illegal gambling over the years. In 2006, they sent the SWAT Team to arrest a single individual, Dr. Salvitore J. Culosi Jr., for sports betting. The optometrist was accidentally shot and killed during the raid by Officer Deval Bullock. In an official statement to the community, Fairfax County did not apologize for the “unintentional” death of Dr. Culosi Jr., blaming the incident on an “involuntary muscle contraction” experienced by the officer.
Then in 2010, it was revealed that the police department had wagered, and lost, more than $300,000 on sports bets as part of a sting operation meant to take down a Las Vegas bookie and his Virginia-based operators.
According to one of the players, the police justified their use of extreme force against the Great Falls poker game by claiming that, “Asian gangs” have been “targeting these games”. His desired reply was, “So you robbed us first?”, but he thought better of it.
In the end, the best way to protect the citizens of Virginia from these gang-related robberies (and over-zealous police departments) is to legalize the game under regulated circumstances. The state classifies poker, along with casino-style gambling, as a “game of chance”. The desire to keep casinos outside the state’s border is all well and good, but if poker were deemed a game of skill, and licensed, regulated card rooms opened, the state would still make money (via taxation, rather than seizure), and poker players would have a safe place to enjoy their pastime in a 100% legal capacity.