NEW YORK – On a busy night at the New York Players Club in upper Manhattan, vice squad officers wearing bulletproof vests and raid jackets dealt the underground poker scene a losing hand.
The team entered unannounced at 11 p.m., detaining dealers, snatching up piles of cash and sending dozens of card players home with empty pockets. Downtown, another popular card club, Playstation, also was shuttered. In all, police arrested 39 employees and confiscated $100,000.
The raids on May 26 — dubbed "Black Thursday" by one poker Web site — and two more last month have sent a chill through the city's clandestine poker scene.
Several members-only card clubs closed their doors after 13 arrests on Oct. 16 at the Broadway Club in the Flatiron District, where the Yankees' $25-million-a-year third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, reportedly had played. On Oct. 28, a second-floor parlor on the Upper East Side, the EV Club, became the site of more vice squad arrests.
Regulars at the Manhattan clubs, including professional card player Phil Hellmuth, have questioned the crackdown while predicting the popularity of poker and its potential for profit make it unlikely the chips will be down for long.
"People just want to play poker, and because there are no legal clubs in the city, they turn to underground clubs," said Hellmuth, a former World Series of Poker champion.
Authorities elsewhere also have taken a hard line.
In Passaic County, N.J., police converged on a shopping center basement that allegedly was home to an illegal parlor posing as a soccer club. They arrested dozens of people and seized about $60,000.
An undercover investigation in Palmer Lake, Colo., led to the arrest of the owner of a Mexican restaurant that held a Texas Hold 'em tournament. And in Baltimore, police arrested 80 poker players in the biggest gambling raid in the city since Prohibition, only to have prosecutors drop the case.
In Manhattan, at least a dozen clubs — with names like Ace Point, High Society, Hudson and All-In — once operated up to 10 tables in rented offices, back rooms and other nondescript locations, according to regulars. Countless others have sprung up in the outer boroughs and Long Island, offering local alternatives to casinos in Atlantic City and Internet games.
The clubs, unlike casinos, don't take a percentage of the pot. Instead, patrons pay about $5 per half-hour to sit at tables and play Texas Hold 'em and other card games with buy-ins as low as $40. Their ranks include Wall Street brokers, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, along with the occasional celebrity.
The Daily News has reported that A-Rod has been warned by Yankee officials to curb his enthusiasm for poker parlors — something his agent denied.
Rodriguez later spoke publicly about the clubs, saying, "In retrospect, it's probably a place I shouldn't have gone."
The clubs typically ban alcohol but provide other perks: Playstation served Oreo cookies; New York Players Club offered valet parking; and the Broadway Club featured plasma televisions and a glassed-in room for high-stakes games. Front doors are unmarked, and manned by bouncers.
It is a world reminiscent of the 1998 movie "Rounders," which was set largely in underground New York poker clubs and is credited with jump-starting the poker craze.
Hellmuth said he was "a bit shocked anyone's making a big deal over the New York's poker scene" — a reaction shared by an attorney for a club operator who was arrested.
"This is not the crime of the century," said the lawyer, Michael Rosen.
Indeed, playing poker isn't criminal. However, it's illegal to profit by promoting it.
Authorities say the clubs, along with evading taxes, could be funneling tens of thousands of dollars to drug traffickers or mobsters. The sizable cash flow is certain to entice armed robbers, police said.
"We realized that this was the start of a problem because there is lots of money involved," vice squad Lt. Pasquale Morena said at the time of the Players Club takedown. "We don't know where the profits from the gambling are going."
Hellmuth suggested officials simply start licensing existing clubs.
One proposed law in New York would decriminalize poker in bars and restaurants that sponsor low-stakes games, although it would not protect the poker rooms now under siege.
"Poker's so commonplace now," said state Sen. John Sabini, who sponsored the bill. "Businesses should be allowed to cash in on it."