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Sunday, April 8th, 2007

State’s Illegal Video Poker Trade is Threatened

BY TOM SOMACH

Pennsyvlania recently opened its first casinos, and it has caused concern in some quarters about the financial future of the state’s 3,100 private clubs, many of which have long relied on revenue from illegal video poker machines.

Some club owners say they fear police are stepping up enforcement of the unlawful machines as the state-licensed casinos open, something officials deny. In the southeastern Pennsyvlania, for example, agents cited 15 private clubs for illegal gambling in the first eight months of 2006.

At least two dozen more clubs in the region were raided at the end of the year, but have not yet been added to the state police database.

“We knew it was illegal, but everyone had them,” said Larry Weik, vice-president of the Pioneer Home Association, a private after-hours club in Allentown, Pa., which lost its poker machines after two raids last year.

The club, with 400 members, had relied on the added income for two decades.

“We’re a small club,” he said. “Without those machines, I’ll be surprised if we make it to the end of the year.”

More than a million people belong to private clubs in Pennsylvania, some of them operated by volunteer fire companies, American Legion posts or other community groups.

Elsewhere in the southeastern part of the state, authorities have raided the Bethlehem Young Men’s Association in Bethlehem, the Hellertown Democratic Club in Hellertown, the Catholic Veterans Home Association in Emmaus and the American Club of Coplay in Coplay.

State Rep. Tom=A0Caltagirone said he plans to introduce legislation to allow clubs to operate up to five poker machines, but acknowledges that the chance of passage is slim than a toothpick.

“Why should these clubs have to keep playing hide and seek with the (state police)? Why can’t we help our own people, who have been in the community for decades?” Caltagirone said. “This state has all sorts of legalized gambling,”

State Rep. Joseph Brennan, who sits on a state legislature oversight committee on gambling, said there may be other ways to help the private clubs stay financially afloat.

One compromise, he said, would be to boost the amount of prize money clubs can offer for legal games of chance, such as bingo, punch boards, raffles and strip tickets.

Under state law, the current limit is $5,000 per week.

State police liquor control officers say they have not been told to step up the enforcement of illegal video poker machines in the state’s private after-hours clubs.

Maj. John P. Lutz, Director of Liquor Control Enforcement statewide, said his officers only respond if a complaint is made, which is often from a disgruntled club member or spouse.

“I know we’ll never be able to convince (club owners), but we’re under no orders to increase raids,” Lutz said.

“We’re not doing anything different, but I’m glad we have their attention.”

Most bars and other establishments that serve alcoholic beverages in the State of Pennsyvlania are required by law to close by 2 a.m., but so-called “private” clubs may serve liquor and stay open all night.

Although the clubs are called private–meaning only members can enter–at most of them anyone who shows up can pay a membership fee, instantly become a member and then go in and enjoy after-hours booze, beer and illegal video poker machines, called “pokies” by the locals.

Until recently, the nearest legal gambling for most people in Pennsylvania was Atlantic City, N.J. and its eight casinos.

But in recent months, the Keystone State’s first-ever, legal casinos have opened in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and elsewhere, cutting revenues for Atlantic City’s legal casinos sharply.

And, apparently, for Pennsylvania’s “illegal casinos” too–the after-hours clubs where video poker used to be king.

(E-mail Tom Somach at [email protected].)

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