Why Oregon's non-casino poker rooms should stay safe and legal

HB 3518 comes to us from Rep. Julie Parrish and, I believe, is based on substantial misinformation.

By Roey Thorpe of Portland, Oregon. Roey is a longtime Oregon activist currently working in the national LGBT equality movement.

In a few minutes, I’ll be testifying against House Bill 3518, which would shut down the growing number of poker rooms operating in Portland and in small communities across Oregon. House Bill 3518 seeks to ban “social gaming” except for churches, fraternities and non-profit organizations.

What is social gaming? It can be a variety of things and has come to include card games, mostly Texas Hold 'em, between guests at card rooms throughout Oregon. If you know me you know that, like 30,000 other Oregonians, poker is my passion—it’s a game of strategy, skill, mathematics, and intuition with an element of luck that is a never-ending challenge. We’ve collectively found a safe and legal way to enjoy this hobby, one that’s being threatened by House Bill 3518.

There are at least a couple dozen clubs throughout Oregon that would be impacted by the measure. Club owners do not profit from buy-ins to the poker tournament. They charge a small admission fee ($5 to $10 a day, no matter how big the prize pool) and earn revenue through food and beverage sales. The clubs make no money off the actual entry fees paid. All that money goes into the prize pool that is redistributed to players. Unlike many social groups in Oregon, the poker community is a very racially and economically diverse group of people, and many of the regional poker clubs are owned or managed by people of color.

There’s one big difference between poker played in these card rooms and other forms of gambling found in casinos and through the Oregon State lottery. Unlike slot machines and games like blackjack or roulette, there is NO house advantage in poker; no way the outcome of the game benefits or is controlled by the House. That’s a huge difference from casino gambling and it’s why these rooms should be allowed to continue operations. These rooms do not include other casino table games, or video poker.

House Bill 3518 comes to us from State Representative Julie Parrish and, I believe, is based on substantial misinformation. Frankly, we don’t know why Rep. Parrish is targeting the card rooms. They’re posing no problems. She says they’re operating outside the law but that’s far from reality.

State law currently allows cities to create their own social gaming ordinances. Clubs obtain business licenses from their cities under ORS 167.121. These licenses are annually renewable. Failure to comply with local rules and ordinances can result in the revocation of a social gaming license. It’s important to note that social gaming in private clubs can only exist where local jurisdictions allow it. House Bill 3518 would preempt that local control.

Rep. Parrish has written that club owners are committing felonies and poker players – such as myself – are committing misdemeanors each time we play. To be accused as such is jarring coming from a state lawmaker.

She argues that the two dozen plus poker clubs were licensed because the cities where they are located didn’t understand the nature of what the clubs were planning to do. Frankly, that’s unfathomable. The cities of Portland, Dallas, Eugene, Bend, King City, Millersburg, Irrigon, Enterprise, Lebanon, Ashland and more allow for poker clubs to exist. Rep. Parrish thinks they’ve all been duped.

In the five years I’ve been playing in Portland poker rooms, not one has been raided, shut down, arrested or even cited for violating local or state law. These are legitimate businesses whose entrepreneurial owners have capitalized on the growing popularity of poker to establish safe, well-run, clean businesses that are employing people and providing entertainment to players.

There have been stories in the media about state-sanctioned lottery stores that create problems for local neighborhoods and encourage crime. Yet there have been no negative reports about any of the clubs targeted by House Bill 3518. In fact, in listing reasons to shut down these clubs, Rep. Parrish cites a shooting that took place in 2010. The club where the shooting occurred was an Eagles Club, a fraternal organization not impacted by this bill. The card rooms where I play are closely managed and have security officers present at night. I feel very safe there, which is especially important to me and the other women players.

Rep. Parrish also mistakenly suggests that poker rooms don’t report large payouts to the Internal Revenue Service, allowing players to skirt taxes. Payouts over the reportable amount ($5000) are very rare and when they do surpass the threshold, they are reported to the IRS. The stakes are usually much smaller, with buy-ins averaging $50 a tournament and payouts in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.

Poker clubs are inclusive, welcoming places. They have grown in popularity to the point where it makes sense to talk about the best way to regulate them, but starting the conversation with a bill that would cost hundreds of people their jobs and shut legal businesses down is an irresponsible way to initiate the discussion.

If you’d like to keep abreast of developments of this measure and our attempts to defeat it, please visit SaveOregonPoker.com – and make sure to like our Facebook page.

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