Barely Noticed by Cops, Non-Tribal Poker Rooms Thrive in Phoenix

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His light punishment, he believes, proves that the judge in his case, Bruce Cohen, became his ally upon seeing how the gaming department and the BIA treated him. He expects others will come around, too, if he can get enough people to listen.

But Lee has been harping on this issue for years, even writing a letter to Oprah Winfrey about the BIA, which he called "a goiter on Uncle Sam's neck" a few days after he was indicted in 2010. Lee doesn't believe that his campaign has made him foolish. Quite the contrary.

"The state has been made to look ridiculous," he insists. "They can't stop me from telling people they're a big bag of wind."

Lee — who lives on Social Security benefits, appears in poor health, and walks unsteadily with a cane — vows to keep up the fight until he can fight no more.

John Schnaubelt wrote in a September 17, 2010, post on an online poker forum that he had met and interviewed Harold Lee on camera that day for a possible documentary.

He defended Lee from snipes by other forum members: "He's not a crackpot, but a jackpot. Sorry to disappoint. He's pretty confident that he'll be able to defend himself against the DOG mafia. Don't be surprised when the state dismisses the charges rather than suffering the embarrassment they've brought upon themselves."

Of course, that didn't work out so great. Neither did Schnaubelt's own poker venture, The Tilted Jack, which he'd incorporated just days before Lee's indictment.

Schnaubelt says he already had sunk about $10,000 in permits and other expenses for the firm's location at 18425 North 19th Avenue at that point — so there was no turning back. He had come across the ex-judge's name in researching his own venture. When he heard of Lee's troubles, he called and offered assistance. That led to the first meeting and interview and, later, to Schnaubelt's volunteering as Lee's trial manager. Earlier this year, he sat with Lee at the defense desk every day of the trial.

Interestingly, considering Lee's talk of the BIA-controlled casinos, Schnaubelt's online résumé says he used to have Gila River Casinos as a client in a former business. In 2009, he says, he helped start the still-operating Poker Union at 7th Avenue and Union Hills. Esho Odisho, listed as that limited-liability corporation's sole member, agreed to split any proceeds with him 60/40, with Schnaubelt's meriting the smaller amount because he could invest only his time and energy, while Odisho put $30,000 into the business, he says. (Odisho's articles of incorporation state that the business' purpose is "retail sales of poker supplies.")

Schnaubelt says he split with his partner when Esho "decided to stop paying me" after 10 months. Schnaubelt finally opened his own establishment in summer 2010. He maintains that the place was "not a card room" but a "civil and social movement that may offer members a facility from time to time."

The Tilted Jack's website, which announces that the place closed last month, appears to advertise a card room. There's a picture of the "player of the month" and a list of hundreds of players and their winnings. (The top player, "Jette," is said to have won 57 tournaments and $24,205.)

Schnaubelt argues that his club represented true social gambling, that players were the only ones who benefited. However, he adds that a cooperative can hire dealers or even hire himself as a web designer — which belies the idea that only players benefit from poker at such an establishment.

Lee's association and several other clubs operate under a similar idea — they're just a large bunch of friends playing poker.

Yet the very existence of storefront poker rooms, many of which are open seven days a week and might occasionally have cash games that last until dawn, appear to violate the legal interpretations posted on the Arizona Department of Gaming's website.

No one is supposed to "benefit" from non-tribal gambling, directly or indirectly, under Arizona's gaming rules. The host of an off-reservation establishment can take nothing from what is wagered or won and is forbidden from using gambling to attract people to a restaurant, bar, poker-supply shop, or other entity that makes money. Even a "suggested 'voluntary' donation" from players is disallowed, the site says.

Schnaubelt claims he had the only legitimate model for an off-reservation poker club, and that's why he invested $30,000 in The Tilted Jack while knowing he wouldn't benefit. He claims he did it to advance the cause of poker.

He wanted to "protest the BIA syndicate gambling empire," avoid playing poker on an Indian reservation, and show that it was possible to run a card room "not unlawfully," he says. But he had to close after two years because the "unquestionably illegal operations surrounding us smeared us and infiltrated and recruited players, all because I was outspoken against the rooms claiming to be legal when they aren't."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.