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

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Schnaubelt has asked the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Peoria in recent weeks to regulate card rooms. That's long been one of Lee's goals, though cities have been mostly cool to the idea. A card room in Gilbert was forced to close in 2010 after city leaders questioned its legal status.

Lee and Schnaubelt believe that cities can authorize and regulate poker rooms, legally, without complying with state gaming rules, because no specific law exists prohibiting the parlors.

They express the need to keep poker "pure," without the exploitative quirks of Indian poker tables: Dealer "rakes" of the jackpot, the steep per-hand cost to stay in games, the lottery-like random drawings of "jackpot poker." But it's difficult to separate their talk of purity of the "sport" from their previous ambitions to operate successful poker rooms.

"I never denied that I was motivated by the idea that I would gain a great business enterprise, but my goal was an [association for poker]," Lee says when asked about financial incentive.

Even harder to understand is Schnaubelt's need to give authorities detailed information about every poker room he discovers — unless Archuleta is right that Schnaubelt simply is seeking revenge against former competitors.

A player at a local club who knows Schnaubelt described him as on an "obsessive mission." Even Lee says he advised Schnaubelt against providing information to the "DOG police," because he doesn't think it's good for their cause.

Schnaubelt denies he's vindictive. He says he believes that if the authorities shut down the state's illicit poker rooms, "people will get tired of Indian casinos" and push for legal poker. His preference would be "citizen's arrests and vigilante justice," because it would be the most newsworthy, he claims. But perhaps that's just talk — he adds that while he might like to go after certain clubs with which he has a beef, his wife doesn't want him risking the family's safety.

For now, besides provoking Archuleta, Schnaubelt maintains a list of poker rooms (and their level of unlawfulness, in his opinion) at www.phoenixpokerclubs.com, a site that was used previously to promote one of Lee's activist groups, Arizona Poker Army.

By destroying off-res poker, Schnaubelt believes, he can save poker.

The overall number of poker clubs may be higher than authorities know because underground clubs don't have storefront locations.

In the case of the Nuts Card Room, owner Harry Glazer and his associates hosted high-stakes card games at the Bunker Indoor Golf & Training until someone tipped off Goodyear police, leading to the December raid on the Nuts club in Phoenix. (Schnaubelt says he had nothing to do with the tip.)

When one card room closes, usually for financial reasons, another opens to take its place. It seems that the few prosecutions under gaming department director Brnovich hardly have been a deterrent. Glazer, the apparent ringleader of the Nuts operation, pleaded to just one felony charge of promotion of gambling and received the same sentence as Lee — a year of unsupervised probation — though he had a different judge. Glazer was ordered to pay a $33,000 fine, which shouldn't be much of a financial hardship considering police estimate his operations brought in more than $600,000 a year.

Brnovich is a former writer and researcher for the Goldwater Institute, which strongly touts the spirit of free enterprise, and he has libertarian leanings. That makes his duty as government regulator of a gambling monopoly an oxymoron. But Brnovich, while a legal scholar and listed as an unpaid "expert" on a range of subjects for www.policyexperts.org, can throw the book as well as read it. He was a former prosecutor focusing on gambling violations for the U.S. Attorney's Office before his appointment as state gaming chief.

For the 2009 New Times article, Brnovich described how unregulated gambling "can attract cheaters, crooks, and corrupting influences like moths to a flame." He claimed he would be "extremely hands-on" in dealing with gambling violators and said he intended to "find the necessary resources" and a willing prosecutor to take on Lee and other poker scofflaws.

While he did take on Lee and a few others, Brnovich admits to New Times that he didn't find the resources he mentioned back then. In fact, he says, the agency has one fewer investigator for such tasks than when he took his job. He insists that the department is doing its best with the resources it has. If lawmakers want him to bust more card rooms, "we could make it a higher priority," he says. "Before we got here," he says, "no one was investigating these cases."

He stresses that the department's main function is to help tribes regulate casinos and to ensure that the state gets its proper cut of gambling earnings. Since 2004, the department's website shows, the state has received more than $800 million as its percentage of the take — which runs from between 1 percent and 8 percent of all casinos' gross earnings.

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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.