Longform

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

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Brnovich says he's heard tribal members talk about the off-res poker rooms, but none has asked him "formally" to do anything about them. Even if a tribe did, he says, his job is to serve the state, not the tribes.

The Indians could push the issue, if they wanted. A "poison pill" clause in gaming compacts between the state and the reservations allows tribes to ignore "limits" in the compacts if the state doesn't curtail non-Indian gambling. Without the limits, the tribes could put slot machines in every convenience store on reservations and expand casino operations.

The number of non-tribal poker rooms never has grown large enough to become more than an annoyance to the tribes.

The Arizona Indian Gaming Association didn't return calls on the matter.

Residents in the neighborhoods around the card rooms haven't complained much lately, Brnovich says.

Schnaubelt says a gaming agent told him two months ago that the state believes as many as 30 to 36 illegal card rooms operate in the Valley.

Asked about that, Brnovich says he thinks there are fewer rooms than three years ago when he went after Bud Lee. But he adds, "We don't know how many more would have opened" if it weren't for the enforcement deterrent, he says.

Pressed for actual numbers, Brnovich replies flippantly, "Stats are for losers."

However, Brnovich's chief of staff, Rick Medina, replied later to New Times with the numbers.

Gaming intelligence agents estimate that 19 illegal card rooms operate in Arizona, with 16 of them in the Valley.

This is the same number of card rooms that agents believed the Valley had three years ago, when authorities went after Lee.

With resources tight, off-res poker rooms appear destined to stick around. If members of the poker community, especially John Schnaubelt, learn to play well together — and not upset the BIA cabal.

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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.