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

It's Friday night at 10 p.m., and about a dozen people sit at two green-felt-topped tables at the Camelback Card Club when John Schnaubelt walks in. He's a large guy in his mid-40s and would have been noticeable even if he hadn't stared at the players and said, "Hello, ladies and gents!" in a suspiciously loud, looking-for-trouble kind of voice.

The card room, similar to many in the Valley that offer low- and high-stakes poker games, inhabits a small suite in a strip mall at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard, next to a popular Thai restaurant. Besides the card tables (complete with surveillance cameras hanging over them) and an ATM in one corner, little about the club resembles a casino. The place looks like an office, with plenty of snacks and a refrigerator full of non-alcoholic beverages. A whiteboard informs newcomers that it will cost $40 to buy into a game, plus a $20 "dealer-appreciation" fee, while a bronze plaque on the wall asks players to tip a minimum of $2 per jackpot to the dealers.

Seeing Schnaubelt arrive, a man wearing a black shirt with the name of the club on it moves quickly from behind a counter at the far end of the suite, where players exchange cash for poker chips.

Jeff Archuleta, a manager and one of the organizers of the Camelback Card Room, is shorter and many pounds lighter than Schnaubelt, but he shows no intimidation as he walks up. According to his write-up on Meetup.com, Archuleta has an "extensive poker background" and recently returned from dealing the 2012 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

"You probably know you're not welcome here," he tells Schnaubelt.

Schnaubelt asks why.

"Is this a joke? You know the answer," Archuleta says. "I know you've been trashing the club every which way possible."

The players and dealers at the card tables take a momentary break from their games, listening to the exchange.

"Could you please take that outside?" an exasperated woman finally says.

And they do, sparring verbally on the sidewalk next to the parking lot in the cool night air. Their posture suggests that fisticuffs aren't imminent; the scene has the aura of an after-school showdown between former friends.

"I'll be back here with the police, probably," Schnaubelt tells the club manager.

"Yeah, I know, like you're really trying to shut everybody down. I heard about your wanting to do citizen's arrests," Archuleta sneers, barely glancing at a New Times reporter standing a few feet away. "You did the same thing everyone else is doing, and now you're going to say your shit don't stink?"

He's referring to the fact that, until two months ago, Schnaubelt was running his own poker club — The Tilted Jack at Union Hills and 19th Avenue. Archuleta says Schnaubelt is taking revenge against the Camelback club because he thinks "maybe we're stealing [his] business, or something."

Schnaubelt tells Archuleta that, late last year, another club — the Nuts Card Room in North Phoenix — got raided. And at the time, he taunts, he told an investigator with the state Attorney General's Office to check out Camelback because its owners have "deep pockets."

"Why?" asks Archuleta, sounding genuinely surprised. "You were running a club, too!"

"You're operating illegally."

"We're not operating illegally — no more illegally than any other club in town or [any club] that you would run," Archuleta says. "You're a fucking asshole, and you're a prick."

When asked by Schnaubelt how he makes money at the storefront club, which under Arizona law isn't supposed earn any "benefit" from poker games, Archuleta responds that he earns a salary and gets tips.

"How can you make a salary and [have that] not be considered a benefit?"

"I've [got] a private business owner — I run it as a private business entity," Archuleta replies, repeating that the business isn't illegal.

Schnaubelt tells Archuleta to "crawl back inside," but Archuleta responds that he'd rather stay outside and "kick off the dirt from my stoop rather than just sit out here and let it collect."

Schnaubelt says, "Maybe I'll just call 911 and report the felony going on here." Then, he gives Archuleta grief about the uniform he's wearing: "Do they make you wear that?"

Archuleta snaps back, "No, I wear it because I like to."

Schnaubelt walks toward the parking lot.

"Don't come back!" Archuleta yells after him.

Ironically, given his threats to call the cops on the Camelback Card Club, John Schnaubelt's actually a strong advocate of off-reservation poker.

Schnaubelt operated his own poker parlor, and Archuleta was one of the room's dealers.

Schnaubelt's a fellow activist and friend of Harold "Bud" Lee, a former Phoenix justice of the peace once known as "the rock 'n' roll judge." A few years ago, Lee was Arizona's most outspoken off-reservation poker activist.