Underground Poker: A Deadly Gamble?

A New Jersey man was killed during an armed robbery of a game Friday.

ByABC News
February 18, 2009, 9:42 PM

Nov. 6, 2007 — -- The killing of a former professor in a private New York City poker room last week has stunned the underground gaming world and frightened some players and operators of poker clubs, which can be attractive robbery targets, according to current and former players and law enforcement experts.

Friday night, police said a masked man, armed with a shotgun or a rifle, barged into an underground game on the seventh floor of an office building on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

During the robbery, Frank DeSena, 55, was shot in the torso and killed, reportedly after a gun accidentally went off. The club was described as a large operation with about 10 tables, "almost like a real casino," according to a person who has been there but who asked not to be named.

The murder has shocked some players and club owners, with some people posting on blogs and Web sites that they would no longer risk going to the games. Two people who have worked in undergound clubs told ABC News that the major underground poker rooms in Manhattan had shut down as a result of the shooting.

"There is no organized poker going on today in New York," said a former club manager who is still involved in the poker scene. "I think for about three to six months, this will have a devastating impact" on underground poker rooms.

Underground games around the country, illegal or not, can make for enticing targets for would-be criminals, police said. Some games have minimal security, people who have played at the clubs told ABC News, and some criminals may assume that organizers will not report robberies to the police for fear of exposing the game, according to Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and a former FBI agent. Poker clubs reportedly have been held up recently in cities around the country, including Dallas, Chicago and Indianapolis.

"They think, 'it's underground, it's illegal, it's an easy target,'" said Sgt. Alfred Munez, of the Dallas Police Department's Vice Squad.

Police would not say how much was stolen in the New York robbery, though a person with knowledge of the robbery told ABC News that about $36,000 had been taken. In June, a high-end New York club was robbed of a reported $50,000. Police have not officially linked the two robberies. Several people who play at poker clubs said they believe club owners are, in fact, willing to contact police if they are robbed.

Though it is legal to play poker in New York, organizers cannot profit off the game. Other states have similar laws, though poker clubs are legal in some states.

The murder comes after police in New York and Dallas have publicly cracked down on underground gambling. Two years ago, New York cops arrested more than 50 people and seized more than $100,000 from several gambling parlors in the city, according to news reports. Dan Michalski of the Web site pokerati.com, who said he has played in dozens of underground games, said the number of illicit games in Dallas had shrunk from about 200 a few years ago to about 20 today after a series of police raids and robberies.

But players complained that the police crackdown has forced what they consider to be harmless games further underground and has made them more vulnerable.

"The police are driving it into a dark corner that it doesn't need to be in," the former manager said, adding that he thought the games should be legalized and regulated. "I don't believe anybody's hurting anybody by playing cards. I don't know what we're doing that's so wrong."

"It was just a matter of time before something like this happened," Michalski said of the recent shooting in New York, though he added that robberies were still relatively infrequent. "It's pretty easy to map out a robbery plan."

No official statistics exist on the number of underground games, but the games, spread by e-mail and word of mouth, have multiplied as poker has become more popular. They are frequented by a range of people from teachers to stockbrokers to the occasional celebrity. "It's really just a bunch of regular guys -- doctors and lawyers," the former manager said.

Most clubs require players to be members or to know a member, and most charge people based on the amount of time they play, people who have played at the clubs said. "Once you're in one, you're basically in all of them," a person who has played at several clubs in New York, including the club where the shooting took place, but who asked not to be named, told ABC News.

"There's a game running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Paul McGuire, a reporter for PokerNews.com. "There are tons of illegal poker rooms."

Those games run the gamut from small groups in private homes to large-scale operations in rented warehouses or office buildings. "Interest has really taken off since people started learning how to play the game," said Jeremy Kleiman, a Newark, N.J., lawyer who specializes in gaming law. "It's turned on a whole new generation of people."