Saturday, November 03, 2007

Gotta Love Those Poker-Savvy Bureaucrats

Haley again, sneaking in a fun little tale that I just haven't had the chance to write about anywhere. It was several weeks back when I noticed an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, which is one of the two large metro papers here in the greater Chicago area. (The other is the Tribune, which is a curse word for me, but that's a tale for another time.)

Here's how the Sun-Times piece read, in large part:

'Free poker' vets at odds with state Despite sound reasoning, taking on gambling law not a good bet

October 10, 2007
BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

Up until a few weeks ago, Don Signore spent several nights a week playing Texas Hold 'Em poker in a league that rotates among south suburban bars and restaurants.

The poker league was a nice social outlet for Signore, 44, helping him get back in circulation after his wife died two years ago. Signore never lost any money during the games. He never even wagered any.

In an effort to stay within the bounds of Illinois' gambling laws, organizers of the poker league charge no fee to play in their tournaments, ban wagering and offer only nominal prizes to the winners such as gift certificates from the host establishment.

'We're not gambling'

And that's why Signore can't understand why the Illinois Liquor Control Commission has effectively shut down the "free poker" league by cracking down on liquor licenseholders that host the games.

"We should have a right to play as long as we're not gambling," says an angry Signore, who lives in West Beverly and owns a catering business.

State officials don't quite see it that way.

Rather than trying to sort out those playing poker for fun from those playing poker for money, they say it makes more sense to simply prohibit poker tournaments in liquor establishments.

"Usually when you're playing poker, you're gambling," says Ted Penesis, a spokesman for the liquor commission...

I pretty much didn't need to read any more at this point, because it was just another example of some mid-level bureaucratic spokesman spouting off about poker when he didn't really understand the game. Penesis, the liquor commission dude, made some more stupid statements, and if you'd like to read the piece in its entirety, go ahead and click here.

It was a cute piece, if not very newsworthy, because low-level pols making dumb statements, even about poker, are a dime a dozen. Still, on a reeeeeeeeeal slow news day while the big bosses were traveling I found a chance to just toss it in as a minor news item on a larger site I work for. And it went away, as it rightfully should.

Even if it wasn't a big 'news' piece, however, I decided to come back to it a couple of days later. After all, I live in Illinois and this is my stupid bureaucrat, so I decided to do the outraged anonymous citizen routine and write a random letter asking, basically, if the guy quoted in the story was really stupid enough to say the things he said. I didn't identify myself as a poker writer or anything, just as an Illinois resident.

Darned if he didn't respond to me personally... six times over the following week. The first one was a gem of bureaucratic, paralogical thinking, here reprinted in its entirety:

"That's me, and my birthday has been truly special today! People file lots of complaints about the activity in question, specifically stating that gambling occurs at these events. As the regulating agency for liquor establishments, we have a duty to investigate these cases and enforce the law; to do otherwise, would be "bad government."

Which was, of course, the whole point of my pseudo-outraged letter --- busting up free poker tournaments is not "the law," but is rather tilted law enforcement done for other purposes. Because, and this is an important point, there is no law on the books prohibiting free poker in Illinois.

Ted and I went back and forth on this for the next several days, with me pointing out his terrible, dictated-by-job-circumstances logic and him trying to defend --- badly --- an undefendable stance. This assumes, of course, that Mr. Penesis actually had a hand in crafting the policy about threatening Illinois bars that wanted to offer these free tourneys; threatening them, that is, with the loss of their liquor licenses.

In another letter, Penesis tried to blame the Sun-Times writer, claiming that he'd been quoted out of context:

Yes, I knew I would be taken out of context (Mark Brown admitted he was told about the citation from a south suburban friend of his), but it doesn't make it any easier knowing I was gonna be the fall guy. [] And let me add this: I have always liked Mark's columns, so I'll cut him some slack for sticking up for a friend. That's his prerogative, and I think he's earned the right to tilt the story in his favor after his years of solid work.

He also couldn't resist tossing a few barbs back at me, just because I was playing the ol' "outraged citizen" card: "So keep the letters comin'! Your comments bring me the only joy in this sorry situation!"

As with his "birthday" comment, it was again something straight from left field. I took it to mean that he'd taken lots of heat over his stupid comments, and I was almost honored that he'd chosen me to correspond with. And it seemed that I'd pressed this guy's button and was therefore honored with his extended and personal replies.

I was curious, though, as to how he was, exactly, quoted out of context. So I wrote back yet again (evil, me), pressing him on the topic. This time he wrote back as follows, complete and uncut:

"Because you too 'humor me', I will humor you. Here's the context of the comment that bothers you so much: When talking to Mark, I told him, in addition to receiving many complaints, I often get calls from bar owners wanting to know if it's legal for patrons to play poker for free in their establishment. Of course, we all know (yes, even you) people probably aren't playing for free, but I don't suggest otherwise. I don't remember exactly what I told Mark, but it went something like this: "You have cards, chips on the table, and people are playing poker. Appearances count. Even if there is no gambling involved. Is it really worth your time and money to fight the citation?"

If someone hands you a smoking gun and there's a dead guy lying nearby, odds are you'll get arrested if witnesses place you at the scene with the smoking gun in your hand. Sure, you could fight it in court, and maybe you can even win, but is it really worth the risk? Like I said previously, you should spend your energy changing the law instead of wasting your time with me."

Brick wall. Head. There's no law to change, of course. The issue here was that Penesis's commission was creating and enforcing a non-existing law. And Penesis, as evidenced by the above e-mails, was absolutely unable to get his head around the concept that people might have been telling him the truth, in that these events just might really have been free poker events.

I even forwarded to him other information on free poker leagues and legal battles in other states upholding these leagues' right to exist. No response to that stuff. Penesis had set in stone, within his own mind, his image of what was going to go on, and he was damned if he was going to let things such as facts get in is way. Nope, unwarranted threats against business owners was far more legitimate use of governmental powers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the species bureacraticus stupidus. Unfortunately, it's a proliferating breed.

*ed note - Free Poker should never be illegal, hell regular poker shouldn't either. If you want to learn how to play, learn the basic Texas Hold em Starting Hands and Ranks.


CSuave said...

If he really said "Rather than trying to sort out those playing poker for fun from those playing poker for money, they say it makes more sense to simply prohibit poker tournaments in liquor establishments." then here is a gem of a comment you should make back at him: Since driving drunk and being publicly intoxicated are against the law and even though not all bar patrons will drink in excess some patrons definitely will drink beyond the legal limit, therefore alcohol may no longer be served at the bar. That way they will not have to sort out which patrons drink more than they legally should and which ones don't (the same way they sort out which ones gamble for money versus which ones don't).

Anon said...

Let's face it, gambling WILL occur at FREE poker events, whether the poker company or bar owner condones it or not. It sounds to me like the state guy was trying to dissuade an activity that is prone to illegality without saying the specific company was actually guilty of these activities. In other words, he was covering his ass from getting sued by the FREE poker company.

guest said...

Hi, Ted! Glad you could stop by with yet another paralogical comment. You're preventing a "free poker" company from suing you by illegally restraining them from doing legitimate business, all because you assert there WILL be illegal gambling going in, evidence notwithstanding (or even unsearched for).

And I assume that all this illegal gambling is going to occur after the free-poker league operator has packed up his portable table and chips and cards and everything, too? If they got cards from a bar owner after the free league concluded play and commenced real gambling on their own, then wouldn't that mean a bar owner would be aware of it?

Tell me more! Tell me more!

[For the rest of you, note that I clued ol' Ted in on this post's existence a few hours before Mr. Anon E. Mouse's comments appeared. Technically, it might not be him, I suppose... but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it.]

-- Haley

CSuave said...

Ted should read my comment on the chance that people will drink and drive when they patronize a bar...
And the amount of money that is spent trying to sort out and catch the ones that do drink and drive along with the expenses caused by accidents and loss of life, far exceeds any amount that would be spent policing "free" poker tournaments to catch those breaking the law.