The Lure of Illegal Gambling in Victoria
♦ $5,000 buy-in
♦ Winner take all
♦ $102,000 cash pot
It’s the highest stakes poker game in Victoria, and it is strictly illegal. The problem is the “rake.” See, the buy-in is $5,000 (hundred dollar bills only, please), but that only buys you $4,250 in chips. The $750 “rake” taken by the house is what makes the game illegal.
“It’s an organizing fee,” says Dave, who agreed to allow Monday behind the gambling curtain on the condition of anonymity. Dave and his associates have been hosting the game for over two years now. “We find and check out the players and provide the location for the game, plus all of the equipment and dealers. We also provide security. We wouldn’t want anyone getting the idea that they can just come and take the money.”
They also provide drinks and snacks.
The game is held in a second-storey space in downtown Victoria and is by invitation only. Each game is limited to 24 players and there are no re-buys. Once you’ve lost all your chips, you are out. As players are eliminated, the tables are combined until only one table remains. Eventually, it might be only two players left playing heads-up poker for all the money.
Play starts at 8pm, although players start drifting in an hour earlier. They move over to a small table at one side of the room where they buy their chips and eye up the competition. “There are some really good players here,” says one participant. “These are guys, and girls, I guess, who are really serious about the game. You have to be good to play here.”
The game will run no later than 6am, although it most often will end long before that, with one player having captured all the chips. No one can cash-out early, and withdrawing from the game before 6am means you forfeit whatever chips you may have. If there are two or more players left at the end of the game, they share the $102,000 pot in relation to their chip share.
As players are eliminated, some choose to leave, but not many. Most will stay until the morning to see who has won the biggest part of the pot. They watch the play intently, trying to gauge the players for future games. There is a tangible intensity in the room.
It’s a lot of money and the game is serious. Dave’s security staff also handles the cash, removing it from the premises as soon as the game starts. The actual cash is paid out to the winning player(s) later that day at an agreed upon location.
“If we’re ever raided here, there’s no cash anywhere,” says Dave. “All that anyone would find is a friendly tournament being played on private property. There’s no law against that.”
David runs a similar game in Vancouver, but he has agreed with his partners to say no more about that operation. “It’s a bit different from here and I really don’t want to give too much away,” he says.
So what sort of person plays this game?
“It really ranges all over the map, but obviously they have to love poker and have enough money so five grand isn’t going to hurt them too much,” says Dave.
Most of the players are at least middle-aged and about two thirds are male. “We’re getting more and more women trying to get in, though,” Dave says.
Dave likes the older players best. “They’re calmer and it’s not as likely they made their money through drugs or some shit like that. Anyone who broke the law to get the money in the first place might think about doing something stupid to keep it or use the information to get out of trouble if they get busted for something else. These are honest people,” says Dave, gesturing at the room.
In fact, his choice of players is one of the drawing cards of the game.
“I like the fact that just about everyone in here knows how to play,” says one. “You don’t get these guys who will go all in on a seven/three draw just because it’s suited. Playing guys like that is like trying to reason with a crazy person. You can’t read someone that crazy, all you can do is try to get out of their way and not let them take you with them as they self destruct. There are no morons here.”
That’s also the reason that many of Dave’s clients are willing to pay the rake.
“I can find a casino to play at, but the other guys in the game might have no clue how to play the game. They can be real dangerous,” says another player. “It’s like running an Indy race with half the guys on the track not knowing how to drive.”
Aside from that consideration, one might get the sense that the slightly illegal nature of the game is an enticement.
“This is private. I sometimes see a guy I’ve played against in a restaurant or on the street. We smile at each other, but that’s it,” says a final player. “I won the whole thing about four months ago and took the cash right into the bank to my box. It’s my stake and an insurance policy against life; my secret.”
Reminiscent of Fight Club, the most important rule is that you never talk about the game; not to anyone. If you think you may have a candidate for the game, you recommend the person to Dave who will vet the candidate and contact them for a meeting and perhaps an invitation.
Still, the turnover is very low. Dave says he has a group of about 60 players on the Island (many do not live in Victoria, but are willing to travel to the game). He rarely finds himself unable to fill the 24 player slots.
Not all games are illegal
Rob Weeds makes a good living running his own poker games in a variety of locations in and around Victoria. For the past eight years, Weeds has operated the British Columbia Amateur Poker League (check out their website at BCAP.ca).
The league operates out of a couple of bars and one Canadian Legion, and boasts hundreds of players. In fact, Weeds (pictured right) estimates that he’s had some 2,500 players involved over the past eight years.
Weeds’ games are strictly legal, as no money changes hand and there is no charge to play; no rake for the house. Weeds makes his money from the hosting venues. They pay him to bring his game to their location.
The only cost for players is that they buy some food or beverages from the bar where the game is held. That makes it a win/win proposition. The players get a place to play, and the bar makes money from 50 or so patrons who wouldn’t ordinarily be there if not for the poker game.
“Not all games are big money out there,” says Weeds. “And most aren’t illegal. There are hundreds of home games going on for money, but mostly the stakes are pretty low; 10 bucks or 50. It’s nothing that’s going to hurt anyone. There are only a couple of big games, but they’re pretty hard to locate.”
Weeds’ players play for points that are meticulously recorded by Weeds. Those points are used in tournament play for prizes at the end of the season.
It’s all good fun and a great place to learn the game.
What does Weeds think about the illegal games on the Island?
“It’s sort of the dark side of the game,” he says. “There’s no legal [Texas hold ’em] game at our casino, and that’s a mistake. Some people want to play for money and if they can’t do it legally, they’ll find a way. It’s an unnecessary evil. They should have it in the casino.”
Still, Weeds loves the game and is thrilled that he gives his clients a chance to play, socialize and learn the game.
“A lot of our players end up going to Vegas to play and what they learn here really helps them.”
Weeds got married this spring. For his honeymoon, he travelled south to, you guessed it... Vegas.
As for Dave, he doesn’t gamble.
“Never seen the attraction,” he says. M
Women develop passion for the cards: Texas Hold 'Em tournament play
Pat Zimmel loves poker. So does Charlene (Chucky) Boustead. They’re two of the hundreds of women playing poker on the Island. It’s a pastime for some, but for Pat and Chucky, it’s a passion.
Both women are over 40 and do not fit the image of the gambling girls you see in the movies. They have solid day jobs, families and social lives that have nothing to do with poker.
Still, they have a love of the game. Both play Texas Hold ’Em and have won some money in tournament play.
“The first time I ever played was in 2004,” says Zimmel. “I started playing in Rob’s [Weeds’] league (the BCAP) and I ended up winning the season and got this great leather jacket as a prize.”
Since that time, Zimmel has participated in a number of tournaments on the mainland and has won over $10,000. Her eyes sparkle as she talks about her first big money win.
“We’d been playing for 14 hours straight and I was at the final table. My adrenaline was pumping like crazy.” She goes on to recount the winning hand, recalling every card and every bet. She remembers every part of that game.
Zimmel’s passion for the game goes beyond just playing. After taking a few courses from the pros (she took the Ultimate Poker School by Phil Hellmuth in 2006), Zimmel decided to help aspiring players with their game. These days she runs her own poker school, tutoring new players in the finer points of the game.
Boustead has played in some money games as well, but is a little coy about how much she’s won.
She started the Lady’s Poker Club in 2007 and has about 30 members who gather in private homes to play.
“It’s great to socialize and get to know people,” says Boustead.
Why are so many women interested in the game?
“Poker isn’t just about cards or luck,” Boustead explains. “You have to be able to read people. There was this one woman I played in a cash tournament. I noticed that she blinked faster when she didn’t have a hand. After that, it was all over for her.”
Boustead will often plan vacations around poker tournaments and, although her husband plays a bit, he is not “as fanatic about the game” as Boustead.
“I’d love to go into the World Series and win a bracelet,” says Boustead. “It says to the world . . . ‘I’m a poker player’.”