30/01/2006

Police Raid Belfast Card Club

Mick McCloskey

Ireland correspondent for Poker Europa magazine.
Europe’s leading poker publication.

In scenes reminiscent of a 1920’s raid on a Chicago speakeasy, 20 or so armed police officers managed to take time off from protecting the citizens of Belfast from muggers, joy riders, burglars and sundry other lawless elements, on a Saturday night, to swoop on a poker tournament in The Cavendish Club. The smoke free and alcohol free private members club, situated in a commercial area of the city, probably half a mile from the nearest residential area, was holding the monthly special £200 NLH tournament, when the forces of law and order arrived with a bullhorn to inform the 80 or so players that they were committing an “arrest able offence.” We were informed that poker was illegal in Northern Ireland and that the game was being terminated and that any gaming equipment on the premises would be seized. Presumably out of the goodness of their hearts, we were told that the players would not actually be arrested but would be allowed to leave after giving their personal details to the assembled constabulary. Among the questions the police had on pre prepared sheets were details of how often we visited the club, how much we had paid for our entry fees and how much we spent on average, each visit. The last three questions I refused to answer as I considered it to be a matter of privacy and none of their business.

Just what the authorities hope to achieve by this heavy handed action, I am not quite sure. They will never, I repeat never, stop people from playing poker. What they might achieve is to drive poker underground, where players have to gather in smoky bars and back rooms totally at the mercy of card mechanics and cheats and with no agreed set of rules to run the game.

The Cavendish Club has been running quite openly for about two years and the only time that the police have had any reason to come anywhere near the club was when Mick, the doorman, caught a guy trying to steal one of the member’s cars. Mick held the guy until the police arrived to arrest him.

The area of the British Isles, where I live, seems to be a strange little place when it comes to gaming. There is no shortage of bookmaker’s shops and lottery terminals, not to mention computer terminals and interactive television betting, where I can spend my money as I see fit. However, it seems that I can be arrested for playing Texas hold’em. How ridiculous is that? Northern Ireland is supposed to part of the UK where poker can legally be played every day of the week. There seems to be no problem in the Irish Republic with poker. Yet the authorities in these parts, actually ruling directly from Westminster, seem to want to play the part of King Canute and hold back the tide of poker, probably the fastest growing player participation game in the world today. You only have to flick through your satellite or cable channels any night to find about six different poker shows being aired. In the U.S.A. high profile poker pros are treated like movie stars with fans regularly asking for photos and autographs. If there is a grey area regarding legality, then surely it can be sorted out in the courts, as is the case with The Gutshot Club in London, rather than the police taking the heavy handed action they involved themselves in on Saturday night. They certainly made themselves no friends in the poker community by their actions.

Note to the Chief Constable and to the minister in charge of law and order and gaming. Poker players are not criminals. Poker is a game of skill and strategy and is not a random gambling game like many of the games you regard as legal and above board.

Club owner, Sean Murphy, intends to apply to the courts for the return of his seized property and to re-open the club at the earliest opportunity. He has also stated that the tournament which was interrupted would be completed, even if it meant moving it across the border into the Irish Republic.