COVER STORY

Calling Their Hand

The success of Florida’s largest poker room forces the state to grapple with its addiction to gambling dollars

Luke Weidner wears his signature red Bestbet hoodie and red sunglasses while playing in a recent tournament.
Dennis Ho
Most of the time, the only sound you hear at Bestbet Jacksonville is the clinking of poker chips.
Dennis Ho
Most of the time, the only sound you hear at Bestbet Jacksonville is the clinking of poker chips.
Dennis Ho
Visitors can place bets on action at horse and dog tracks located around the country, in the simulcast area of Bestbet Jacksonville.
Dennis Ho
Players fill up many of the 70 tables during a recent tournament at Bestbet Jacksonville, the largest poker room in the state.
Most of the time, the only sound you hear at Bestbet Jacksonville is the clinking of poker chips.
Dennis Ho
Visitors can place bets on action at horse and dog tracks located around the country, in the simulcast area of Bestbet Jacksonville.
Dennis Ho
Visitors can place bets on action at horse and dog tracks located around the country, in the simulcast area of Bestbet Jacksonville.
Dennis Ho
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Luke Weidner considers himself a semi-pro poker player, accumulating a bankroll of $7,000 and winning $10,000 playing in tournaments.

His signature look is his red hoodie and red sunglasses — the sunglasses, because they look cool and the hoodie, because it sometimes gets a little cold in the Bestbet Jacksonville poker room.

As a youngster, Weidner became fascinated watching professional poker matches on television. Years later, he would borrow an older friend’s ID and sneak off to the St. Johns poker room at Bayard (which closed in November) to learn the game and hone his skills.

Now that he’s 19, he plays legally and frequently at the Bestbet in Jacksonville, the state’s largest poker room with 70 tables that just celebrated its first year in business.

“It’s been very successful. We are happy to be here. The players are happy. It’s a beautiful facility. We’re very pleased,” said Deborah Giardina, executive director of poker operations, as she looked out over dozens of players competing in a recent tournament. Giardina and Jesse Hollander, associate director of poker, came to Jacksonville from The Wynn, a Las Vegas casino.

Weidner plans to take off the month of April from his other job as a server at Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q to play in tournaments, hoping to increase his poker earnings. He said he uses very little of his poker bankroll of $7,000 by playing in tournaments where the buy-in is $200 to $300. Bestbet features six varieties of poker, but the most popular are Texas Hold ’Em and Omaha.

“I’m on an upward trend where I am winning. It’s all about winning over the long term,” Weidner said, acknowledging poker is about winning — and losing.

Weidner said he knows some players who make six figures, others who pull in $40,000 to $50,000 and others who gamble away their welfare checks.

“It is possible to make money. I was surprised how many people play poker professionally,” said Weidner, a Jacksonville native who graduated from Bartram Trail High School.

When officials at Jacksonville Kennel Club gave their racetrack to a charter school and decided to open up Bestbet on Monument Road across from Regency Square Mall, folks didn’t know what to expect.

They worried about crime, declining occupancy at the mall, roaming thugs, drinking and gambling. Others were concerned it would change the character of the neighborhood by bringing in adult-oriented shops, day-labor companies and pawn shops, which were allowed under the same zoning as the poker room.

“They thought we were going to be this great big gambling establishment, a den of inequity with bad things going on,” Hollander said.

“It’s just a bunch of people playing cards and having a good time.”

Lad Hawkins, president of the Greater Arlington Civic Council, believes Bestbet has had a positive impact on the area.

“The once-vacant space is bustling with activity,” he said. “To my knowledge, there have been no negative impacts.”

 

Impact on Regency

Bestbet remodeled the former Garden Ridge store, adding carpeting, 70 poker tables, large-screen television monitors and cameras everywhere. In addition, there's a food and beverage center and a horse and dog track simulcast center, featuring races at dozens of locations.

City Councilmember Clay Yarborough, whose district includes the area where the poker room is located, replied in an email that he had “no comment” when asked about the first year of operation.

“We didn’t think it was good for the area,” Yarborough told First Coast News when Bestbet Jacksonville opened. “We don’t think it would be a good impact on Arlington and the mall.”

Michael Munz, executive vice president and partner of The Dalton Agency and public relations spokesperson for Bestbet, said the poker room has been good for the area, where an auto dealer and an AT&T store recently opened.

“We feel like we’ve revitalized our little piece of the world,” Munz said.

Giardina said Bestbet has helped the local economy and that crime has not been a problem.

“We have had nothing to speak of. We haven’t had any trouble at all.” Off-duty police patrol the parking lot, while others keep a close watch inside. Every inch of the building is covered by TV cameras.

So far, Bestbet has been a good moneymaker, contributing tax revenue to both the state and the city.

From March 1, 2012, to Feb. 28, 2013, Bestbet collected $14,668,520 in gross receipts, according to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. For the same period, the Orange Park Kennel Club’s card room had receipts of $6,280,048. Until it closed in November, St. Johns Greyhound Park poker room had gross receipts for the same period of $1,105,574, state records show. Card rooms must pay 10 percent of their gross receipts to the state. That money goes to the Pari-Mutuel Wagering Trust Fund.

From that fund, the city of Jacksonville will receive a 25 percent distribution prior to the start of the next fiscal year. The rest goes to the state’s general fund. Based on projections for the first year of operations, the city should receive about $336,000 of the $1.46 million in taxes. David DeCamp, a spokesperson for Mayor Alvin Brown, said the money will go to the general fund. To date, the city has been given $60,000 from the state from the poker room.

In October, the City Council took the $60,000 it had received from Bestbet and combined it with $100,000 in contingency funds, to hire a lobbyist in Tallahassee.

The poker room makes its money by taking a percentage of the pot for each game, known as the rake, with a maximum of 10 percent. In other games, the poker room has a time charge. In some tournaments, there's a buy-in fee to play the game, including a recent one with a $200 buy-in for a $50,000 prize pool.

The lowest buy-in amount is $20, but there is a wide range of buy-in requirements to suit every level of play, including high rollers. The highest buy-in games range from $50,000 to $100,000 at special events throughout the year, said Lauren Feiner, a spokesperson for the poker room.

 

 

Introduction of Poker Rooms

Years ago, dog racing was the only legal gambling in Northeast Florida, other than the Florida Lottery, which began selling tickets in 1988. Since there were tracks in three adjoining counties, the dog racing business would spend four months in one county and then move on to the next track.

Card rooms were added in 1996, when the Legislature allowed them as “side games” at the horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. Poker rooms were added to the tracks in Orange Park and Bayard, and the state approved building the poker room in Jacksonville. Prior to July 1, 2010, the most a player could buy-in for a cash game was $100. Now, there is no limit.

Jacksonville Greyhound Racing has a great reputation in this community, Munz said. A board of directors owns the company, with Howard Korman as CEO. Jacksonville Greyhound Racing owns the Regency poker room and the Orange Park greyhound track and poker room.

“The Korman family has been very generous and philanthropic on a lot of different fronts — the symphony, arts, culture, children’s issues and education. Joy Korman has served on the UNF Board. They have really given back and done a lot for this community,” Munz said.

A former Jacksonville Children’s Commission chairman, Korman led a study on infant mortality for Jacksonville Community Council Inc. When Jacksonville Kennel Club closed its dog track on the Westside, he donated the 150,000-square-foot former greyhound racetrack to KIPP Impact Middle School, a charter school.

Bestbet Jacksonville and Bestbet Orange Park employ a total of about 600 employees, Hollander said. When the Jacksonville poker room opened, Korman said it would bring about 200 jobs to the area, averaging $50,000 for each position. Folio Weekly was unable to confirm the number of employees or their average salaries.

The poker room is open 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily and 24 hours a day over the weekend. Hollander said they often have to shoo out players at 4 a.m.

 

Who’s Playing?

Many of the same players frequent the poker room.

“There’s a weird kind of camaraderie. They come and hang out. They talk about stuff — stock market, kids, life in general,” Hollander said.

“All the great philosophers in the world are right here,” he said, pointing to a table where nine players were deeply involved in a poker game.

“We don’t care who wins what hand,” Hollander said. “Players play against each other. They never play against the house.”

The crowd is mostly male and ranges from the very young to senior citizens.

“There are very few women. There just aren’t a lot of female poker players, anywhere,” he said.

Some of the dealers are women, but most are men. “They do a good job and make a lot of money in tips,” said Giardina, who refused to discuss how much money the dealers make, saying it varied among individuals.

Aaron Muse of Jacksonville likes to play poker while his girlfriend shops.

“I haven’t had any bad experiences. I think the place is awesome. It can be lucrative if you know how to play poker,” Muse said.

“There are a very few people who make their living playing poker, very few,” Hollander said.

Poker players come to Northeast Florida from as far away as Georgia and the Carolinas, but most are local.

“The whole community seems to have taken us in. They weren’t sure what to expect,” Hollander said.

There are 28 pari-mutuel facilities in Florida, and 25 of them have poker rooms. They are located in dog-racing and horse-racing facilities and jai-alai frontons.

There is a dark side to poker playing — compulsive gambling or addiction, which affects 8 to 12 percent of poker players. In Florida, card-playing is No. 2 behind slot machines among compulsive gamblers, said Brian Kongsvik, the helpline director at Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling in Altamonte Springs.

“It is a significant problem. We’ve seen a big increase with cards as a problem, when the World Series of Poker was broadcast on ESPN. It glamorized it,” said Kongsvik, whose organization reaches out to those who are adversely affected.

“A big win or a jackpot can set them off. They can go from being a social poker player to a problem gambler because they believe the next big payoff is around the corner,” he said.

The Florida Council operates a 24-hour hotline, 1-888-ADMIT-IT, and can refer people experiencing problem gambling to Gambler’s Anonymous or counselors.

The Florida Constitution prohibits gambling, but changes have been made over the years to include the Florida Lottery, card rooms, betting on horse and dog races, and cruises to nowhere, where gambling is permitted once ships enter international waters.

In fiscal year 2009-’10, the state brought in $1.58 billion in pari-mutuel wagering, taxes and fees, slot machines, card rooms, the lottery, and from its agreement with the Seminole tribe.

The same year, card rooms brought in $75 million, increasing to $125 million in 2010-’11 and $131.1 million in 2011-’12.

 

Future of Florida Gambling

While the popularity of poker rooms continues to be strong in Florida, it's waning in other states. Slot machines, which produce more revenue, are pushing out poker rooms in some Vegas hotels, said William Thompson, author of “Gambling in America” and a professor emeritus in public administration at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Thompson said some big Vegas casinos are closing their poker rooms and replacing them with slot machines, but poker will remain popular in Northeast Florida because “they are the only game in town."

“Floridians today, just like Americans everywhere, have gotten much more comfortable with gambling,” said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and an expert on gambling.

Jarvis divides Florida into three zones. South Florida, he said, seems to favor gambling, and he expects the growth of big casinos. Miami-Dade and Broward counties already allow some slot machines, and there are Indian casinos in Miami and Tampa. Walt Disney controls Central Florida, and Disney doesn’t want casinos competing with its theme parks and cruise ships. Northeast Florida, he said, will have to settle for poker rooms, because the religious climate will not allow any other kind of gambling.

Those who run pari-mutuel tracks are championing a concept called decoupling, in which owners of horse tracks and dog tracks don’t have to go through the charade of operating racetracks to have poker rooms, Jarvis said.

“The goal of all these racetrack owners is to get rid of horses and dogs,” Jarvis said. “Track owners are constantly being harassed by animal rights activists.”

To legally operate the poker rooms in Jacksonville and Orange Park, the owners must run a number of races because of the tie-in with the pari-mutuel ownership. Orange Park is now the only facility in Northeast Florida where there is still dog racing. According to the state pari-mutuel office, Florida has 16 greyhound tracks operating, seven jai-alai frontons, three thoroughbred tracks, one harness (standardbred) track, four quarter horse tracks, 25 card rooms and seven slot-machine gaming facilities.

The Florida Legislature is taking a year to study the implications of gambling in Florida, holding off on big casinos, any expansion of slot machines and other gaming. Those counting on the expansion of Internet cafés might have seen the last of those, with the arrest of 57 people associated with the Allied Veterans of the World racketeering scheme and plans now to ban the cafés.

Jarvis would like to see an end to the mishmash of laws regarding gambling in Florida.

“We ought to have a comprehensive policy,” Jarvis said. “This is no way to run an airline.”

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