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Poker news | Nov 16, 2021

Virginia Skeptical of Loose Charity Poker Rules

By RTR Dennis

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Poker hasn’t enjoyed much success in Virginia. Old Dominion views poker as a game of chance and refuses to change its classification—despite many states ruling otherwise.

Thanks to Virginia’s legal amendments in 2020, charity poker is legal under certain circumstances. However, the VA Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) is now challenging this change.

OSIG’s report, which hit the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, claims that the charity rules essentially pave the way for regular poker tournaments. It suggests that anybody can run a Texas hold’em tourney so long as they have the backing of a charity.

One excerpt from the report reads: “[The Charitable Gaming Board is] allowing the creation of poker halls in Virginia where a poker tournament only needs a charitable organization as a sponsor of the tournament.”

The report also suggests that Chuck Lessin, a board member on the Charitable Gaming Board, helped write rules that benefit him. Lessin opened a poker room called Pop’s Poker in his bar.

In his defense, Lessin claims that he informed the board of his future plans all along. Furthermore, the Charitable Gaming Board is bound by law to include at least one charity gaming supplier on the board. Lessin claims to have followed the State Attorney General’s rules to a T through the voting process and setting up Pop’s Poker.

How the Poker Climate Changed in Virginia

The Mother of States hasn’t exactly been accommodating to gambling until recent years. It has never allowed live poker rooms and didn’t even let charity organizations run poker tournaments.

The latter aspect changed in 2020, though, when the General Assembly passed SB8936. The latter legalized charity poker and gave the Charitable Gaming Board the responsibility of drafting regulations. The members met 13 times to approve the charity poke rules.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), which has final say over charity gambling, currently opposes the board’s regulations. The VDACS doesn’t like how the rules allow a landlord and/or equipment supplier to also operate a poker room. It wants “firewalls” standing between the operator, suppliers, and landlords.

Lessin doesn’t believe that charity poker can thrive with these firewalls. He also feels that the VDACS will find it impossible to enforce these regulations.

“A lot of people have gotten around those firewalls,” says Lessin. “People were finding all kinds of loopholes where they’d get their cousin’s brother’s sister to own the company.”

He believes that removing the firewalls creates more transparency by showing exactly who’s behind a charity poker organization. Lessin says that anybody who fails to disclose their overlapping interesting stands to lose their charity gaming license forever.

OSIG Report Highlights Major Problems with Virginia Charity Poker

Going back to OSIG’s poker report, it claims that “regulations create conflicts and consistency issues that damage the integrity of the charitable gaming program.”

The State Inspector General’s three main problems with the current setup include:

  • Conflicts of interest.
  • Letting third parties run hold’em tournaments.
  • The VDACS not have the manpower to handle charity gaming.

Adding to the third point, OSIG’s report claims that VDACS must add more employees if it’s to succeed in regulating charity poker. As it stands, the agency is already short-staffed.

OSIG believes that the Virginia Lottery Board is better equipped to handle such a large task. It also wants the Charitable Gaming Board moved to an advisory role, rather than the board that creates regulations.

Virginia’s History with Charity Gambling

Virginia has allowed charity gaming since 1995, when it approved bingo halls. In return, it required that at least 5% of the proceeds go to the chosen charity.

By 2013, charity gaming had expanded to allow electronic pull-tabs games. Pull-tab machines have become big business, hauling in $251 million in gross profits annually. $26.2 million of this amount goes to charity.

Casinos and Poker Coming to Virginia

Old Dominion continues its gambling expansion after legalizing casinos and poker rooms. By late 2022, the first casino and, potentially, poker room are expected to be fully operational. Caesars, for example, plans on adding a poker room to its Danville casino.

With fully legal poker coming soon, Lessin believes that charity operators should benefit from the same rules. Otherwise, they won’t be able to compete in the future.

“Be hard on the charities and make sure they’re doing everything the right way,” Lessin says of VA regulators. “But don’t say they can’t operate like the competition is operating. We’re crippled before we even start, and that makes no sense.”

With the VDACS currently against the Charitable Gaming Board’s rules, charity poker operators face an uphill battle. Their only hope is that the General Assembly sides with them and forces the VDACS to approve the proposed regulations. Otherwise, the industry’s future will remain up in the air.