Law

Virginia doesn’t have licensed poker rooms. A state gambling board chairman opened one

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When a new Virginia law took effect last year letting charities run Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournaments, the charitable gaming industry, usually associated with fading bingo halls, was eager to get going. 

Maybe a little too eager, according to lobbyist Matt Benka, who warned state officials on behalf of the now-dissolved Virginia Charitable Poker Association in July 2020 that potentially illegal poker rooms were popping up before the state had approved any regulations or permits.

Things haven’t gotten smoother since. As Virginia pushes further into legalized gambling, the failed rollout of charitable poker over the past year is a stark example of inventive gambling interests — at times writing their own rules — moving too fast for lawmakers and regulators to keep up.

There are still no poker regulations or permits, partly out of growing concern among legislators about whether the state is capable of effective oversight of charitable gaming.

The lack of permits hasn’t stopped Chuck Lessin, the chairman of the state’s Charitable Gaming Board, from opening a poker room, Pop’s Poker, at his Richmond bingo hall and sports bar. Lessin has also started a for-profit poker operations company other charities can hire to run their games.

Last year, he and other board members clashed with state regulators over how strict the rules for poker should be, disregarding a recommendation for safeguards to prevent the same person from profiting off poker games while controlling the charity required to use at least 2.5 percent of the proceeds for charitable purposes.

After Benka’s warning, Lessin told officials at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees charitable gaming along with the board, the emergence of unregulated and unlicensed poker was a reason to start giving out permits as soon as possible instead of insisting the industry play by the rules and wait.

“We are all aware many charities are ignoring that request,” Lessin wrote to VDACS officials in an August 2020 email. “The path of least resistance here is to simply be ready and license the charities and operators at the earliest opportunity.”

When things didn’t go as Lessin planned, he accused agency officials of undermining his board’s authority and sabotaging the poker rollout by slowing down the enactment of the regulations. Then he sued them.

The poker controversy is part of a broader battle playing out in the little-understood world of charitable gaming — Virginia’s first form of legalized gambling — as it fights to protect its turf against newly legalized slots parlors, casinos and sports betting apps. The dispute involves two state-ordered reviews of how the industry works, at least one lawsuit and the unusual dynamic of a state board’s leadership strikingly at odds with its agency partners.

The board’s vice-chair, Amy Solares, also appears to have a stake in a Virginia Beach bingo hall that has been advertising poker events for more than a year. That facility, the Bingo Palace/Beach Poker Room, was one Benka flagged for officials in July 2020 as hosting poker without a permit. In an email to VDACS a month later, Lessin seemed to validate Benka’s claim, saying: “Amy e mailed me today informing me that she is ceasing the activities of the charity hosting poker in her facility.” The Beach Poker Room continues to promote poker events on its Facebook page.

Neither Solares nor her lawyer responded to the Mercury’s inquiries about her connection to the facility. Solares’s 2019 financial disclosure, required of all state board members, listed “Independence Associates t/a Bingo Palace” as a business interest. Her most recent disclosure is blank.

Lessin was appointed to the Charitable Gaming Board by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. Solares is an appointee of Gov. Ralph Northam.

‘Everything’s out the window’

By the 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly had seen enough to try to freeze the implementation of charitable poker until 2022 through an amendment to the state budget. The Charitable Gaming Board signed off on final poker regulations at the end of 2020, but the legislature’s action nullified those rules. In response, VDACS told applicants in May the agency could no longer issue poker permits.

That prompted Lessin’s lawsuit, which argued the agency should have given his charity a poker permit because the regulations had taken effect before legislators stopped them.

A Richmond judge disagreed, faulting the agency for not fully processing Lessin’s application but concluding no one has an inherent right to a state-issued poker permit. That ruling came in August.

Undeterred, Lessin opened Pop’s Poker in early September, where games are held from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Sundays. They take place at the same South Richmond address where Lessin and other board members held official business meetings last year to write the poker rules.

Top players at Pop’s Poker can spend around 10 hours per day at the tables, according to leaderboards posted online. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In an interview, Lessin said he’s running his new venture as if the regulations were in place. But he doesn’t plan to file disclosure reports with VDACS. If he did, he says, the agency probably wouldn’t accept them.

Lessin argues that because legislators passed a law allowing charitable poker with regulations coming later, that by itself made charitable poker legal as of July 2020. If legislators wanted everyone to wait for the regulations, he said, they could have made that clear in the bill. But it wasn’t.

“I waited, and I didn’t want to do it,” Lessin said. “Now, in my opinion, everything’s out the window.”

Chuck Lessin, the chairman of Virginia’s Charitable Gaming Board, has been involved in bingo for decades. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

The tumultuous beginning of charitable poker in Virginia may have gone largely unnoticed because some see little harm in people playing cards for money when they’ll be able to do it at casinos soon anyway. But some policymakers see it as a stunning failure of good-government principles, one that warrants a serious reevaluation of the state’s fragmented gambling laws and how they’re enforced.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, an ex-cop who began sounding the alarm about overreaches by the charitable gaming industry after seeing slots-like bingo machines in places they shouldn’t be, said he wants to stop what he sees as obvious self-dealing.

“If people get locked up because of that, then shame on them,” said Reeves, who’s serving on a joint legislative subcommittee studying charitable gaming.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, the subcommittee’s chairman, said pausing poker was meant to allow a fresh look at how the industry is regulated. The poker rooms opening up despite the freeze, he said, cut against that…

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