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Face of poker to change, thanks to new state law

For parimutuel players, it means bigger wins, or a royal flush of the bank account. Some predict more excitement; some, more addiction.

Published August 7, 2003

TAMPA - Sixty-eight-year-old Burt Bernstein reached across the poker table, gently put his hand on his girlfriend's right arm and interrupted her.

"Wait a second, hon," he said to Lee Lantz. "When they raise the stakes, all you do is play different. Run like a bat out of hell if you don't have the cards. That's the way you do it."

But Lantz, 66, just shook her head. "I don't think I'll play right away," she said. "That $10 limit was just right for me."

And therein lies the dilemma.

Now that a measure allowing higher stakes in poker games at dog tracks and jai alai frontons has become law, the pots may not be the only thing that change.

Not only could most parimutuel facilities in the state add card rooms (15 of the state's 24 parimutuels now operate without them), but small-time players, mostly elderly people who play for recreation, could be edged out by more serious gamblers.

The new law eliminates the $10 per game pot limit and replaces it with a $2 bet limit and a maximum of three raises per round. But the number of rounds in a hand won't be limited.

With the demise of the $10 pot limit, experts say players could win (or lose) as much as $200 a hand.

Change already is on the way to two of Tampa Bay's three parimutuels: Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and the Tampa Greyhound Track in Tampa.

The Tampa Greyhound Track will add the higher-stakes games this week. Derby Lane plans to do the same when its racing season opens in January.

A spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Downs thoroughbred track in Oldsmar, which does not have a card room, said the track was reviewing the new law and had not yet decided whether to add poker tables. The law requires approval from the county commission before a card room can be opened.

Opponents of the measure, which became law Tuesday night without Gov. Jeb Bush's signature, fear the higher stakes will hurt the people who can least afford it. Especially the elderly.

According to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, seniors make up about 17 percent of the 600 calls per month to the organization's help line. Calls from women have doubled since 1992, and 35 percent of callers admitted to committing illegal acts to fund their gambling, the council reports.

"We're not against any gambling," said Paul Ashe, the council's founder and president, "but any time you expand gambling, you've got to provide for the treatment of those adversely affected. And they are. Federal studies show that 10 to 15 percent of people will have a problem with gambling.

"So if they're going to expand, take 1 percent of the profits and give it to the gambling assistance programs. Because if you don't provide for those adversely affected, you're fooling yourself."

The parimutuels see the higher stakes simply as a way to make the game of poker more exciting without being overly dangerous.

"It's going to allow people to actually play cards now," said Vera Filipelli, director of media relations at Derby Lane. "They can play poker the way it was intended to play. Before, when you're raising someone a quarter, it's not a lot of fun. This will be more of a challenge than that.

"It's not like we're going to see millions of dollars roll in. But it will mean the purses will go up a little, and we expect attendance to increase."

It's not just parimutuels that could raise the stakes. Cruise ships and Seminole Indian casinos also offer poker. The Seminole tribe, which takes in more than $300-million from its five gaming casinos, including one in Tampa, has low-stakes poker similar to that at the parimutuels.

"We'll continue to mirror the legal gaming laws in Florida," said Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner, "and although there is no specific plan for a change as a result of the law, it undoubtedly will mean a change at the Seminole casinos."

What that would be, Bitner said, will depend on the tribal council.

Bernstein and Lantz, both retired, have been coming to Lucky's Card Room at the Tampa Greyhound Track since it opened six years ago. They had been friends for years, and after the death of both of their spouses, they left Queens, N.Y., and settled in Clearwater.

They bet on the greyhounds, but mostly, they like to sit at two of the eight green felt poker tables with their coffee and their friends and play seven-card stud. If they're lucky, $20 can last all afternoon.

They know "about 99 percent" of the other players and rarely miss more than a few days. They were involved in a serious car accident Monday that left Lantz with several stitches in her arm.

But here they were on Wednesday afternoon, hoping for an inside straight and agonizing over a 50 cent bet.

"I just got four 10s and a full house," Lantz said proudly. "I was shaking. I'm a winner."

Card room rules

THE STAKES: $2 bet limit with a maximum three raises per round, eliminating the $10 per game pot limit. The number of rounds in a hand won't be limited.

WHERE TO PLAY: Horse tracks may add poker rooms. Thoroughbred tracks previously had to choose between evening simulcasting and running a card room. Dog tracks and jai alai frontons were never bound by that restriction.

REGULATION: The law continues to require approval from individual county commissions before a card room can be opened.

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