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It was a quote handed down through several generations, so it’s possible that the deputy said, “If you play poker, you deserve to get rubbed.” That would make sense. We leather-assed grinders get many a knot in our collective back. A ten-hour session is the perfect excuse for a rub-down. If we play poker, we deserve to get a massage.

However, by the time the quote reached me through the poker community’s version of the Telephone Game, it sounded like, “If you play poker, you deserve to get robbed.”

That’s not nearly as nice a sentiment.

The most recent robbery turned shooting–this time in the Big Apple–drew, not surprisingly, national news attention. Though the same thing had happened in Florida a few weeks before, the sanghoki Underground scene piqued the interest of big time media. Around these parts, robberies and the enforcement of street law don’t make the news. Maybe they don’t need to. After all, though the second half of this year has seen the most violent poker scene in G-Vegas history, it’s not the big city and few people outside the tight-knit poker community care. However, when somebody like Frank DeSena dies, everyone pays attention. And they should, because no matter whether it happens in a big city high rise or a backwoods trailer, events like these are a reflection of the community we love and the problems it faces.

In the eyes of the law, we who have or currently play in underground poker games are no better than people who deal drugs, engage in prostitution, or run illegal liquor houses. We are lawbreakers. We are scofflaws. We are a thorn in their gunbelts.

F-Train and Ed Miller faced off on the topic. I tend to agree with them both, if that’s possible. At the risk of inserting myself into unwelcome territory, I offer the following.

The Greenville County Deputy who allegedly said, “If you play poker, you deserve to get robbed” is right, or, at least close to it.

***

A couple of years ago, I hosted the Bradoween Invitational tournament. It was a no-juice event in which I charged nothing for food or drink. Everyone in the event, all 43 of them (the max I could fit in my house) was a friend. It was a social gathering played more for bragging rights than cash.

I still put a lookout on the front steps.

Why? Well, despite its social atmosphere and lack of juice, it was illegal. Had the local constabulary decided it was a day to make an example of somebody, deputies could’ve raided my house and cited us all for illegal gambling.

I, of course, would’ve been furious. However, looking at it through a bigger frame, I would not have had much reason to be. It would’ve been no different than a minor being cited for possession of alcohol or someone being picked up for simple possession. They may not be laws we agree with, but they are laws.

Local law enforcement does not–or should not, anyway–have the luxury of subjectivism. Their’s is not the role of interpreting the law. At the risk of losing their jobs, they have to enforce the law or else. If they know of something illegal taking place and chose to turn a blind eye, they will have to answer for their subjective approach to law enforcment.

To wit: The underground scene in G-Vegas flourished for the past two years. Hardly a month passed without a new game popping up somewhere in the Upstate. We could play any night of the week for as high of stakes as we chose and we rarely worried about getting raided.

One night, though, as it drew close to midnight, I sat in the three seat at the Gaelic Game. Two guys walked in and got on the list. I couldn’t take my eyes off one of the guys. His face was so familiar, and everything in my mind was screaming, “Cop!” Finally, it hit me. He was a key witness in one of the biggest murder trials I ever covered. He had been in law enforcement. Last I heard, he had left the force and left town. Now, he was back.

I told the host of the game and was later told everything was okay. Still, I didn’t feel right. When G-Rob got there, I told him what I thought. He investigated and confirmed that my read was right, though the former law enforcment officer claimed to no longer carry a badge.

That was the worst it ever got until the hijackers got involved and popped the Black Stallion. Word spread quickly through the community that guns had been involved. Now, it was no longer a matter of whether illegal poker games were being played in town. It was a matter of whether somebody was going to get killed. Sure enough, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office came down hard and put the word out that anybody else running a game was going to be taken down, as well.

I don’t blame the Sheriff’s Office at all. As it happens, I have a number of friends and associates for whom I have a lot of respect who work inside that office. What’s more, I know the Sheriff and have just as much respect for him. It was an odd place for me to be. On one hand, I was a regular at the local poker games for more than two years. On the other hand, I was a former cop beat news reporter who had respect for the hard work the deputies put in. It actually caused me problems when I first started getting into the scene. People knew who I was, who I worked for, and what kind of stories I regularly covered.

One night in a nearby city, I was an unknown in a game and attending without my regular running buddies. People kept looking at me sideways until one of them said, “I got it. You’re XXX. You work for XXX.” My stomach knotted up. “You here on some kind of investigation?”

I talked my way out of it, but it wasn’t without a little sweating. Soon, most of those people would become my friends and it became more of a joke than anything else.

Now, there is no joking. The poker scene here is in serious trouble. To be honest, if I wanted to find a game right now, it would take several calls and likely finding someone to vouch for me. Even then, I’m not even sure if I could get a game.

And you know what? I don’t want one anymore. I am one of a few people I know who have definitively sworn off underground poker. That’s a real bitch to say, but it’s the truth. I have played in the back of strip clubs, basement bars, country clubs, old houses, new houses, and warehouses. I have stories from every one. It wasn’t just a part of me. It was me for a couple of years. Giving it up is like saying goodbye to a girl you love, not to mention saying goodbye to some of the best sex of your life.

Now, the poker I play will be restricted to friendly home games, legal brick and mortar casinos, and whatever other legal means of playing I can find. You can read the above however you want. I’ll summarize: I’m going to play poker where my chance of getting shot or arrested is as close to zero as possible.

A lot of people may accuse me of giving up the fight. That’s not the case. There was a time when Outlaw-Lite fit me pretty well. I enjoyed it. However, now I have a kid who has shown me he needs me around. I have a wife with a face on which I now recognize actual worry. In short, it just ain’t worth it. But giving up? Not so much. Most of us aren’t outlaws or road gamblers who fade the white line. No, we’re basically suburban dads, teachers, salesmen, firefighters, and retirees who enjoy the game. We don’t make our living off poker and that’s why we can’t get up the gumption to fight.

See, I still believe in poker. I still believe poker shouldn’t be illegal. However, I can’t blame the cops for busting the games. Furthermore, I can’t even blame the robbers for jacking the games. It’s easy money and the chances of getting arrested are pretty slim. I hope they get what’s coming to them, but I don’t blame them.

The people I can blame are my state legislators. They actively refuse to consider amending South Carolina’s antiquated gambling laws. They continue to allow our law (which makes it illegal to play Sorry! or Monopoly on Sunday) to exist as it sits on the books. While some amendments to the code have been introduced by more elightened lawmakers, they have been disregarded by the state legislature at large. The only way to get the law changed to is mount an impressive and expensive lobbying effort. Based on the video poker debacle a few years back (annother story for another day), I contend we are very far from the goal of making live poker legal in the Palmetto State. I’ll be happy to support any effort with money and whatever other meager talents I have. However, my read right now is that such an effort is -EV.

Already, two regular rounders here (the kind who do, in fact, make most of their living off the game) have made the decision to leave the state and go somewhere where lawmakers appreciate that poker is not a community parasite. These two guys have made the right decision and, for better or worse, I applaud their decision.

As for me, I’ve never really been a poker player anyway. I’m a guy who plays the game with varying levels of success. I love the game and will feel a hollow spot where the underground games used to be.

But that’s better than feeling a hollow spot where my internal organs used to be.

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