Charity Gambling May Fold

City examining legislation after crackdown on fundraising events
such as poker
Gilroy – A recent crackdown on charity poker events by the Department of Justice has led to the possible cancellation of at least one of the city’s fundraising activities and may prevent thousands of dollars from ever reaching local charities. The real losers in the possible cancellation of charity poker tournaments are the children, the poor and the seniors who benefit from the events, organizers said.

Last month, the Almaden Business Association was forced to cancel its charity poker tournament benefiting the Almaden Library, in south San Jose.

Now, the status of Super Showdown – the fourth of the Gilroy Community Services Department’s recreation poker series that benefits youth and senior programs – is up in the air as staff revisit legislation to see how to proceed.

“Every hour was donated – including mine – every product was donated, every pizza and sandwich were donated so that every dollar in entry fees went to the three programs,” said event organizer and Adult Sports Coordinator Bob Burch. So far, “several thousand dollars” has been raised in the three tournaments.

The recent rise in popularity of Texas Hold ‘Em style poker is what fueled the idea – only, the winner goes home without the pot.

“We’re doing something good for the city and we’re having fun at the same time,” said Sonya Dennis, who has played in all three tournaments. “My mindset is we want to raise as much money as we can for these groups.”

Dennis has rotated which group receives her entry fee each tournament and is planning to volunteer as a dealer at the next.

“I think as long as the people (playing) do not receive a monetary prize and the organization can prove to tax authorities that the money went directly towards the cost and the organization it was supporting, that there should be no problem,” Dennis said.

Eighteen corporate sponsors funded the events, donating everything from the cheesecake players ate to the T-shirts they received.

According to Burch, the poker tournaments are the first activities that qualify with all 13 points he considers when proposing a new adult activity to the community services department – they even have Braille cards for the blind.

But Gilroy’s community services programs are not the only beneficiaries of local gaming events.

For the past four years, the American Association of University Women has held a fundraiser for scholarships. In February, they introduced a Texas Hold ‘Em style poker tournament to the event, which fostered the best attendance rate and helped garner more than $900.

“It increased attention to our charity and raised a lot of money and it attracted attention to our organization,” said member Susan Patereau.

Players paid $25 at door and gambled with chips for donated prizes.

“It’s not about the money,” she explained. “No money is attached to the players or received by the players … We feel very comfortable going forward because it’s not gambling.”

But despite the fact that all the money raised from the poker tournaments is turned over to programs benefiting children, teens and seniors – the practice is against the law.

“It’s illegal. Isn’t it kind of sad?” said Steve Lowney, a Santa Clara County District Attorney. “Until recently, church raffles were operating illegally until they were exempted under the law, but there’s no parallel exemption for poker. The best thing for people to do is write to their legislators. In the meantime, we expect that people will follow the law.”

Assembly member Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont) introduced AB 839 in February that would amend current law to allow non-profit organizations to conduct fundraisers for other non-profits using controlled games as a form of funding. The bill was supported by the Department of Justice and would require that 98 percent of the funds earned go towards the charity.

However, the bill died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is expected to be revived next year, said Nathan Barankin, a spokesperson for the Attorney General.

Only three non-profits supported the measure and supporters are hoping more will join in the revival process. But until the law is revised, charity poker tournaments are out.

“The California law is harsh,” Barankin said. “Basically what it says is if you want to engage in organizing card games, you have to be a licensed card dealer or Indian tribe. If it’s a non-profit, the only type of gambling you can offer is a raffle.”

While the law may be clear to some, many organizations running the charity events are unaware of the law.

“It’s depressing. We had no idea,” said Renee Robles, who helps coordinate the South County Realtors Association’s annual fundraiser.

They expect to raise $2,000 for the local food banks from a poker tournament they are introducing at their Inaugural benefit.

Players buy into the tournament with a $100 fee that is turned over to charity.

“It’s all given back to the community – 100 percent,” Robles explained. “The needy, the community, the less fortunate – those are the people who are going to be missing out.”

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