Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Game legality murky... Cribbage players run afoul of state law

From the Kenebec Journal Morning Sentinel:

AUGUSTA -- Cribbage players are confused.
Lawmakers are confused.

And Maine State Police say rules governing games of chance are anything but easy to explain.

Two weeks ago, a state inspector shut down cribbage games and tournaments at American Legion Post 4 in Gardiner.

The inspector told players their game was illegal because the Legion did not have a license to host games of chance.

Since an article about Post 4 appeared in the Kennebec Journal last week, Sgt. William Gomane of the State Police said he has been "fielding calls" from the public.

"These rules are not easy to understand and it's hard to explain to people," Gomane said. "Without knowing the circumstance, it's difficult to say (if a game is legal or illegal). If it's a community center and it's social gambling, it's legal. If you went to a place where you have sports betting in a for-profit bar, it's illegal."


So what is social gambling?

Title 17-A: Maine Criminal Code Chapter 39 Unlawful Gambling, says: "Social gambling is gambling, or a contest of chance, in which the only participants are players and from which no person or organization receives or becomes entitled to receive something of value or any profit whatsoever, directly or indirectly, other than as a player, from any source, fee, remuneration connected with said gambling, or such activity as arrangements or facilitation of the game, or permitting the use of premises, or selling or supplying for profit refreshments, food, drink service or entertainment of participants, players or spectators."

Quite a mouthful.

Some people, including Post 4 American Legion Cmdr. Bob Mckay and Rep. Earle McCormick R-West Gardiner, believe the rules were part of a bill that passed in the last Legislative session that dealt with Texas hold 'em card games.

The bill granted charities the right to run Texas hold 'em tournaments six times a year.

"I think that bill did change the licensing fees, but it was primarily for Texas hold 'em and high stakes beno," McCormick said recently. (The American Legion's) intent is to provide a place for people to play. Are you violating the law? I don't understand it. But we'll get to the bottom of how (State Police) are interpreting (the law) and if it should be interpreted differently and enforced differently. It seems like they're enforcing this pretty aggressively."


The Gardiner Legion wasn't the only veterans' organization visited by a state inspector.

Al Michaud, quarter master at the Waterville Veterans of Foreign War, said cribbage is no longer played at that post since a state inspector stopped in.

The Augusta VFW also pulled its boards.

Shawn O'Conner, quartermaster at that VFW, said his post has no intention of applying for a game of chance license. It's too expensive.

The post could purchase a special license for just $7.50 a year, provided it charged no more than $1 a person and players did not gamble even a penny. Otherwise, a yearly license is $700.

"The rules are there; we don't understand them," O'Conner said. "(Cribbage) is like playing monopoly or dominos. We don't know where the law came from. They just made it up. In Waterville, they went in and confiscated their cribbage boards and cards. They were just playing for fun and not having a tournament or anything. Just a couple of guys playing at the bar."

Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner, said it's not only veterans who are being hurt by this law; senior citizen and community centers also are feeling the pinch. And what about all the office sports pools and bars and taverns that supply cribbage boards for their customers, he said. Are they illegal?

For years, on Old Hallowell Day, organizers have held a cribbage tournament.

"It's a big deal," City Councilor Phillip Lindley said. "There's money involved and prizes."

Gomane said without knowing the circumstances, it would be difficult to say whether those games are legal.

Cribbage had been played for more than a year every other Friday at the American Legion Post 40 in Winthrop until Eleanor Harrington, who runs the games, read in the newspaper that they might be in violation. "We're not going to take a chance," Harrington said. "We always have it downstairs. There's no bar or any food. We just play cribbage. I don't think we were doing anything illegal, but I don't know. In the meantime, we're stopping. I feel so bad for these people. They just love it. Ninety-nine percent of them are elderly people. I'm 74. There's not much we can do to go out and have fun. And playing cribbage is fun."


Hanley said he has received numerous calls from cribbage players, some who play every Tuesday at the Buker Center in Augusta and others every Monday at the Cohen Center in Hallowell. "This hasn't died down," Hanley said. "It isn't just the vets groups. I went down to Hannaford Bros. to get a few things and it took me two and a half hours to get out of there. Everyone was hitting me up on this saying don't you people have something better to do."

Hanley said he will be working with his legislative aide to craft emergency legislation that will exempt veterans' organizations from licensing fees so their members and spouses can play cribbage at their posts.

The Legislature reconvenes in January.

"They've given a lot to their country in different services," he said. "If they want to go over and play cards, it's not the state's business if they want to wager money. Let them. Who cares. We're not talking big money. The state doesn't need to be grabbing a percentage of that. Let them play cards."

Gov. John Baldacci agrees.

Speaking on behalf of the governor, David Farmer said the governor believes the law is outdated and needs to be modernized. Farmer said the key to this law is that it has to do with establishments where liquor and food is sold and cribbage games and tournaments are used to make money.

"It clearly wasn't what was going on at the American Legion and we need to fix that," Farmer said. "We're going to have to do it through the law, but the governor has asked the Department of Public Safety to work on a fix. I'm not sure what that will mean or what it will look like, but it clearly needs to be modernized. It needs to take into account levels of harmless activity."

Mechele Cooper -- 623-3811, Ext. 408


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