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Hard Rock launches casino-style card games

The ace dropped on the player's jack. Another blackjack on the first day of previously banned card games at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Casino. "God bless America,'' said Scott from Tampa, in the midst of winning nearly $5,000 in 90 minutes. "I love the Indians." He started into a version of the Twist.

Without a single billboard or news release, the Seminole Tribe of Florida launched the Tampa Bay area's only casino-style games of blackjack, baccarat and poker variants at 104 card tables before dawn Thursday.

By noon, customers crowded tables to play Let It Ride and Texas Hold 'Em for minimum bets of $10. Sixty-eight tables are designated for blackjack. But with bets at most tables starting at $25 or higher, blackjack players were scarce.

Still, there was plenty of buzz as word got out among regulars — many of whom like Scott didn't want to give their last names — that the long-awaited card games were finally on.

"Tampa Hard Rock always has a whole lot of energy,'' said James Allen, chief executive of Seminole Gaming. "This just takes it to a higher level.''

The tribe expanded its $1-billion-plus gambling empire last year by signing a deal, called a compact, with Gov. Charlie Crist. The 25-year agreement let the Seminoles offer Las Vegas-style slot machines and "banked" card games such as blackjack where gamblers play against the house.

The slots are spinning in all but one of the tribe's seven casinos, including Tampa. Card games debuted June 22 at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood in a flashy event that included a ceremonial guitar smashing by rocker Rob Patterson and an appearance by entertainer Carmen Electra.

Eleven days later, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a challenge to the compact by legislative leaders. Justices ruled that Crist overstepped his authority by allowing the card games.

The games have continued. As a sovereign nation, the tribe isn't under the state's authority. Seminole leaders "look forward to working with Gov. Crist, the House and Senate to resolve any issues regarding the legality of the compact,'' Allen said Thursday.

Attorney General Bill McCollum contends the new games are now illegal. "They're not pulling them back, and they're not maintaining the status quo,'' said Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for McCollum. "They're expanding them.''

Crist was briefed on the Tampa launch Thursday. "We'll look forward to working with the Legislature to see if we can reach a compact," he said in Miami. Asked if the tribe's decision was premature, Crist said, "I have to get more details on it."

The tribe hired 1,000 new workers to run the local card games, Allen said, bringing employment at Tampa Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to 2,800.

Derby Lane, the venerable greyhound track in St. Petersburg, lost customers when the Hard Rock got slot machines in April, says vice president Richard Winning.

The track and other local pari-mutuels host poker where players compete against each other, but not the Hard Rock's poker variants played against the house like Let It Ride , Pai Gow and Texas Hold 'Em Bonus Poker.

The novelty of games will likely take another bite from the track's business, he predicted. "Every time you offer something new, people want to test it out,'' said Winning.

But Mike Florian and Bob Collier, two retired cops from Buffalo, N.Y., said blackjack games were too rich for guys with $100 to gamble. "I'd play if games were $5 minimum,'' said Florian of Palmetto. "But I haven't seen any.'

Dealers will adjust minimums if play is slow, especially during off-peak hours, said Gary Bitner, a tribe spokesman. But on evenings or weekends minimum bets could go up and people may have to wait to play, especially in the busy winter season, he said.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Hard Rock launches casino-style card games 11/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 6:35pm]

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