In restaurants like Beef O'Brady's and Pappas Ranch, in beach bars and sports grills across Tampa Bay, droves of people show up with their own poker chips and tabletops to play cards.
Players in these free poker leagues view the games as harmless entertainment, since wagering is not allowed.
But Saturday afternoon, state agents assisted by Largo police officers interrupted a monthly Texas Hold 'Em tournament at Louie's Grill and Sports Bar, 7924 Ulmerton Road.
Agents told the 140 players to keep their hands on the tables. After a months-long undercover investigation dubbed Operation Cracked Aces, the owner and five employees of the Nutz Poker League were arrested, accused of working for a gambling house. The restaurant owner was charged with keeping a gambling house.
"It was something out of a bad movie, with masks and guns out," said player Tom Hood, 56, of Tarpon Springs. "They made everyone feel like we were really criminals."
Nutz is one of three major bay-area businesses operating free poker leagues that boast thousands of members. The arrests have shocked players, who insist that since they don't pay to play, the games aren't gambling.
Except that's not what state laws appear to say.
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The 3-year-old Nutz Poker League runs games at up to five venues each day. This month's online rankings show 435 active Nutz players.
At daily games, players might win a restaurant gift certificate for $5 to $20. Monthly tournament prizes might be a vacation or Visa gift card. Winners of semi-annual championships could get a trip to Las Vegas.
Restaurants pay the league to operate the games. For example, Phoenix Bar and Grill in Clearwater pays Nutz an amount equal to 30 percent of players' food and drink purchases.
Because of the ongoing investigation, the state declined to elaborate on what prompted Saturday's arrests. Jail affidavits cited Chapter 849 of Florida Statutes, which prohibits any gaming operation that "permits any person to play for money or other valuable thing at any game."
The big question is whether this type of free poker qualifies as illegal gambling. Generally, yes, said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Joshua Riba.
"If they are playing cards, and they have an opportunity to win something of value, then they are technically violating this particular gambling statute," he said.
Most card games, including poker, are considered games of chance and therefore gambling under state law, Riba said. And gambling isn't permitted anywhere except where it's expressly allowed. In Tampa Bay, there are three state-licensed pari-mutuel establishments with card rooms — Derby Lane, Tampa Bay Downs and Tampa Greyhound Track — in addition to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.
A wager does not factor in at all: "The statute itself does not require anybody to ante in," Riba said.
A free poker league like Nutz isn't protected by the state's exemption for penny-ante games, either. That applies to low-stakes games in a dwelling, legalized years after the infamous 1981 "Largo Eight" raid. In that case, eight elderly men were arrested for gambling in nickle-and-dime poker games at their mobile home park clubhouse.
State laws allow bingo, raffles and games such as McDonald's Monopoly. One section could protect nonprofits that hold fundraising casino nights where all proceeds benefit charity.
But poker is mostly banned. Tallahassee-based lawyer Marc Dunbar represents gaming establishments and teaches gambling and pari-mutuel law at Florida State University College of Law. He says Nutz players could be slapped with misdemeanor gambling charges, but law enforcement is more likely to impose felony charges on those who run the games.
"That's usually a little more persuasive to get people to stop doing what they're doing," he said.
Poker laws, Dunbar says, aren't well understood or well enforced. And there is no dedicated state agency to help local law enforcement decipher confusing state gambling laws.
"That criticism," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, "lays on our shoulders."
Weatherford, the incoming House speaker, wants to re-examine the state's ambiguous gambling laws, adding, "there needs to be what I've called an adult conversation of what gaming should look like in the state."
Without answers from the state about what specific activities overstepped the law, the local poker community is confused. Another bay area business that operates a free poker league, Treasure Chest Poker, has attempted to contact state authorities to check its policies.
"Of course there's going to be some kind of apprehension that we get swept up in the undertow," said owner Shawn Dean, 30, of Clearwater. "We really try to push hard to make sure we're 100 percent clear from the legality standpoint."
Within days of the arrests, the other major poker league, Free Poker Nights of Tampa, had left its flier at a bar where Nutz played.
Nutz has denied wrongdoing, its Facebook page filling with disbelief as players defended Nutz.
"We don't understand what's the law," said Pat Crawford, 67, of East Lake. "The league's been going on for years and all of a sudden it's against the law?"
Nutz owner Richard Danford, 46, of Tampa, said the Nutz league received no warning that it was violating state law.
"Had there been even a sniff or a phone call or a cease-and-desist order, we would have stopped at once," said Danford, who was among those charged.
The Tampa Bay Times reached out to the others who were arrested Saturday. Largo restaurant owner Louis Karamanos, 57, said he wasn't involved with the poker league and felt violated by his arrest.
Jina Gelineau, 49, of Clearwater; Vicki Gillespy, 48, of Dunedin; and Debra Matula, 54, of Clearwater did not return messages. Danford's father, 64-year-old Roy, and 39-year-old Terri-Lee Katini of Hudson did not want to speak with a reporter.
In a statement Thursday, the league said, "These innocent activities should not be the target of tyrannical enforcement and these matters will be defended vigorously, with the goal of swiftly resuming this lawful and beneficial activity."
By Thursday, after a brief hiatus, the league website announced that free poker was back.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]