West Valley Poker Rooms Raided in Gaming Investigation; Chips, Tables and Cash Seized

Categories: Gambling

Photo illustration: New Times
Five storefront poker operations in the west Valley were raided on Thursday evening as part of a months-long investigation into suspected illegal gaming.

As New Times reported last December in our cover story, "Off the Reservation," numerous poker operations around the Valley -- almost all on the west side -- have remained open in the past few years despite warnings by authorities and the successful prosecutions of poker activist Harold Lee and others in the business.

With these new raids, it looks like the Arizona Department of Gaming is once again getting serious about the off-reservation game-playing.

See also:
- Off the Reservation: Barely Noticed by Cops, Non-Tribal Poker Rooms Thrive in Phoenix

For-profit poker tables can only be operated on Indian reservations with gaming compacts that allow them, officials say. Yet enthusiasts like former Justice of the Peace Lee claim that poker is still legal under Arizona law, and if it's not, it should be. Police disagree: Following a raid on a Surprise poker room affiliated with Lee, he was charged with conspiracy, illegal conduct of an enterprise, and giving advice or assistance to a gambling operation -- all felonies. As our article details, Lee was convicted in February of 2012.

In the latest raids, agents from the Arizona Department of Gaming, Maricopa County Attorney's Office, Phoenix Police Department, Department of Public Safety and the Glendale Police Department took part in the enforcement action. The locations raided were:

Pocket Rockets (13048 W. Rancho Santa Fe Road, Suites 115 &
117, Avondale); Cracked Aces (15224 N. 59th Avenue, Suite 14, Glendale); AZ Poker
Supply (6003 N. 43rd Avenue, Phoenix); Poker Play (4494 W. Peoria Avenue, Glendale);
and Joker Social Club (3519 W. Northern Avenue, Phoenix).

Poker tables, chips, about $5,000 in cash and other equipment from the clubs were seized, the gaming department says. Two people were arrested on charges unrelated to the clubs, but cops are gathering names and evidence for potential prosecution, clearly.

The investigations began under the regime of former gaming department director Mark Brnovich, who's now running for state attorney general. After he resigned to pursue his candidacy in September, Governor Jan Brewer appointed interim director Daniel Bergin in his place. Bergin's position was made official this week. (Jelena Momich, gaming department spokeswoman, says the fact that the raids happened the same week Bergin was made the official director is a coincidence.)

Whether the five raids will chill the many other active poker rooms on the west side remains to be seen.

Image: Victor J. Palagano III
Harold Lee
John Schnaubelt, Lee's friend and a fellow poker activist, has been trying in the past couple of years to convince local cities that they can legally authorize poker rooms outside of the reservations. None have moved forward with the idea. In the meantime, Schnaubelt has waged a crusade against several of the clubs, accusing them of operating illegally -- even though he once ran a similar club. Though some in the industry accused Schnaubelt of trying to get revenge on his former competitors, Schnaubelt claims his strategy is to force closures of the apparently illegal clubs in order to drum up support among poker players, who he figures will be upset when they have no place to go but the reservations.

Schaubelt runs a website, phoenixpokerclubs, that has details about many local clubs, including several of those involved in Thursday's raids.

Poker purists don't like reservation poker, Lee and Schnaubelt say, because the dealers are allowed to skim off the jackpot for the casino and players must pay per-hand to play in some cases. But state law states that no one outside of the authorized tribes is permitted to profit, directly or indirectly, from poker.

In other words, you can play with your buddies for poker, but you can't take a cut for the house, sell food or merchandise, or do anything else that creates a profit.

The apparent quasi-legal nature of some of the clubs -- are they just a bunch of guys and gals playing cards for money who chip in to pay rent for the storefront, or savvy business-people running mini-casinos? -- has probably helped make enforcement difficult.

If the past is any indication, several people involved in the recent raids may face charges or end up with convictions -- and things will quiet down again for the remaining clubs, at least for a while.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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The indictments and charges are starting to come in on the cardrooms raided back in December 2013. 4 of 5 have been charged, and the arraignments are proceeding through early April. So far, all have plead not guilty. After State vs. Lee, the State's plea agreements should be pretty sweet, but we'll see. I still laugh at "attempted promotion of illegal gambling" a Class 6 felony.

If State v. Lee taught us anything, it's that you'll do better if you don't turn state's evidence and defend yourself even without a public defender or a lawyer. Lee was given a year of unsupervised probation and no fine, plus a free appeal. The two owners that turned state's evidence against Lee received fines and 1.5 years of supervised probation and other "plea agreement" restitution.

I think these 5 cardroom operators should band together as one defense, since the charges are all the same, why waste 4x the taxpayers money justice system? 

And I think the defense should seriously consider limining all ADG evidence because public records requests do not turn up a joint and cooperative agreement as required in title 5 of the ARS for ADG to do anything with any public agency outside of investigating what a gambling device is (13-3306). Then there are the affirmative defenses of Justification, Necessity, and Consent. Consent is my favorite... the alleged "victims" in the "illegal benefit" that voids the social exclusion, paid operators and/or tipped dealers voluntarily, right? Justification and Necessity are a little stickier but still worth a shot. I still think if the ADG evidence was obtained without the proper administrative channels signing off on the joint task force, that the State will be hard pressed to pursue any of the cases against these rooms, because 99% of the work in these investigations was done by ADG, and 99% of the investigative undercover work was looking for something above and beyond 13-3306 violations.

I. The director of the department of gaming may enter into a contract or agreement with any public agency for any joint and cooperative action as provided in title 11, chapter 7, article 3.

J. The department of gaming may investigate violations of section 13-3306 that occur on non-Indian lands in this state and may cooperate with appropriate law enforcement authorities and prosecutorial agencies in the investigation and prosecution of these violations.

I know that most, if not all, ADG agents are also AZ-POST certified, meaning they are authorized to act as normal peace officers... but still, where is the probable cause?


Nearly 4 weeks since these raids took place. Today, at least one is already back up and running, business as usual (Joker's), and a new, very busy cardroom has now opened in Avondale directly across from the sheriff's substation (!), with rumors of another Avondale cardroom opening soon as well.

Like I said earlier, it would be foolish, not just a waste of taxpayer's money, but political suicide imo, for Bill Montgomery to try to pursue any charges against these operators. Maricopa County has done their job, they've shut 'em down... but oh wait, they are popping back up and get off scott-free with 10s of thousands pocketed in the process. Nothing could further the "cash grab" mindset of these illicit and questionably legal operations than not even getting the traditional slap on the wrist by law enforcement.

What has me concerned now is that one of the raided operators reported to me that they received a call from an unknown source offering to "keep your game off ADoG's radar for $800 a month", and now two unrelated sources tell me that the Assyrian room at 7th Ave and Union Hills is "paying off the DoG". Well, it's hard to believe it, but it sure makes sense now, how one room can be operating for 5 years, with ADoG and Phoenix PD fully aware of what they are doing, while another room, barely open 6 months and refusing to be extorted, gets rolled by the DoG. Very disturbing, but not something new. Kickbacks by gambling houses to law enforcement have been the normal way of doing things since Bugsy Siegal ruled the LV strip in the 1940s.

Should be interesting to see how long O'Hara's operation across the street from the Sheriff's substation is allowed to operate. 


Just curious Ray; how much of the BIA cartel's tainted revenues are you slugs at NT laundering annually Ray?


Once again the same media whores at NT that failed to cover my trial or note for the public any of the defenses proffered by me, have intentionally failed to mention that after being railroaded by the BIA gambling cartel police (the Arizona Department of Gaming) into an expensive eight day trial and obtaining a sham conviction on three felony counts --- that the court declined to impose anything more than a year of unsupervised probation with no fine or jail time. 

Regrettably, the very restrictive rules of evidence forbade me from establishing for the jury that the BIA felony gambling cartel and their privately funded police agency (the Arizona Department of Gaming) are unlawful, illicit, and amoral. However, to my good fortune the court became aware of the smarmy nature of this agency funded entirely by predatory gambling receipts. It is irrefutable that the so called gambling compact ordered by Congress in 1988 was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996, two years after it was signed by Governor Hull. It is also noteworthy that the Arizona Oath of Office commands that all the laws of Arizona be upheld anywhere int the State of Arizona, including the laws against rigged slot machines and all other forms of predatory gambling, including the ones on taxpayer owned BIA reservations. Frankly Ray I am ashamed of you this is piss poor journalism. .


Concerning where one games under guise of "I believe so should you"; WTF, take a drive to Vegas if you dislike the ARS's relating to gaming, try a twelve step or check into rehab if the urge is too strong that you get convicted. And a comparison of legal MM dispensaries versus illegal gaming rooms sounds illogical too. Makes a passerby to this corner of the NT and ask, "Who is smoking what and maybe one should pass it back to each other when you are done." BTW Feliz Navidad!

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

"numerous poker operations around the Valley -- almost all on the west side -- have remained open in the past few years despite warnings by authorities and the successful prosecutions of poker activist Harold Lee and others in the business."

Marijuana Dispensaries take note !!


To facilitate legislative change in getting off-rez poker regulated, we need to first know where we are at and where we could be. California's 88 licensed cardrooms in 2012 generated $880M in revenue. That revenue is taxed to the general state and municipal funds... not ear-marked for tourism, roads, education and other special interest funds like the BIA casino's 4% tithe is. Yes, 4%. It's actually closer to 5% after 10 years of data here in Arizona, But you need to realize that 1% of that is used to fund the ADoG and it's problem gambling program, funds that AZ wouldn't need if we didn't have gambling in the first place ;)

I asked ADoG's Momich for the aggregate poker revenue generated by the BIA tribes for the past 10 years. They report the aggregate Class III Net Win. Why not the aggregate poker revenue? Momich claimed they don't release proprietary information out of respect for Indian sovereignty. I'm not joking. And it's neither proprietary or sovereign. So I turned to the NIGC. Under the Freedom of Information Act, and only upon appeal of the initial denial, was I able to discover that in 2011, only 8 of Arizona's 17 tribal casinos even reported any poker revenue. And of those that did, the State's 4% tithe on the gross revenue amounted to $1.2M. Fractions of pennies.

This issue is ready to politicized. And poker is the world's most popular strategic competition, surpassing NASCAR, NFL, PGA, NBA combined. The BIA casinos operate in a shroud of secrecy, they have absolutely NO taxpayer oversight going on, and are churning out slot addicts at alarming rates. Poker is so different than the lottery, slots, blackjack... it's like Bingo, only predominantly skill, and based on calculated risk. 



Ray, dude... when I tip you off to the raids it's because I want details beyond what can be found at http://www.gm.state.az.us/pdf/investigategambling. Momich won't talk to me. Lead ADoG investigator Vigneault don't return my calls. Chief Intelligence Officer Nejo plays a fine game of cat and mouse. But dude, don't print that I have an active campaign going for closure of these rooms. I play in them. I advocate for them. I won't play in BIA casinos. You know why. I won't further the genocidal federal policies and lobbyist goals to continue to trap and use Native Americans. Not BIA employed natives, mind you, but those living in cardboard shacks with the 8th worst poverty levels in the entire world (the top 7 are in Africa) or the 2nd worst life expectancy rates in North America (Haiti is #1)... and IN OUR BACKYARDS! Nobody cares. It's the invisible 1%. Indians don't even care. Drunk and drugged for 180 years, they fear change. The devil we know.

And I've publicly offered to assist the raided room owners, gratis, in any way I can just like I did for Judge Lee. In State vs. Lee I sat beside Lee at the defense table. His court-appointed legal aide sat quietly behind us. 

Sure, Lee was convicted on all three high felony accounts, yes, but he received less way less punishment than the two cardroom owners that turned state's evidence and testified against him! The trial judge was pissed at the AG for wasting 8 days of his court time in a matter that should have been handled civilly, not criminally, and he didn't even fine Lee let alone give him any time behind bars (he was facing up to 18 years!). A slap on the wrist one-year of unsupervised probation and a triple felony conviction Lee wears as a badge of honor. The trial judge called him courageous and admired Lee's convictions.

Where's the investigative, independent-minded reporting getting the human interest side of this situation? No arrests? I doubt we see any too. ADoG just stole $100K (at least) of gear from these 5 poker rooms and made a couple of outstanding warrant arrests in the process (probably).

And the Tilted Jack was a co-operative Ray. Every member equal owner equal vote. One helluva lot different than the dozen or so rooms operating for the benefit of a private owner or ownership group.

www.ThePokerRevolution.com is the next phase. Amusement gambling + Social gambling. Those are the only two exclusions afforded Arizona's "non-Indian" citizens. The BIA Indians duped Arizona citizens with Prop 202 that passed by 20K votes to give them a monopoly on "regulated" poker games played in their BIA casinos. We have three cities willing to invoke their constitutional right to franchise TPR's contest in their jurisdiction. We want to get at least five to launch with as much media fanfare as possible about it. The alternative to BIA poker rooms will be big news, and there's nothing the ADoG can do about it because it's registered with the AG as amusement gambling. The entire registration can be found at the TPR website. It's proprietary, but we shared it with everyone, because revolutionary change like this takes a grassroots movement, comprised of poker players and freedom fighters, constitutionalists, real Americans... not one voice.

www.TheTecumsehFederation.org is the answer. Disband the moribund BIA, repeal the patently offensive Indian Removal Act, and finally, after 180 years as our federal wards and slaves impressed and trapped by the BIA in third world poverty, grant America's last remaining 1 million Native American reservation citizens fee simple title to their ancestral lands.

John Schnaubelt

Flyer9753 topcommenter

Yet another thing that should be regulated but not banned.

eric.nelson745 topcommenter

It doesn't appear to me that these guys are in competition with the injuns. Leave them alone.


@sangrevale Clearly you cannot distinguish between predatory chance gambling and strategic competition. Poker is perhaps the most beloved of those games that require skill and nuance. It is unquestionably the most popular game in the World. It is odd that the game of poker is not even mentioned in the Arizona Revised Statutes and for good reason it is not chance gambling. I refused to be bullied by the BIA crime cabal and faced down a three count felony indictment and in the end the court refused to punish me. Clearly the court saw my prosecution as a miscarriage of justice. Don't be misled by the BIA it is not a lawfully created agency. Or are you not the least bothered by the Indian Removal Act which empowered this insurgency over the Constitution. The BIA has been overseeing America's Killing Fields for nearly two centuries. Shame on you Sangrevale. . 


And why are only 8 of Arizona's BIA casinos reporting poker revenue?! I suspect because they have opted to self-regulate their Class II games. I spoke to the director of the NIGC field office in Phoenix a few years ago about who's regulating Arizona's poker rooms and he said the NIGC was. Not ADoG. I asked if he ever ran across ADoG agents auditing poker rooms and he said no, never. 

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@Flyer9753 ... only an idiot begs the Government to REGULATE anything they actually care about.


@eric.nelson745How is that the point?  But even if it were, if you are selling a product someone else is selling in the same general area, you are in competition with them. 


@judgeharoldlee I applaud you in you endeavors to sit around a table with a few other others and attempt to take each other's..Concerning what should be on me-shame-like a duck in the rain, your words slide off into the puddle of LMAO! Seriously though Merry X-mas, Happy New Year and please make sure you report earnings correctly to IRS next year, the NSA is watching!


Poker players and cardroom operators can self regulate their sport, just like the BIA casinos can, and just like the PGA and NFLPA et al.

We would like to see licensing ala Bingo and we'd like to be taxed as an amusement too. Taxation begets representation, and is what this country is founded upon.


@Jukes @eric.nelson745 The point, Jukes, is that the Arizona Department of Gaming is completely, 100% funded by the BIA casinos that operate regulated poker rooms with monopolistic impunity. The point, my friend, is that local jurisdictions have, for the most part, turned a blind eye on these gray market poker rooms for nearly a decade... and the only police agency that has had a problem with them quietly operating in private venues is the ADoG, which acts and takes direction at the sole pleasure of the Governor of the State. Do you have any idea how much money the BIA tribes contribute to politicians running for office? Do you have any idea what the AIGA is? The point, Eric, is that yes, these gray market cardrooms keep enough poker players out of BIA casinos to completely fill Casino Arizona's 55 tables. They ARE in competition. The gray market rooms operate at a cost of 20-30% of what the BIA charges. And the gray market rooms can offer true No Limit games. And the gray market rooms are able to offer a much more focused and personalized game to the players, who actually have a voice on who things are run and the way things are. Not so at the BIA casino cardrooms. And taxpayer oversight or the ADoG? Haha. Think again. They are a rogue agency, they are evil and promoting the continued existence of the BIA's killing fields known as BIA reservations.


@sangrevale @judgeharoldlee  

Thank you for you for your kind salutation. I hope you and yours will also be blessed with a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

However, I would like you to know that I haven't played poker for fun or money in years. I was never a professional poker player. I merely enjoyed the camaraderie of my friends. At best I broke even on my monetary investment. I quit playing poker after the BIA gambling cartel began attacking my friends and associates in Tucson several years ago. That incident forced me to become cognizant of the crime cabal that had invaded Arizona tribal lands to take advantage of the downtrodden Indians and victimize the state of Arizona by operating a self-policing, non taxable felony gambling syndicate with impunity.

I would encourage you to peruse this study done by the largest newspaper in Oregon on state sponsored predatory gambling:


In lieu of playing Poker, pool, or any of the other strategic competitions that I used to enjoy. I have spent all of my time researching the origins of the BIA and its patently unlawful gambling compact. The BIA was empowered by the Indian Removal Act, which remains on the books as law even thought it was born of an insurrection. I have no time for anything in my life but to see this despicable act repealed and Native lands turned over to the tribes as their private property with true self determination. I hope you will join with us in this worthy endeavor. 

Sincerely, Judge Lee  

The Tecumseh Federation Cofounder


@DonkeyHotay @j.schnaubelt

That's like comparing MM dispensaries to poker rooms Donkey. Stay on point. If BIA casinos can self-regulate their Class II poker activities under the IGRA, without NIGC oversight, then why shouldn't poker players and poker room operators also be able to self-regulate their games and contests? The NBA, PGA, NFL, Hockey, NASCAR... all professional sports have a players association and an association of players and owners that form an oversight committee. I'm not saying operators shouldn't be taxed or licensed with background checks, but regulation of poker room activities? Seriously, what's to regulate that a consortium of players and owners can't do better than big brother?

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@j.schnaubelt ... sure, they can "self-regulate" like Wall Street self-regulates ...


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