Poker Room Operator Criticizes State's Ongoing War on Allegedly Illegal Gaming

Categories: Gambling

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A Glendale man facing felony charges of running an illegal poker room claims he "never made a penny" off the operation.

Mike Talerico, 42, is one of several local men facing serious charges in separate cases since the state began a fresh crackdown on poker rooms in December. The legal action began a year after a cover story in New Times detailed the spotty enforcement occurring up until then.

See also:
-Barely Noticed by Cops, Non-Tribal Poker Rooms Thrive in Phoenix
-West Valley Poker Rooms Raided in Gaming Investigation; Chips, Tables and Cash Seized

Mark Brnovich, the former Arizona Department of Gaming director now running as a Republican for state Attorney General, vowed after he was appointed in 2009 to go after off-reservation poker rooms, which cannot operate as businesses under state law. (You can invite your buddies over for poker nights, in other words, but the house can't earn money on games or operate side businesses specifically to support poker operations, officials told New Times in 2012.) Several high-profile busts, including one that led to the successful conviction of Harold Lee, a former justice of the peace and poker enthusiast.

Following our cover story, which pointed out that most poker rooms in the Valley seemed to be operating in peace, a gaming investigation either began or ramped up. Officials conducted raids on four poker rooms last year, then followed up with raids on two more this month.

"Department of Gaming Deals Another Blow," reads the headline of a June 9 news release about the latest action by the agency.

Busted so far are:

* Mike Talerico of Aces Cracked

* Tomas Rivera, Miguel Rivera and Jose Rivera of Pocket Rockets.

* Thanh Nguyen of Arizona Poker Supply.

A check of Maricopa County records reveals that those defendants have all pleaded not guilty and are fighting their multiple felony and misdemeanor charges on counts including illegal control of an enterprise and promoting gambling.

Rick Medina of the gaming department tells us that another defendant, Frank Johnson of Joker's Social Club, was also indicted. We couldn't find court info on him.

This month, officers with the gaming department, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and Mesa and Phoenix police departments raided Pocket Jacks Poker Room in Mesa and Elite Poker Social Club in Phoenix.

Eight poker tables and other "gambling paraphernalia" were seized in the June raids, along with TVs, surveillance cameras, business records, cell phone, a couple grand in cash and a .38-caliber revolver.

The names of the poker-room owners haven't been released yet. In the news release, the gaming department says its officials had previously asked the owners to take "corrective action" with their businesses. But the poker rooms "chose not to comply."

Talerico, as Lee before him, believes the gaming department is simply doing the bidding of the Indian casinos, which run their own poker games with rules that poker purists don't like. But he claims his poker room was more like a hobby than a business. He paid for rent out of his pocket, with money he earned from his other business refurbishing semi-conductor parts, he says. He'd win the occasional jackpots, but maintains he never earned money from the games of others.

Talerico says he opened the poker room about six months ago. He called the gaming department every now and then with questions about how to keep his business legal. He says officials were "vague;" he feels like he was "set up to fail."

The poker room's dealer, Scott Hefferman, is accused of taking tips, but he didn't, says Talerico. Both men have been charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor each.

"This has turned my life upside-down," says Talerico, who's been reduced to moving in with his dad, unable to run his semi-conductor repair business.

But he plans on fighting the charges. A trial is scheduled for October.

He thinks he's got a chance to win an acquittal.

But he's got advice for the other poker rooms still operating in the Valley: "Anybody that has half a brain should be shutting down."

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.
Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.

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Update: Talerico, like all those before him except "Judge" Harold Lee, took the plea bargain for the Class 6 Felony of "Attempted Promotion of Gambling". Prosecutor played hardball, and even the judge asked if there could be a possible better deal to be made. Talerico says he plans on getting back some of his stuff that was confiscated though, as part of the deal. Stay tuned.


Anyway, if any of the cardroom operators stand a shot at beating ADoG, I'd put my money on Talerico. His Aces Cracked cardroom was barely open 6 months, has no profit to show from it, lost revenue only. Where is the benefit in that? ADoG has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a real prospective benefit for Talerico in order for their allegations to stick. Talerico's trial is coming up soon. I'll be there.


Most of these gray market cardroom operators wind up taking the plea bargain for the reduced class 6 felony of "attempted promotion of gambling", which is a laugh in and of itself... attempted. Haha. They get 6 to 18 months of probation, minimal fines, a slap on the wrist. One goes down, two more take its place. But now ADoG is really starting to force poker games underground, where only the criminal element wins. Scottsdale's underground games are famously juicy for serious Valley grinders, all thanks to the first ADoG bust of a gray market cardroom "Deal Me In" back in 2008. At present, I only know of a handful of true storefront/open to the public cardrooms... but I can roll off a list of about 20 "underground home games" that operate the same way as these gray market cardrooms do... raking pots, cover charges, button fees... lining the hosts pockets. 

The sad thing about the whole affair, is the exclusive use of the regulated gambling exclusion granted to the tribes through passage of prop 202 in 2002 costs the State millions per year to prosecute and protect against gray market cardrooms, while according the a Freedom of Information Act request in 2013, we learned that 8 of Arizona's 12 poker rooms reported aggregate revenue exclusively from poker room activities of around $30M in 2011, of which, only $1.3M went into the euphemistically-named Arizona Benefits Fund. The tribes are only fulfilling about 20% of Arizona's potential poker market, when compared to neighboring California's municipal cardroom model. And let's not even get started on nearby Las Vegas. 

Arizona citizens need to tell their legislators to sponsor a bill to remove poker from the poison pill clause of the state-tribal gaming compact. Those compacts aren't up for renewal and renegotiation until 2023. But that's the first step in paving the way for public cardrooms, as non-profit or commercial enterprises, outside of Indian Country.

eric.nelson745 topcommenter

I'm wonderin'... would strip poker rooms be legal in AZ?


@eric.nelson745 I'm sure there is a way to make that happen. I know of a couple of gray market cardrooms that utilized topless dealers for private games. LoL, but strip poker... is it gambling? Risk losing your shirt, Reward of seeing some buubies, in a game of skill or chance? I'd say it is, lol, however, it's illegal if anyone gets a tip... even if it's just a tip. I did. I went there. LOL

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