Poker runs may fold due to new ruling
By David Doerr Tribune-Herald staff writer
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
While some nonprofit organizations raise money by hosting games of bingo and selling raffle tickets, motorcycle clubs have had their own strategy to make giving fun – the poker run.
Although they can be organized differently, poker runs typically involve motorcycle riders purchasing cards at stops along a designated route. When they reach their destination, cash prizes are awarded for the best hands and sometimes the worst hand.
It's a traditional way among bikers to have fun while raising money for a good cause, according to the state chairman of the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association.
“It's just a way of life for us,” said Sputnik, which is his legal name. “It's a way to get together, have fun and compete against each other. It's not so much about the money.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, however, has frustrated the bikers by recently declaring poker runs illegal.
“Even if the contribution goes to a charitable cause and the nonprofit organization will pay prizes from other money, a participant pays money for the chance to win a prize,” Abbott said in the opinion. “Thus we conclude ... the nonprofit organization would become a custodian of a bet in violation (of the state penal code).”
The decision will affect a wide variety of organizations, including cities, law enforcement departments and fraternal organizations, all of which have hosted poker runs in the past. Many former poker run participants said they were baffled by the ruling.
“It surprises me that the attorney general would come out and make a ruling like this, but I guess he's looking at the letter of the law,” said Greg Bodovsky, Senate District 22 adviser for the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association.
Sam Maitz, director of the Waco Harley-Davidson Owners Group, said the opinion will hurt the nonprofit organizations that benefit from the charity efforts the most.
“I'm disappointed that they're getting that nit-picky on it,” Maitz said. “Now that somebody opened up this situation, it could actually hurt the charities.”
The Harley-Davidson club, which has hosted two to three poker runs a year for about 10 years, has raised thousands of dollars for the Waco Center for Youth and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Maitz said.
Bob Summers, president of the Lorena-based Texas Chapter XI of the Blue Knights International, a motorcycle club made up of law enforcement officers, said the legality of poker runs has been in question for several years. The Blue Knights raised about $300 for the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children with a benefit ride, although he said he was not sure if poker was a part of the event.
“While I'm disappointed that the attorney general found that poker runs are illegal, we will continue to try to serve the community in legal ways,” said Summers, a McLennan County sheriff's deputy.
Although the opinion will put the brakes on poker runs with prizes for now, many bikers said they do not plan to let the decision end their fundraiser of choice.
The motorcycle community will appeal to legislators for a statute to allow poker runs and challenge the attorney general's opinion in court, if necessary, Sputnik said. In the meantime, the motorcycle rights association will consult its attorneys to find ways around the ruling, he said.
Sputnik suggested that clubs could change the event from a game of chance to a game of skill by shooting at cards posted on a wall with a pellet gun.
“We're going to look at getting around it on the basis of not being a game of chance, but a game of skill,” Sputnik said. “If that doesn't work, we'll look at doing something legislatively in the next session. It is really going to affect who we support in the election this time.”
Until poker runs are legalized, Bodovsky said he is telling concerned motorcyclists to remove prizes from their poker runs to ensure they are operating within the law.
Taking a chance
“You can get around it by just not giving out any prizes,” Bodovsky said. “That pretty much shuts down the poker run. Some people will get involved with it just to ride around, but most people want to have a little fun while there doing it and take a chance of winning $50 or something.”
The Central Texas Road Riders Association has a poker run planned in March during its “Spring Fling” in Gatesville. However, the motorcycle club only gives out trophies to its winners, said association President Kay Phillips.
Dana Renschler, Waco Center for Youth community relations director, said she was not aware that part of the money that the Harley-Davidson club had raised for the center came from poker runs. Although the center, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, has considered hosting casino-style fundraising events in the past, its board of directors decided against that because of their questionable legality, she said.
Dick McCall, a Waco attorney who has provided legal advice to the center on fundraising issues, said legitimate charities should have the opportunity to host casino events occasionally.
“The people who attend events like that are not your hard-core gamblers,” McCall said. “They're people who have a little discretionary money to pay $150 to have some fun and support our charitable organizations.”
Renschler said she worried that the opinion would prevent groups like the Harley-Davidson club from raising as much money.
This year the club spent about $1,500 on toys and food during a Christmas party for children at the center, said Lonnie Abrahams, the club's assistant director. About $350 of that came from a poker run, he said.
“They are so wonderful. They bring the entire Harley group,” Renschler said. “The whole front of the center is lined with Harleys from one end to the other. They bought like 40 pizzas this year for the kids. It's going to be sad if they have to stop doing it if that is how they raise (the money).”