Suburban Gutshot

At first glance, suburban Atlanta appears to be the 21st-century equivalent of the American Dream. Minivans everywhere, Best Buys and Home Depots on every other corner, yards the size of soccer fields fronting home after enormous home.

But behind those homes’ doors, there’s a lot more going on than book clubs and playdates. The father of three who mows his lawn every Saturday morning might be smoking pot later that night. The couple who shows up faithfully at every PTA meeting might be participating in swingers’ parties. And the pleasant real estate agent might just be running a prostitution ring, as was alleged in a Gwinnett County, Georgia subdivision earlier this year.

That kind of stuff drives a certain segment of society crazy. Now, they’re starting to take action… and poker players are finding themselves in the crosshairs.

The city of Roswell, Georgia, located just north of Atlanta, was recently named by City Crime Rankings to be the 18th safest city in the country. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to be infested with a well-organized underground drugs-poker-prostitution network. And yet, that’s exactly what the Roswell police claimed they were chasing when they raided a home game and arrested 27 players in a nationally- publicized April bust.

The Roswell raid has drawn criticism, both for the operation itself and for the misinformation disseminated in its wake. And while every-one from poker pros to police officers has weighed in on the bust, with many in strong support of the players, the overriding message is an ominous one indeed for fans of the time-honored home poker game.

Bluff interviewed several players involved with the Roswell game, including players present at the raid. (The Roswell Police Department failed to respond to repeated telephone and email requests for an interview.) And while media reports painted the group as “high rollers” in a “high-stakes poker game,” the players say it was anything but.

“This started with a bunch of us meeting to watch Monday Night Football or play poker at sports bars,” one player says. “We moved to one guy’s house, started playing there, and that’s as far as it went. Just a bunch of guys playing cards and talking.” Games were generally no higher stakes than $5/$10 Hold’em and, according to the players, most came to the table each night with no more than the mid-three figures.

The night of Monday, April 9 began like most others did for the poker group, playing at the Roswell home of Dan and Andrea Tyre. But at some point in the evening, amid the click of chips and the guy talk, the Roswell police burst in through the front door, guns drawn, and ordered every player to place his hands over his face. Every player was cuffed and hauled to the Roswell police station, and all the cars parked in front of the Tyres’ home were searched.

The search turned up approximately $46,000 in cash, according to reports, as well as small amounts of drugs, though not enough to warrant trafficking violations, and an illegally-possessed handgun in one of the cars. Twenty-five of the players were charged with a range of misdemeanors. Dan Tyre and Glenn Gilberti, a pro wrestler once known as “Disco Inferno,” were charged with commercial gambling and drug possession, and are in the midst of hearings on those charges.

A lack of poker knowledge on the part of either the police or the media caused some of the most significant misperceptions and outright errors in reporting the bust. One player at the game was, according to two other players, seeking to sign up several of his friends in an online poker tournament with a $100 buy-in and a first prize of a $10,000 seat at the World Series of Poker standard-issue tournament terms to anyone with a passing familiarity with the world of poker.

But in the chaos of the bust, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several other outlets reported that players needed to apply to join the house game through a website, implying some kind of organized screening process, which was “just not true,” according to the players. “It was all friend-of-a-friend.”

More egregiously, media outlets twisted the figures until the $10,000 somehow became a per-player buy-in. It would be a pretty hefty sum in a city where per-capita income averages around $36,000, but even simple mathematics deflates the claim: “If we were all paying $10,000 to buy in, wouldn’t there be $270,000 there?” one player says. “There was only about $45,000 [$46,302, according to police reports] seized, and that includes our personal money and the cash from Dan’s house.”

Even so, that amount of money is what draws police concern. Roswell police told local news sources that they have no interest in seeking out home games to bust, and only act on tips because of the possibility for additional crimes, e.g., robbery, to occur in conjunction with poker games. And with $46,000 lying around, even the players acknowledge that the police department has a point.

“Is there more of a possibility of a robbery with a bunch of poker players around than there would be otherwise? Sure,” one of the players says. “But it was the way this went down that really struck a lot of people. This was kind of like a speed trap. The police department knew this money was here, they knew they could get it whenever they needed, and now they’ve gone and seized it, and we’re going to have to pay a lot of money to get it back.”

“I know that the idea that poker attracts crime is one that a lot of police departments have used to justify these kinds of raids,” says Steve Rose, a lieutenant and public information officer for the police department of Sandy Springs, a city that borders Roswell on Atlanta’s north side. “But I think that’s a lot more of a threat in an urban area, in a city where there are pretty well-established patterns of crime, rather than out in the suburbs.”

In the wake of the raid, Rose penned a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution satirizing the entire bust, noting in jest that “Detectives said this was the first time they had ever seen a gambling operation this sophisticated, although three years ago, several seniors from the Chattahoochee Elders Club were charged in a Chutes-and-Ladders-for-profit racket.”

Roswell police counter that they, too, have been the victims of misinformation. Later published reports indicated that the “six-month investigation” of gambling at the house was actually only about three weeks, and that, contrary to the players’ contentions, police did knock at the front door, but burst in because Andrea Tyre ran farther inside the house when she saw the police. They contend that they acted because tips had alleged felony gambling taking place, and the police department has no choice but to act on potential felony allegations.

What is not in dispute is the fact that poker advocates are displeased with the way the entire incident feeds into the dated, inaccurate public perception of poker. “Poker has always been a backroom kind of game,” says Josh Arieh, who lives in Atlanta when he’s not winning WSOP bracelets. “In the old movies, you always see it being played by a bunch of drunks, and then there is a shootout. Well, it’s not like that anymore, and that’s what our Southern Baptist [state] government must see.” He notes the hypocrisy of a government that permits lotteries and church bingos, but won’t allow poker, gambling, or even the Sunday purchase of alcohol.

“I’m sad to say that our local government can’t get on board with somewhere around twenty other states and see that poker can be profitable to the state,” Arieh adds, “and not hurt nearly as many people as the lottery and even alcohol do.”

Both Arieh and the Roswell players agree that if one wants a cash poker game in Atlanta, it’s not difficult to find one any day of the week. Ironically, the day after the Roswell bust, a raid on a Clayton County, Georgia game netted 51 poker players, including a local judge. Evidence of a conspiracy, or unfortunate coincidence? Players come down on both sides.

The Roswell players involved who were let off with misdemeanor charges are more resigned and disappointed than anything else. “This was just a bunch of guys getting together, and the police and the media have made it like it’s some kind of organized crime ring,” one player says. “It’s a real shame this had to happen. It’s a real setback for poker.”

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June 2007