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Poker law raises revenues and worries

State House Bureau

September 01. 2015 9:18PM

CONCORD — Removing the betting limit for some forms of charitable poker games has attracted more players and dramatically increased state revenues and money for charities.

But some are concerned that poker players could lose lots of cash, and want to see changes.

Lobbyist Rick Newman, who represents the River Card Room in Milford and was the manager of the Lakes Region Greyhound Park facility in Belmont, said the law that went into effect July 1 has made a big difference. He said cash poker games at the Milford facility generated less than $2,000 in June, but $40,000 in July.

“The charities got 35 percent, the state 10 percent and a lot more dealers have jobs,” Newman said.

House Bill 169 passed the Legislature this year and was signed by Gov. Maggie Hassan June 30, the day before it went into effect.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kermit Williams, D-Wilton, said he wanted to make New Hampshire’s charitable poker games more satisfying for the players, many of whom did not like the bet limit of $4 per hand. The goal was to make the cash games more like poker tournaments, with higher stakes and larger bets.

But on Tuesday, he told the Games of Chance Study Commission that his bill has had some unintended consequences.

Under HB 169, the limit on bets is removed and a $150 buy-in per game is established. But charitable gaming operators have set that limit on one round of play — allowing players the $150 buy-in more than once. One facility allows a buy-in five times — raising the stakes to $750.

Paul M. Kelley, director of the Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission, said the change has produced about a 40 percent jump in state revenue, with a projected increase of about $500,000 for the fiscal year.

Commission member Rep. Pat Abrami, R-Stratham, noted the changes move the poker games “out of the realm of charitable gaming into real gambling.” He called for more regulation.

Another commission member and long-time casino gambling advocate Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, called it an unregulated situation, with little uniformity among the facilities.

“It’s not unregulated. We’re on top of it,” said Ted Connors, chairman of the Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission. “It is quite a bonanza for the charities right now.”

Connors said his agency plans to make some changes when it meets Sept. 9, but they will not be dramatic.

In July the commission asked to see each of the 10 licensed facilities’ house rules for the cash poker games, and is expected to set limits on how much players can wager.

The Milford facility caps the amount of chips a player can hold at 300 and allows only two buy-ins, Newman said, noting other facilities have different limits.

Rockingham Park President and General Manager Ed Callahan told the study commission that since July 1, charities at the Salem facility have seen revenues increase 64 percent and state revenue has jumped 44 percent.

Callahan suggested many of the poker players who were going to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun are now staying in New Hampshire, and participants in hundreds of home games are now coming to a regulated room, which he described as a much safer environment.

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