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Poker Faced 

What's behind the state's sudden rash of gambling raids?

Mike Kennedy: The state told him his games were legit - -- until they busted him. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Mike Kennedy: The state told him his games were legit -- until they busted him.
Mike Kennedy feels deceived.

Six months ago, he began holding poker tournaments at his Lorain pool hall and bar. These would be gentlemen's games for a peasant budget -- no entrance fee, no playing with cash. "They do not put a penny in," he says.

Nightly winners might take home a pool cue or a Kennedy's Broadway Billiards T-shirt. If you could stay on top for a month, you'd win a trip to Vegas.

But first, he did his homework, talking to lawyers, Lorain police, the mayor's office. "We checked with everyone we could in the state," he says. All said it was kosher.

His games started attracting 60-100 people a night, nice crowds for dead Mondays in the frozen hours of winter. Call it a testament to a small merchant's ingenuity.

Then, on a Sunday night last month, agents from the Ohio Department of Public Safety arrived. They shut down the games and charged him with public gaming.

Kennedy watched with anger as Cleveland agent John Campbell appeared on television, announcing this triumph of crime-fighting. It was the same John Campbell, he says, who told the bar six months before that the games were legit. (Campbell doesn't recall any conversation.)

Lou Nemeth understands the beef. He too tried to hold a game -- for even more innocent purposes.

His softball team needed to raise money for uniforms and tournament fees, so he rented a hall in Brunswick. Through word of mouth, 40 people showed up. Sixty bucks covered their entrance fees, food, and wholesome American brewskies. Half went to prizes, half went to cover the tab and provide the team with a modest bankroll.

Then a guy showed up saying he didn't want to play. He was new to Texas Hold 'Em. Just wanted to watch.

Nemeth was suspicious. Something about the guy wasn't right. "I actually thought I was gonna get robbed," he says.

The guy soon left -- only to return with seven agents. Lou Nemeth, dangerous softball fund-raiser, was busted for running a gambling house.

As mayors and senators squabble over whether to legalize gambling, these are the stories quietly playing out beneath their fight. The most unlikely people -- Jaycees, American Legionnaires, middle-aged third basemen -- are being raided with the kind of firepower once reserved for drug barons and killers on the lam. The question is why?

Only two short years ago, you could gamble in Northeast Ohio with impunity. Guys like Virgil Ogletree were still being hit for running big-time numbers games, but only because they were too prominent to ignore, and only because they were cutting into the state's own numbers racket, known as the Ohio Lottery.

Unpretentious bookies didn't need to worry, nor did the rather public Vegas Night operators. You could find a card game virtually any weekend. They even advertised in the rag you're reading right now.

These weren't exactly legal. Though they purported to be for charity, the poor, the sick, and the devout got but a mouse's slice of the take. On many nights, operators took the whole pie, never bothering to inform the charities whose names they were using.

Still, they were largely ignored. For one, gambling has never been a sin in these parts. Whether it's playing the 50-50 raffle at your daughter's orchestra concert or roulette at the parish festival, we've long been taught that if gaming isn't next to godliness, they're at least first cousins. And when the state's own numbers racket is the biggest sucker bet around, you might say it's ceded its moral authority on the matter.

Besides, there's technical crime, and then there's real crime. "We have bigger fish to fry," says Inspector Doug Burkhart of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department. "Right now we have over 12,000 felony warrants. We have to direct our resources where they're needed the most, and right now illegal gambling is not that area."

But the Ohio Department of Public Safety has no such burden. Its duty is to regulate alcohol and bars, and it's begun to stamp out gambling with a vengeance.

Agents likely got their start from Vegas Night operators themselves, who began to rat each other out as a means of thinning the competition. In texts at the Wharton business school, the strategy might headline a chapter entitled "How to $#@* Up a Really Good Thing." What was once a sure way to pull in $50,000 to $70,000 a weekend became an even-money roll on whether you'd be raided or not.

These, of course, were righteous busts. If you rip off charities, you should probably be dragged from the bumper of an F-150. But when you start raiding something as acutely virtuous and American as softball fund-raisers, something is terribly wrong.

You don't see the French playing softball, do you?

Part of it stems from Ohio's gambling statutes, which are written with the clarity of a software manual. While the good people in Lorain have one interpretation, the state has a far tighter one. According to Public Safety spokesman Rich Cologie, even VFW poker among a dozen WWII vets might qualify for a raid. It's the law.

But Kennedy sees more baleful motives. Northeast Ohio is the hotbed of the pro-gambling movement. The raids, he believes, are southern Ohio's way of reminding us who holds the power. "I'm sure these farmers down there are having a good time, knowing they control the people in the cities," he says.

It's a long-standing storyline: the corrupt, wayward North vs. the Bible-thumping inbreds of the South. And as is usually the case, there's probably some truth to it.

Still, this being Ohio, one should never rule out pure stupidity. When his game was raided, Nemeth says, one Brunswick Hills cop called the bust "ridiculous."

Lorain's service and safety director, Craig Miller, thinks much the same of the Kennedy's raid. "They tied up their people on Sunday night overtime, they tied up my people, and it might have been simpler to sit down and have a meeting during working hours, instead of having a full-blown raid."

But this would be reasonable. And reason is against Ohio law. You could look it up.

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