Jenny Woo Explores The World of Underground Poker Rooms

Written by:
Jenny Woo
Published on:
Jenny Woo

In years past Underground Poker Rooms have been given a bad rap. When I think of these gaming facilities, I reference back to the 1998 movie "Rounders" with Matt Damon. And may Jenny add that Damon look hot in the movie. A lot of people involve shady dealings and people owing money to bookies when it comes to these gaming rooms. However, it¹s really not like that at all.

You might have noticed a lot of spotlight has been shined on these poker rooms when it comes to robberies. New York seems to have had a lot of these incidents or it could be that the local papers decided to write about the negative aspects of underground poker rooms because that¹s what sells papers. Then of course there are the police raids in which a lot of major cities have been cracking down on the underground gaming rooms. The Diamond Club and The Mayfair Club, in which known poker players Howard Lederer, Erik Seidel and Dan Harrington had frequented, were two of the longest run clubs in New York City until they were closed down in the year 2000.


In early 2005 the New York City police raided and shut down many clubs just for them to reopen in the summer of that year. And that¹s how things went in 2005, cops would raid and the clubs would reopen all the while even attracting celebrities and athletes. Some clubs that are still operating today have kept their size smaller to avoid the attention that the larger clubs brought.

Dan Michalski of the Web site pokerati.com, who said he has played in dozens of underground games, told ABC News in 2007, "The number of illicit games in Dallas had shrunk from about 200 a few years ago to about 20 today after a series of police raids and robberies." He further stated, "The police are driving it into a dark corner that it doesn't need to be in. I don't believe anybody's hurting anybody by playing cards. I don't know what we're doing that's so wrong." He also explained that he thought the games should be legalized and regulated. And of course there are many more out there that definitely agree with Michalski as players complained that the police raids has forced these harmless games further underground and in return has made them more vulnerable.

No one really knows how many of these underground rooms actually exist here in the U.S. But one thing is known that poker has become more popular and spreading the word has become easier via email or just plain word of mouth.

I had the chance to sit down with a friend of mine, Jay Mitchell, that I've known for almost 10 years (God Jenny¹s getting old) and he gave me an insider's take of an underground gaming room operator. He¹s been operating his own room for 4 years and we discuss everything from his organized tight security to what it takes to become a member of one of these clubs.

JENNY: How long have you been operating your poker room?

JAY: One by myself for basically 3 years and then I banded together with 3 other guys and opened a new place and we¹ve been opened for about 7 months.  I¹ve been doing it for almost 4 years.

JENNY: How many rooms do you think is in the LA area?

JAY: There were a lot of home games around, but now there's probably 8 or 9 now. They¹ve all popped up in the last year. There¹s a loophole here. What¹s happening is that a lot guys are opening Member¹s Only Rooms, which is a loophole so people can have member only card rooms.

JENNY: Did you attend underground poker games before you started your own room?

JAY: No.

JENNY: How did it get started?

JAY: Just from me doing all my promotions, parties and stuff. Then I got into playing poker and kind of fell in love with that. I was kind of over the promoting scene and I was trying to figure out a way of combining the two and it happened kind of a naturally.

It started with just tournaments at my house playing with my friends and then we got bigger and bigger from 2 tables to 3 tables to 4. We'd do a 10 person table, 10 table tournaments, 100 people. Kind of a big production and then instead of doing that every 3 or 4 months, we said why don¹t we open up and get a space and do this all the time. It was just kind of a natural progression from playing at the house and getting more and more
people wanting to play to creating a business.

JENNY: Is it a word by mouth entrance?

JAY: Well it¹s not even that. It¹s super secure. If you don¹t know about it then you won¹t know about it. It takes an active member that comes to our place and plays to bring you. You would never be able to just hear about it and come. We keep the security really really tight. The active member has to bring you in or we have to meet you and invite you. And that's how we roll our business. I go to a lot of home games around town, different charity events, there's a lot of big charity events here in L.A. that are poker driven, so we¹ll go to a lot of those. You just meet people, you sit next to them and play, make conversation, you see who¹s cool, the right personality and see who you want to invite.

JENNY: Is there a bit response/demand for poker rooms out in your area?

JAY: It¹s packed every night. And it¹s in high stakes. In our room our lowest stakes is 2-5, it¹s a $500 buy in. We¹re the kind of the big willy room. The big game at the Bellagio and then there¹s a Four Season's game are the only two bigger games that I know of. There's a big demand for the higher stakes as well as low stakes.

JENNY: Do you have a lot of beginners playing at your tables just wanting to learn the game of poker?

JAY: I wouldn¹t necessarily say straight up beginners that don¹t know anything. Once you get into a $500 buy in, most of the people are in the intermediate level. $500 is still a pretty good amount to buy in, especially if you¹re buying in 3 or 4 times. So those guys are going through $1500 to $2000 and that¹s still a good amount of money. So there aren¹t a lot of beginners, but a card room I had before was a lower stakes game, so there were a lot of people with the 1-2 blinds that were $100 buy ins. And yes, there are a lot of beginners playing that game.

JENNY: Do you have tournaments?

JAY: We don¹t really offer any tournaments because financially it¹s not worth it. But a lot of rooms will do tournaments to drive their cash game. If there's a 100 guys playing in a tournament, when they get knocked out they¹re not just going to pick up and leave if you have a cash game going.

JENNY: Do you have a lot of tournament players playing in your cash games?

JAY: Yeah there are a lot of pros that come in. There are a lot of tournament bracelet guys that come in. A better way of saying it that most of the high stakes cash game players go to play the tournaments.

But it's also all walks of life. There¹s old ladies that come play, there's young actor kids, old men, professionals, amateurs, black, white, skinny, fat, every different kind of person you could imagine. You walk in and see the table; it¹s the most eclectic thing.

JENNY: Does it help to prep for tournaments?

JAY: Yes and no. In cash game play and tournament play, its like playing Stud to No Limit, it¹s a completely different game. Tournaments, yeah it's no limit, but a cash game strategy where you can re buy at any time and dig into your pocket and pull out money it's a completely different thing than tournament. Tournament chips are valued more because once they're gone they're gone. You can¹t re buy, unless you¹re in a re buy tournament, but once your chips are gone they¹re gone. So it doesn't really help them in their tournament play, it¹s not like they're "tuning up" so to speak. But I think it¹s a good idea to play any poker that will help.

JENNY: Is everything serious once you sit down at one of these tables or is the mood pretty chill?

JAY: It¹s a more lax at the smaller stake tables, like the 2-5 and the 5-10. Those smaller tables people are having fun. The players are more agents, managers, young actors. It's the fun trendy people that are at the smaller stake tables. Anything above a $1000 buy in we don¹t even do multiple tables. That kind of money is one table, it's quiet and very serious, it¹s not about fun, it¹s not a party atmosphere, it¹s not about you being there for entertainment. Those guys are there to make money.

JENNY: Are underground poker rooms the complete opposite of the stereotype that it¹s been given?

JAY: Yeah I think so. I think a lot of people think of them as being very shady, like the old days of Doyle Brunson days when he use to have to go in with a gun and having to run out with your money. It's not like that at least in modern day rooms. We have armed guards walking you out to your car in our gated parking lot. So you can't even get in unless we let you in or out. We have 6 security cameras. The misconception is that there's a lot of money in the room, but there's not. It¹s all markers and checks nobody's going to walk in with twenty thousand dollars in cash.

JENNY: What city and states are these popping up in? Is it just the major cities in the U.S. or are they popping up in out of the way towns as well?

JAY: I don¹t think the real organized rooms are popping up but these things are popping up all over the country. As for the organized rooms, Dallas and South Florida. And New York is the home of underground rooms.

JENNY: What else can you tell me that can bring a positive light to underground poker rooms?

JAY: I think the biggest misconception is that people think that these rooms are really shady, mafia driven, organized crime, laundering money kind of thing. It¹s the opposite of that here in L.A. It¹s a bunch of poker nerds, actors and trendy cool kids that are playing poker.

With all the craziness going on in the U.S., you'd think the government would want to concentrate on bigger issues like getting us out of this financial disaster that we're in. I know I'm no expert on government issues and how to solve an economic crisis, but you'd think they would pay a little less attention on how to look at the gaming world in a negative spotlight.

Many agree that the gaming industry (especially online gaming) can have a positive outcome and possibly bring some financial help to the U.S. if it were taxed and regulated. Hopefully in the near future there will be a positive change to the gaming industry as a whole.


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Jenny Woo, Gambling911.com Senior Correspondent

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