Legal Poker Minefield in Pubs & Clubs

Can Be Difficult to Stay Legal.

The provision of legal poker tournaments in pubs and clubs in the UK is complicated. I get asked for advice on this topic quite often, usually in a pub by a person who may have had more to drink than me (ok, maybe not!). That person then put’s their own spin on my advice, relates it to another party and I get called a ‘*w$!’ by a social club committee-member. So, I thought I would give my interpretation of the gaming law and the code of practice as set down by the UKGC (United Kingdom Gambling Commission). This way, the next time I am asked for advice, I can find this article, chuck the enquiring person my phone and get on with my pint.

When it Got Complicated

In 1961, the Kray twins bought Esmarelda’s barn (now in its place is the five-star Berkley Hotel) in London’s fashionable Mayfair. Following the sale, the chaps turned it into a casino and sold it in 1963, a few years later the 1968 Gaming Act came into being. As well as legislating for casinos it provided the laws governing games of equal chance in pubs and clubs. Those laws remained mostly unchanged until the 2005 Gambling Act, this was basically an overhaul of the ’68 Act because Tony Blair and the Labour Government were promising re-generation in UK cities with ‘super casinos’. In accordance with Section 24 of the 2005 Act, a Code of Practice in respect for gaming carried out in Part 12 of the Act is provided. This gaming was termed ‘Exempt Gaming’ (bear with me).

What is Allowed

Exempt Gaming

It is basically a law that says; “you can’t play any gambling games in pubs and clubs except for…”. I am not going to cover bridge, crib, dominoes etc, just poker. Exempt Gaming allows poker to be played for small stakes. The maximum stakes and prizes are provided below. The majority of pub landlords, club committees, tournament organizers and poker league operators are not fully aware of the law on poker. They do not really understand what the UKGC Code of Practice requires by way of compliance. For example; 2.1.2 of the code states “In any event, all poker games organised by, or on behalf of, the management of the premises, should not be cash games but tournament poker played with poker chips supplied by the premises”. The code further explains:

1. A designated person must operate the games and record the number of games played, numbers of players taking part, the amount staked and the amount won.
2. All playing cards and equipment must be provided by the premises.
3. All games must be played with poker chips and not cash.
4. There should be game rules available for anyone to be able to access.
5. The premises has a duty to exclude persons under the age of 18 and there should be a procedure to prevent this happening.

As someone who has been involved in every level of tournament poker in pubs, clubs and casino’s for over 30 years. Also, as an experienced poker league operator, I can tell you that less than 1% of pubs and clubs comply with the codes of practice. I understand that pub and club operators sometimes turn a blind eye to how poker is organised within their premises because they believe that the local council or licensing department, the police or UKGC will never visit them. They are mistaken, see below.

Private Gaming

Holding a poker game in a private room does not exempt the premises from the law. Friends playing poker in a private residence (‘private gaming’) are not governed with regards stake and therefore there is no limit. However, the law is clear as to what constitutes Private Gaming. For example; a landlord can invite friends to a private room within the licensed premises providing the room isn’t accessible to the public. Persons whom the landlord has never met before would not be considered ‘Friends’. No charge can be levied. Some clubs think that building a wall to segregate players or putting them in the store room is good enough to be considered private. It isn’t quite that simple.

Hiring a room / separating a room from the public / closing the club.

Members of a club can hire a room separately from the public in order to play ‘privately’. However, no charge can be levied and it would be difficult to argue ‘private gaming’ justified excessive prize funds / entry fees.  The members must be bone-fide and not have joined the club particularly to play in the tournament. In the event of a dispute with authorities, the members’ details and registration to the club would be checked. If a member joins the night before a tournament, the licensing authorities and the UKGC may decide that that member was not bona fide and had joined specifically to play poker. Clubs have been warned by the UKGC that they cannot circumvent limits of prize funds nor make any charge or levy because they are operating ‘private gaming’.

Poker in Pubs & Member’s Clubs

The UKGC advice online is not that clear and there is confusion with regards what is deemed legal poker in pubs and clubs, in particular with regards; fees, prizes and who can participate. Member’s clubs are usually run by committee. I can practically guarantee that no club in the UK has a committee with 100% understanding of the law with regards gaming and in particular poker. There are basically six categories for licensed premises organised poker:

1. A casino.
2. A poker club.
3. A pub.
4. A member’s club with neither a Machine Permit nor a Gaming Permit.
5. A member’s club with a Machine Permit (gambling machine/ ‘bandit’) but without a Gaming Permit.
6. A member’s club with a Club Gaming Permit.

*We shall ignore casinos and poker clubs for the purposes of this article.

Fees & Prizes for Pubs & Member’s Clubs

Pubs cannot charge any participation fee. The maximum prize fund that is allowed in any single tournament is £100. A club without a machine permit cannot charge a participation fee. The maximum prize fund for a club is £250. The prize fund in a pub must not exceed £100 per day. The maximum in a club is £1.000 per week. The only time a club can hold a poker tournament that has a prize fund greater than £250 is when that club has a Gaming Permit, in which case the prize fund is unlimited.

Clubs without a machine or gaming permit cannot charge a participation fee. Whilst clubs with machine/gaming permits can charge a participation fee of £3. However, in reality this would not be looked on favourably by players who are used to paying a maximum of 10% of buyin as entry fee to online and casinos tournaments. The maximum acceptable would probably be £10 buyin and a £2 entry fee. Therefore, with a maximum of 25 players paying a £10 entry fee, the club can only make a maximum of £50 in charges for that tournament or a maximum of £200 in fees per week.

Club Gaming Permit (new application)

A Gaming permit allows a club to hold tournaments without prize restrictions. If the member’s club has a premises certificate issued under Section 72 of the Licensing Act 2003 (a license to sell alcohol), a Club Gaming Permit can be obtained from the local licensing authority. This is considered a ‘Fast-Track Application’ and as such there is no prior consultation with police or UKGC and the license can be refused on the following grounds:

1. The clubs’ main provision is whist or bridge and other types of gaming.

2. The clubs’ main provision is gaming other than whist or bridge.

3. A Club Gaming Permit previously issued to the club has been cancelled within the last ten years at the club.

4. An objection has been made by the Chief Police Officer for the area in which the applying premises are situated.

5. An objection by the UKGC.

In any instance where an objection is made, the licensing authority must hold a hearing to consider objections. The cost for the Club Gaming Permit may differ between authorities but is around £100-£200. The permit will be in force for a period of ten years unless it is surrendered, renewed, runs out or the premises license runs out. The licensing authority would visit the premises and in respect of the application would probably be more inclined to grant the permit where the club has received professional advice with regards to operating poker and has produced some form of ‘scope of operations’ for poker and any other games of chance that it will operate.

What isn’t Allowed

1. Allowing the number of players entered to the tournament to create a prize pool greater than £100 (pub) or £250 (club).

2. Allowing re-entries, add-ons, re-buys or any other method whereby a player enters more than once into the same tournament, when the entry fee is £5 (pub) or £10 (club). As far as I can see, the only time a re-entry is allowed is if it is £2.50 or less (pub) £5 or less (club).

3. Having an end of season (monthly or quarterly) final where funds, no matter how they have been collected are carried forward, this would be deemed Linked Gaming. For example; 27 players enter the tournament, which is £20 more than the maximum prize fund allowed (£250). The £20 excess cannot be put into a future pot.

4. Allowing the organiser or organisers free entry to the tournament in return for running it would be deemed taking a fee. However, a club (see above) that can charge a participation fee could pay someone to operate the tournament (a tournament director).

Poker Leagues

When poker leagues are operated well they can be a great experience for the players of the participating pub or club, the prize fund can be so attractive that players will play every week in order to qualify to tournaments with large prize funds. For example; the poker league that I operate in the North West has just 13 participating pubs. Players play for 13 weeks and receive points depending on their results in the weekly tournament. The top 25% qualify automatically for the final tournament which is held in a licensed casino. The prize fund every 3 months is guaranteed at £3,000. “Linked Gaming!” I hear you cry, no it isn’t and is allowed by UKGC guidelines or code of practice.

Poker tournaments where the winners of games or top players in a series of games from various pub venues go through to play in a tournament final would not be linked gaming. Even if the final was held at another venue, for example a licensed casino.- UKGC Code of Practice.

The majority of poker leagues and league game that are played in pubs are operated illegally. Some leagues have operated franchises whereby the franchise holder is encouraged to charge a participation fee from each player. Even if the fee is only a pound it is illegal. One such league earns hundreds of thousands of pounds a year paying out very small prizes.

The correct way to operate a poker league night in your pub or club is to sign to a respectable poker league such as Grassroots Poker, see here. This company provides a league for pubs and clubs for just £20 per week regardless of how many players play each week.

When it all Goes Wrong

One of the largest pub poker league operators in the UK allows poker organizers to charge players a fee to take part in the league, this is in fact illegal. A few years ago, I was asked to provide input for a potential legal case involving this operator and a franchisee. I was 100% certain of my facts and I spoke with a UKGC officer, I asked him “you know this company is breaking the law, why do you allow it?”. His response was to explain that whilst the UKGC were aware of the problem, they did not have the resources to investigate it. Even though the Commission had been presented with proof, letters from the company, franchise agreements etc (which I still have), they were not interested in pursuing the matter.

However, that isn’t to say action is never taken. There have been a handful of prosecutions, here are a few:

Social Club Gets Raided

A member’s club with a Club Gaming permit was raided. The joint operation was conducted by the police, local licensing authority officers and a UKGC officer. Non-members were found, rake from cash games was being taken, players being charged a participation fee. Money was being raked from tournaments and carried forward for monthly final tournaments.

The local authority revoked the Premises Certificate thus ending the Club Gaming Permit, the club closed. Months later the club was refused application for a Premises License.

Pub Landlady Gets a Warning

A common one this; a landlady’s husband ran a poker night but did not stick to the £100 maximum prize. The Blackburn constabulary and local licensing authority attended one night. The husband received ‘advice’ on how to operate a poker night and the landlady received a warning letter from the council.

Private Poker

A shop in Bexhill, Sussex held ‘private poker nights’. The police and UKGC were made aware that the shop owner was taking a charge from the games. The owner closed the shop immediately.

Large Fine

Probably the largest fine to date was when two tournament operators were found to have made profits from operating poker. A Kingston private member’s club allowed two men to operate tournament and cash game poker for more than one year, from 2013. The club was raided, the operators arrested and fined £32,000 including costs.H

Weighing up your Options

Basically, you will not get rich by operating club poker in the UK. Ask Rob Yong, the owner of Dusk Till Dawn, one of the largest poker clubs in Europe. Rob is still yet to make profits from the club despite holding poker tournaments with regular million-pound prize funds.

Poker should be considered an entertainment offering. The prize money and therefore the entry fee should be kept at the legal level. This ensures that people do not lose money they can ill-afford. I am convinced that high value pub/club poker increases swearing, bad behavior, violence and drunkenness. This behavior is not allowed in professionally organised poker tournaments in casinos. Why do we see it in pubs and clubs? The answer is simple, their tournaments are not being operated correctly.

Yet, pub landlords and club committee members act as though poker could be the ‘holy grail’ that will bring all the customers back. How it was before the ban on smoking, before Tesco and channel 4. At best, it can give your venue a boost. If you are a pub or club, you will be familiar with pool leagues, dart leagues, crib leagues. These can bring players into your venue on a regular basis, so why not consider a poker league.

An example of a well-managed venue in a professional poker league is; The Rose ‘n’ Bowl in Rossendale, Oldham, this venue takes part in the Grassroots Poker League. On a Thursday evening the pub welcomes up to 50 players, in fact, Mike the organiser has had to turn people away, simply due to space. It is a simple premise; the pub/club pays the league £20 per week, every 3 months there is a final, held in a casino. There is a leaderboard online and every venue sends their top 25% of players to the final. There are other ways to qualify at the end of the season so players continue taking part even if they are not in the top 25%. In Manchester for the past 4 years that final has had a guaranteed prize fund of £3,000, in fact the league pays out more than it collects in.

I get really dismayed when I visit a pub and the bar staff or Landlord complain that the poker players do not drink much. These are the venues that simply wait behind the bar for a customer to come to them. I tell them “Take you pad and pen and go around and take orders, deliver them to the table. Make sure there are side tables for players to put their drinks on. A round of sandwiches wouldn’t go amiss, just as you would for crib or darts”. Just as in darts and cribbage, when you play, you are honing your skills, poker is no different. Players want to play, it isn’t just about the money, it is about the poker. So from a 15 venue league in the North West to a single venue league on the Isle of Wight, poker leagues are running all over the UK and some venues are doing very well.