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Owners Ante In On State Gambling Loophole For New Poker Venue

It was only weeks after Michael Tucker's favorite restaurant in Duluth shut down that he thought about renting the space himself.

But instead of opening a replacement for the shuttered Tex-Mex restaurant chain Beyond the Border, Tucker opened a room where poker players could compete for prize money — in a state that has a law against casino gaming — and he hopes to open more.

Poker Bar & Grill co-owners Michael Tucker and Jay Galli outside their new charity poker room in Duluth.

Poker Bar & Grill is operating under a loophole in state anti-gambling laws that allow charities to raise money through certain games, such as bingo and raffles. While a handful of operators exist in Georgia that provide poker games where revenues go to charity, organizers say Poker Bar & Grill is only the second such group to establish a permanent retail presence for players in Georgia.

“This business is about giving back to the community. It's a nonprofit," said Jay Galli, who co-owns Poker Bar & Grill off Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, a suburb 26 miles north of Downtown Atlanta, with Tucker. "And that's the best part of the business is we're able to give back. We're actually donating all the profits to other children.”

In Georgia, there's Poker Bar & Grill and the original: Little Kings and Queens, a charity poker room that has been operating for six years out of retail space in Downtown Buford, 38 miles north of Downtown Atlanta and also in Gwinnett County. General Manager Mike Neal said his venue — which also operates a restaurant — has provided money to various charities thanks to its poker tournaments, which see upward of 40 players a week.

“Our whole mission is we'll get you [charities] what you need,” Neal said. For instance, earlier this year, Little Kings and Queens donated eight computers and printers to an area homeless shelter known as Home of Hope.

Poker Bar & Grill workers practicing a round of Texas Hold ‘em poker.

Georgia state law takes into account three factors to determine if an event is gambling: Whether the player has to put up something, usually money, in order to participate, whether the game is based purely on chance, and whether prizes are awarded. Checking yes on all three of those boxes puts an enterprise under the anti-gambling legislation, but a charity can work around these laws by seeking a license through a local sheriff's office to be exempt to hold an event, said Rachel Spears, a local attorney and executive director with the nonprofit Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, which advises nonprofits.

Spears declined to comment on charity poker and said she does not advise nonprofits in holding those events.

Poker Bar & Grill has been given a license by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's department to operate its business. Gwinnett County Sheriff Senior Deputy Ashley Castiblanco declined to comment on Poker Bar & Grill's license. Bisnow filed an open records request on Sept. 14 for copies of the license.

While rare in Georgia, poker rooms are springing up in other states. In Texas, which also has anti-gambling laws, there are now more than 50 poker clubs operating, according to a 2020 Medium article

Tucker, the Poker Bar & Grill co-owner, said he sees the potential for similar growth in Georgia for charity poker rooms. But that will likely take time and will depend on local jurisdictions' attitudes toward granting charity raffle licenses for poker.

“You got to remember, this concept is not widely known. It's not like we opened a pizzeria and there are 10,000 others. This is literally the start of our fifth day,” Tucker said.

Tucker said when he began to organize Poker Bar & Grill earlier this year, he was upfront with Gwinnett County officials as to its purpose and activities. If there was going to be any pushback from county officials, Tucker said he would rather it happen before he opened the doors.

“The county, everyone loves the concept,” he said. “Everything is going straight into charity.”

Tucker said he is aware of the risks, but said he hopes to eventually expand Poker Bar & Grill's concept beyond Duluth with multiple locations.

“I mean, we could be out of business in a year. Or we could be putting another one up,” he said.