Casual poker fans are accustomed to seeing the game portrayed in the most sanitized of settings. Major tournament events such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and World Poker Tour (WPT) are held at glitzy casino resorts in locales like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. These tournaments are governed by both house rules and local gaming regulations, and strict oversight is provided to ensure that every dollar and every chip is always accounted for.

And even in the world of cash game play, the biggest games in the world go down at Bobby’s Room – a secluded section within the Bellagio poker room reserved for legends like Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey. Speaking of Ivey, he has his own eponymous high-stakes room over at the Aria, home to the newly constructed Poker Central stage where broadcast features like Poker After Dark are filmed in front of live audiences.

All things considered, the poker industry has come a long way since its infamous infancy, when Brunson and his fellow “Texas Road Gamblers” plied their trade in rough and tumble underground days. But that’s only on the surface, the upper echelon of poker where corporate casinos and millionaire moguls dominate the discussion. For the rank and file of the poker community – the $125 tournament grinders and $1/$2 cash game heroes found in every city in America – safe and secure casino card rooms are a luxury.

In states like Utah and Texas – both no-go zones for commercial casinos – card players are forced to enter the murky world of underground poker rooms. And even if you live in one of the dozens of states where commercial and/or tribal casinos can be found, these establishments are typically reserved for the big cities and their surrounding suburbs.

That leaves a wide swath of the American public living in areas that lack convenient access to legitimate casinos and card rooms. Accordingly, a “black market” of sorts has sprung up to fill that void, with underground poker clubs cropping up from coast to coast. Portland, Oregon is home to a growing network of extremely popular public poker clubs. The rapid growth of underground poker operations in Texas has attracted the attention of authorities.

And in New York City – home to the original hidden poker hotspot the Mayfair Club  – players still honor the legacy of local legends like Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, and Howard Lederer. Odds are, you’ve passed right by a private poker club operating in your community without ever even noticing. In the urban setting, these enterprises are typically housed in nondescript suites tucked away in shopping centers and strip malls. Out in the ‘burbs, poker clubs can be found in rec rooms, garages, and even entire apartments.

No matter where you find an underground poker game though, the appeal is readily apparent. Instead of driving an hour or more out to your nearest casino, you can hit the nearest neighborhood card club and avoid the commute. Underground games are far more relaxed too, with players given free reign to set up straddles, the “2-7” game, prop bets, and any other side action they might be interested in. And depending on the room, you might just find yourself a school of fish waiting to be feasted upon by better players.

For those reasons, and many others, underground poker rooms have become big business across America. Every day, millions of players compete in thousands of unregulated games all over the country, from privately owned “mini-casinos” to the kitchen table. Easy access to poker may seem like a “win-win” for supporters of the game, but as is usually the case, some things are simply too good to be true. As underground poker games have proliferated, so too have the problems associated with card rooms that lack any form of regulation.

Simply put, players lack the basic protections that licensed casinos provide. Onsite security, internal oversight, and ethical conduct are among the many benefits poker players take for granted when sitting down in a private game. To help you avoid the most common pitfalls plaguing underground poker enthusiasts everywhere, be sure to watch out for the seven dangers inherent to private games outlined below:

1 – You Can Be Cheated

One of the main reasons behind the rise of regulated casinos in places like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and tribal reservations in dozens of states, is the demand for game integrity.

As recently as the 1950s, gamblers could reliably expect to be cheated, hustled, or scammed while playing almost any game of chance or skill. The creation of the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) in 1955 brought an end to that era of “Wild West” gambling lawlessness within the gambling industry. Even so, as underground poker clubs and card rooms began to proliferate – a trend which began in earnest in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker’s WSOP Main Event win launched the “poker boom” – the specter of inmates running the asylum returned.

Just think about the redundant layers of protection which serve to discourage cheaters at a regulated casino. Security guards patrol the entrances and exits, dealers and floor staffs supervise every card dealt with close scrutiny, and the ever present “eye in the sky” subjects everybody in the game to constant video surveillance. Under this tightly controlled climate, would-be cheaters have every warning to leave the tricks of their trade at home.

But when you venture out into the wilderness of underground poker rooms, the dynamic flips entirely on its head. Instead of a corporate casino chain in charge the operation, these games are run by random gamblers – usually poker players themselves hoping to turn their passion into a profession.

And as much as you’d like to think actual human beings beat corporations when it comes to ethical conduct, major companies actually have much more to offer in that regard. The demands of shareholders who must be satisfied with a steady stream of profits, coupled with local gaming regulators who leave no stone unturned, corporate casinos have every incentive to target and weed out cheaters. Private poker room operators, on the other hand, might just be cheaters in their own right.

Check out the following description of an elaborate cheating scheme uncovered in a New York City card game, as covered by the New York Post in a 2017 profile:

“One poker participant recounted a high-tech cheating ploy in which the dealer and a planted player collaborated.

The dealer slipped in a deck of cards implanted with unnoticeable Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) computer chips. The cards silently transmitted their order to a computer that was able to figure out who at the table would be dealt the winning hand; the computer then transmitted that intel to the player via an earpiece.

The scam came to light after hidden sensors were discovered under the table. The guys behind it were found out, but had already split and were, allegedly, never punished.” (Quote)

And while the house collaborating with cheaters is the most common scam underground poker players encounter, nefarious figures can also manage to get over on the game without any assistance from the dealers.

Players who want to win at any costs can mark the cards, using invisible ink detectable only through their specialized eyeglasses, in order to gain an unfair advantage. So-called “mechanics” can use their turn shuffling the deck to dole out premium hands to their playing partner. And as you can see in this informative article on poker cheating devices, technology is continually being adapted to help folks fleece you during a “friendly” game of cards.

2 – Regulars Can Collude Against You

Any poker player worth their salt can be counted on to quote the cult classic “Rounders” on command. But unforgettable lines about how “women are the rake” and the thrill of “check-raising stupid tourists and taking huge pots them” aside, a particular Mike McD monologue speaks to the heart of underground poker’s dubious nature.

During this highly entertaining montage scene , Matt Damon’s lawyer-turned-grinder Mike and his partner “Worm” score an invite to a private Stud game played amongst prep school students. As he takes his seat and feigns ignorance over the rules, Mike offers the following insight into the scheme playing out onscreen between Worm and himself:

“Worm and I fall into our old rhythm like Clyde Frazier and Pearl Monroe.

We bring out all the old school tricks, stuff that would never play in the city. Signaling, chip placing, trapping… we even run the old best hand play.

I can probably crack the game just as quickly straight up, but there’s no risk in this room. As “Canada” Bill Jones said, it’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money.” (Quote)

Rounders may appear to be a relic of a bygone age in poker, a time when true hustlers were the biggest sharks in the sea, but the cloud of collusion still lingers over any game. Even on a respected tournament circuit like the Mid-States Poker Tour (MSPT), two players have been caught assisting one another through collusion.

In this case, romantic couple and professional players Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell played their way to the final three of a $5,000 event. From there, an extremely curious hand played out in front of the cameras and a live stream audience. Bicknell held pocket Aces while her boyfriend found pocket Jacks in the hole, before the flop fell Jack-high to give Foxen the commanding lead with top set.

But rather than play the hand out like it would be 99 percent of the time – with bets and raises culminating in an all-in confrontation – Foxen and Bicknell “soft-played” one another to ensure both remained alive in the tournament. The gambit wound up working, as Foxen and Bicknell finished in 1st and 2nd place, respectively, to capture the lion’s share of the six-figure prize pool up for grabs.

When you think about how easily collusion can occur in a high-profile poker game like the MSPT, just imagine what goes on at your local underground card club. Playing partners can signal one another using chip placement, conspire to build big pots while boxing out opponents with huge bets, or even use the mechanic tricks employed by Worm in the earlier clip.

Just ask “Johnny M.,” a Brooklyn hustler who was profiled by the New York Post in 2016:

“We played because we liked playing, always being in action, always having cash — and we cheated when we could. There was collusion.

To pull it off, we spoke in a code – funny meant four, nice was nine, very was three of a kind: This is a very nice guy here meant that you held three nines – and the suckers had no idea what we were saying to each other.” (Quote)

3 – You Might be Robbed… Or Worse

Up until November of 2007, underground poker games in New York City flourished with little scrutiny from local police and lawmakers. That all changed when a team of robbers wearing ski masks and brandishing shotguns entered an office building on 5th Avenue and 28th Street. The thieves immediately targeted the card club’s high-limit table, scooping up cash, jewelry, and other valuables from the well-heeled businessmen and pro players present.

Robberies like this had become a looming threat to the city’s underground poker scene in recent years, but this one turned deadly when an assailant dropped their gun. The subsequent discharge resulted in the death of 55-year old Frank DeSena, along with renewed pressure on local authorities to clamp down on the bustling underground poker scene.

In a profile of that scene published by ESPN one year before, an anonymous regular recounted his own experience coping with armed robberies and other violence as the cost of doing business:

“Last year, when the current spate of robberies started, thugs raided a nearby room. They had bigger guns, but apparently not nearly the same guts.

One of the heavies was shaking so hard that the club’s employees went out of their way to cooperate so he would calm down and not accidentally kill someone.” (Quote)

It’s not just the big city environs either, as a poker player in Austin, Texas was left in critical condition after he was shot during a robbery. Whatever complaints you may have about corporate casinos, your chances of enduring a violent encounter in a regulated card club decrease exponentially.

4 – You Might be Raided and/or Arrested

If it’s not a criminal sticking their gun in your face, it might just be the cops. Police departments around the country are becoming increasingly hostile to the underground poker industry. Phoenix, Arizona – home to one of the most energetic private poker scenes of all during the last decade – recently experienced a wave of police raids.

In a public statement, Arizona Department of Gaming spokeswoman Amanda Jacinto told local news outlets that underground poker operators and players alike would receive little in the way of leniency:

“During the joint operation several people were arrested in connection to the business and will be facing multiple charges including operating an illegal gaming facility, promotion of illegal gambling, and racketeering.

One of the things that made it illegal – versus your normal poker game that you might have at your own home – is the business was profiting off of the folks that were in here playing poker. No matter win or lose, the business would typically take a portion of the money.”

5 – You Can Get Ripped Off by High Rake

Depending on the house rules utilized by private games in your area, you might be forced to pay an exorbitant fee – known as “rake” to poker people – just for the privilege of playing. In poker parlance, the rake is simply the surcharge collected by poker rooms in exchange for providing cards, chips, dealers, security, and other accoutrements.

6- You Can Get Stiffed

This one goes without saying, but once you pony up a pile of cash to play an unregulated card game, there’s no assurance you’ll be repaid when the game breaks. Of course, underground card clubs that make a habit of stiffing their players won’t last long, so this danger isn’t as pronounced as the others on this list. Businesses, even illegal ones, survive and thrive by ensuring customer satisfaction, so absconding with somebody’s bankroll isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

Nonetheless, unscrupulous operators are part and parcel of any industry, and underground poker is no different. Horror stories abound on the online forums, with players reporting an evening of grinding and camaraderie, only to discover that the heavies in charge of the game had no intention of cashing out chip stacks.

7 – You Might be the Fish

It stands to reason that the best poker players in any given area would put their work in at the best casino card room around. But in a counterintuitive twist, many of the most talented cardsharps to ever play the game cut their teeth in underground games. Legends like Stu Ungar and Howard Lederer learned the ropes at the Mayfair Club in NYC, which means up and coming grinders back in the 1980s played low-stakes games alongside future WSOP gold bracelet winners.

That might not be the case today – as the most proficient young players are probably grinding online somewhere in Canada or Europe – but you can still find the veritable “Murderer’s Row” frequenting private card clubs. These players are pros in their own right, earning a tough living at the tables through their own strategy and skill.

For many casual players who hope to have a little fun at their local underground poker game, the scene can quickly provide a rude awakening. These guys are true sharks, sitting day in and day out while a steady stream of fish provide an endless supply of rent money.

Just imagine yourself sitting in the shoes of “Matthew21v13,” an anonymous underground poker player profiled by ESPN in 2006 who instantly realized where he stood on his local card club’s totem pole:

“I was not happy with that evening’s lineup, as I was clearly the table idiot. The other players, who ranged from loose action junkies to rocks, were all aggressive sharks that had earned the respect of the underground community. I knew them well, but we normally did not all play at the same table. I was accustomed to seeing a smattering of slack-jawed garlic-eaters diluting the poker gene pool. But the suckers had vanished.”


Underground card clubs may seem like the perfect alternative to regulated poker rooms, but players should proceed with caution. The ancient rule of caveat emptor, or “buyer beware,” definitely applies here, as players who patronize private games can be targeted from all angles. Cheating and collusion, robberies and raids, high rake and refusal to pay out are just a few of the threats facing underground poker players in 2019 and beyond.

Related Articles
Leave Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *