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Kroon: Ruling Puts Poker 'In The Backroom Again'

Madison Poker Pro, Bar Owner Talks About Recent Ruling


Wisconsin-based poker pro Mark Kroon was recently part of a collective effort by poker players in the state to get poker classified as a game of skill like darts and pool and considered legal in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, a judge ruled earlier this month that poker is still illegal.

Kroon owns a bar in Madison that used to host poker tournaments with no rake, but several years ago he was told by authorities that his games needed to stop. Though the judge was sympathetic to the argument that poker is skill and should be legal, he said that he “can’t ignore the law.”

Kroon said poker players were surprised that their push to challenge the law was unsuccessful, and they could take their case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Card Player had the chance to speak to Kroon, who also recently finished 43rd in the 2015 World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas, about the legal battle and how it came to be.

Brian Pempus: Can you talk about the process of trying to get poker classified as a game of skill and considered legal in Wisconsin and your role in it?

Mark Kroon: The way it all started was about four years ago the Justice Department came into my bar here in Madison. I used to run little $25 or $50 hold’em tournaments, and the Justice Department came in about them. They were like, “if you continue doing this we are going to close you down because they’re illegal.” I was like, “every bar around is doing this.” They said they were getting complaints about our tournaments. The Indian casinos complained because our tournaments were getting more than their tournaments. They said that if we continued they might not only arrest people, but they could also hurt my license. That scared me because I wasn’t even making money off the tournaments. The poker players weren’t drinking that much, so it wasn’t worth it for the bar. So we stopped having tournaments. Then a bunch of the players came up and said we should fight this. You can have dart and pool tournaments, but you can’t have poker tournaments. One of the poker players was our lawyer, and he said that if we raised enough money he would love to help fight it. He did a great job. We ran a bunch of poker tournaments where 50 percent went to the prize pool and 50 percent went to the legal fund. We raised $10,000 and decided to sue the attorney general in Wisconsin. That’s basically how it all got started.

We didn’t want to run these really big tournaments and raise it all at once and have them come in there and shut it down. We didn’t run these at my bar. We ran them outside of the Madison area. It took about a year before we raised the $10,000 and filed the suit.

BP: So, for the state to come in and say it has an issue with a poker game at a bar or tavern really depends on its proximity to a tribal casino?

MK: Well, we were basically told that the Justice Department thought it was kind of ridiculous to come in here, but once they received a complaint they had to follow through. Technically what we were doing was illegal. The Indian casinos can say knock it off. We had a local casino that was trying to open up an electronic [poker] table room and they were trying to run tournaments. But nobody wanted to play on the electronic tables. They thought if they closed our tournaments down everyone would come play at their place. It was just unfortunate the way it happened. So we tried to get the law changed, and the judge even admitted to playing poker, that he loses money because he is not good, but he didn’t have the backbone to overturn the cases that happened before.

BP: Were you surprised he said all those positive things and then ruled against poker?

MK: We were really surprised. When we went to court we had an expert prove that it was a game of skill. It was cut and dry. The state didn’t even put up an expert. He rebutted everything our expert said, and then the judge said that the DA is not an expert in this matter and everything that he tried to rebut is not admissible in court. We were really confident that we were going to get a ruling in our favor once he ruled that all the expert testimony on the state’s side was no good because the DA isn’t an expert. We were shocked that the [judge] didn’t have the guts to do it. The judge was a really nice guy and I don’t mean to make it seem like he didn’t have the guts, but his hands were tied. He said we’ll have to take it to the State Supreme Court if we want it overturned.

BP: Do you know if some bars that have been running poker quietly are going to stop now because of this ruling?

MK: Well, I don’t think it’s going to stop. Nobody is running them within the city of Madison. There are a lot of municipalities around the city and their police departments have much better things to do than mess with 20 guys playing in a tournament. Cash games don’t really happen in bars. Those happen in people’s houses and I haven’t heard of those games being raided. But it’s still really a shame, because if it was legal you would have a safe place to play, you wouldn’t have to worry as much about getting robbed. We want people to not feel like criminals if they are playing poker. [The ruling] puts us all in the backroom again. The worst part is the judge himself plays with guys that I know, we have guys from police departments who play with us. It’s just ridiculous. I think it would have set a precedent for the entire country if we would have won this. Maybe it would have given us a chance for online poker to come back. The bar that I own is where I met Phil Hellmuth and where he first started playing poker. He kept saying that he was willing to testify and do what he could to help us, but we just thought that we wanted to keep [our legal fight] small. Phil has gone in front of Congress to prove that poker is a game of skill. We thought not getting him involved was a better way to go, but maybe we were wrong.

BP: Do you know if anyone has ever gone to jail in Wisconsin over hosting poker games?

MK: They cited a couple of cases at the hearing, but what they did was lump together a poker game with other illegal activities. The cases involved a lot of gambling, and poker was just part of it. In my lifetime, I don’t remember anything like that. The cases they cited were from the 1960s. I’m not aware of anyone who has been charged for playing poker.

BP: Can you talk about your deep run in the main event this summer?

MK: Yeah, a couple of years ago I was the chip leader on Day 1, 2 and 3, which has never been done before. But I imploded in a hand that happened to be on TV. That hurt so bad. The following year I didn’t even play the main event, and I had played it for 10 or 12 years previously. People were saying I was the guy who bluffed off all his chips, how could you do that with 500 big blinds, and it actually affected me a lot. Normally I am the fun guy at the table, but people were being mean about it. It was kind of tough. Last year I didn’t play a lot and didn’t play the main event. This year I went back and everyone had kind of forgotten about the hand. I played the main event, and it was almost like déjà vu. On Day 2 I had a lot of chips, and then I was top 40 in chips as we got into the money. Day 5 was just amazing being on the secondary feature table. It felt like all of a sudden we were under 50 players, and then it started to sink in. Phil was telling me to stay focused and take it a hand at a time. It hit me that I was 40 people away from making the final table. It is everyone’s dream. I can’t thank Phil enough for being there and helping me. I came back here and everyone was saying they had been following me, and it felt like I was playing it for everyone. It was so cool.

Tags: Wisconsin,   Mark Kroon


almost 7 years ago

It's really just business. The Indian Casino's pay millions in fees and taxes to the state each year for the exclusive gambling right your bar tournament pays nothing so the state sides with the guy who is paying them. If the state allows bars such as yours these rights then the Indian Casino do not pay those fees for the exclusive rights[since they no longer have them] to spread these games. How long would it be be4 bars put in slots and other gambling items.