Hialeah Park to Pay Large Fine in 2015 Tournament Fiasco, Real Perpetrators Get Away

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Wrapping up a fiasco that dates back to last summer, Florida gaming officials are expected to hand down a massive fine against one of the state’s most popular poker rooms. The fine is the result of a tournament that still has several question marks as to the integrity of the event and the racetrack where the poker room is located is not answering any further questions on the subject.

The situation dates back to the last week of August 2015, when the Hialeah Park Poker Room was allegedly holding a poker tournament to celebrate its second year of existence. The tournament, a $250 buy in event with a $200,000 guaranteed prize pool and a first place guarantee of $60,000, drew in competition from other poker rooms across Southeast Florida as players were drawn to the sizeable prize pool. According to Florida gaming journalist Nick Sortal, one of the players in that event was T. J. Shulman, whose Hendon Mob resume lists nearly $500,000 in tournament poker winnings over the last ten years. While the “regulars” in the Hialeah Park room saw the big money Shulman, who was used to tournaments like the one being run at the Hialeah Park Poker Room, was more interested in watching the operators of the tournament.

As the tournament proceeded through Shulman’s Day One (one of five that were operated in the tournament), Shulman noticed oddities that he hadn’t seen in other events. Players would be speaking with the floor staff and management, then seat themselves without explanation (Shulman said another player relayed to him, “They were talking in Spanish and the guy understood another player saying he was getting 20% of the winnings and giving the staff 80%”). Other personnel would handle money at the sign-up desk rather than the appropriate cage locations. What got Shulman, though, were the numbers. “I told a Hialeah supervisor, ‘You’re missing $48,000 from the prize pool,’” Shulman stated to Sortal. “The supervisor told me, ‘If you don’t like the way we’re playing here, go back to the Hard Rock (the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood).’”

This lines up with reports from other players who participated in the event. There was an attempt by the staff to “clear up” the issue but, instead of clearing things up, they instead clouded the waters even further. Additionally, once the tournament was completed there was no listing of winner of the tournament or the final table finishers, nor were there any listings offered for players who cashed in the estimated 1000 entry field.

Not surprisingly, the players rebelled against the Hialeah Park Poker Room. In September, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (the regulatory body overseeing poker rooms in Florida) opened up an investigation. After a nearly three-month investigation, the state investigators issued their report on December 29, listing a litany of offenses regarding not only the tournament but also other actions around the poker room itself, including lack of video surveillance, no receipts for cash in or out of the cages, improper handling of money, even supervisors pocketing cash. “(The investigation) confirmed what the players suspected,” Sortal wrote, “Hialeah’s poker managers ran a dirty tournament.”

By the time this report from state officials came down in December, however, the culprits had already left town. The manager of the poker room at that time, Nelson Costa (who was also alleged to have run a poker dealer school that provided dealers to the Hialeah Park room; he would then take a cut of the dealer “tokes” in some arrangement with the dealers), resigned his position in October and three other assistants were fired following the conclusion of the tournament in question. The Hialeah Park Casino’s Director of Compliance, Angel Garcia, is working as the poker manager in addition to his other duties and the casino has brought in other personnel from as far away as Atlantic City to operate the poker room properly.

Hialeah Park isn’t talking anymore about the situation. The organization had until January 18 to respond to the state’s report and apparently didn’t disagree with any of the findings. As such, Sortal expects that the Hialeah Park Poker Room will receive a six-figure fine over the poker tournament but no one will face any criminal charges in the case. Sortal also indicates that, when he was asked about the situation, Hialeah Park President John Brunetti “declined to comment.”

Although Hialeah Park officials should be held for more responsibility in the case (hopefully that six-figure fine is a BIG six-figures), the real culprits – Costa and his assistants – are the ones that state officials should be on the lookout for. In fact, any state that has gaming should have their information on file as persona non grata for employment in the gaming industry for the actions taken in the Florida event. If such situations aren’t punished thoroughly, then people will believe they can get away with ripping the customers – in this case, poker players – off, something that should never happen in a casino setting.

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