Math is a vital part of poker, and the numbers didn’t add up during an August tournament at Hialeah Park.
The prize money pool was short. The tournament chip total was too large. That meant the 1,000 or so players, who each paid $250 to enter, were battling extra players who hadn’t paid entry fees.
Players complained and the state investigated the irregularities. The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has confirmed 11 violations in a report released Dec. 29, most of them involving poor accounting. It’s the first major card-room irregularity since poker became legal in 1996.
Hialeah has until Jan. 18 to appeal. If not, the state, which declined further comment, will issue penalties, which could range from fines to license suspension. Hialeah President John Brunetti declined comment.
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The tournament, which guaranteed at least $200,000 in prize money, was the largest in history at Hialeah, which began poker in 2013. Players could begin play either in the afternoon or evening for five days, from Aug. 25-29, with the survivors set to conclude Aug. 30.
The state report confirms Hialeah card-room managers slipped in extra players, noting that an undetermined number of people did not go through the usual cashier-window registration. The added players increased the competition for other players, without increasing the payout totals.
Poker tournaments routinely offer updates on the prize pool and number of players remaining, and those numbers flummoxed Allen Powers, who plays regularly at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood but came to Hialeah for the first time.
“The prize pool was just at $215,000 but they said there were 1,061 entries,” he said. That would make for $265,250 collected, although the card room does pull out a cut for expenses.
“But then they said, ‘No, 961 entries,’” he said, which would have brought the total down to $240,250, of which the house would keep about 11 percent. He also noted that with 961 entries, there would have been fewer than 25 million chips in play, but the official tournament board listed more than 27 million.
Hialeah poker managers also placed players at specific seats, rather than putting them at tables with random opponents. Players note that seat position is vital to the game, because it helps to be at a table with weaker players.
The state also found that surveillance video did not properly cover parts of the poker room, including areas where cash was handled, and money was kept in poker room manager Nelson Costa’s office, rather than a cashier’s cage or vault.
Costa and a few of his staff members have since left Hialeah and the casino’s director of compliance, Angel Garcia, is doubling up as the new card-room manager.
Players who fare well in tournaments pick up their winnings at a cashier’s cage, and are given receipts, which the card room keeps copies of, but 13 such players did not receive receipts, the state said. Hialeah never released the names of the tournament winners, nor the prize payouts.
Investigators also found that surveillance video was not preserved, tournament records were not kept for a required three years and jackpot accounts were not maintained.
Hialeah Park's poker room is the most lucrative in Miami-Dade County. It opened in September 2013 and made $8,359,367 in the fiscal year ending June 30, well ahead of Miami-Dade rivals Magic City ($6,939,763) and Casino Miami ($2,339,514).
Get daily gambling news at SouthFloridaGambling.com. Nick Sortal's gambling column will debut Jan. 15 in the Miami Herald Weekend section.