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Alleged collusion among card sharks to be probed

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Deadwood is committed to quashing the perception that gamblers are teaming up to gain chips from opponents.

DEADWOOD | Cowboys likely have been cheating at poker here since the first cards were shuffled and the first whiskey was swigged in the infamous summer of 1876.

But Wednesday, South Dakota Commission on Gaming members said they have had enough, citing continued reports of collusion among poker players at Deadwood’s gaming tables.

“There’s a perception out there in the public that the games aren’t on a level playing field,” Commissioner Dennis Duncan said. “Sometimes perception becomes reality in certain people’s minds and I think that’s the point where we’re at. If there are 10 people talking about it, that’s 10 people too many.”

Duncan said the commission has received numerous informal complaints of players working together in poker games to obtain the chips of opponents.

“That has continued over the last couple of years really without abatement,” Duncan said. “The commission is here to ensure the integrity of those games for the public.”

On a unanimous vote, the commission authorized Executive Secretary Larry Eliason to negotiate a contract with a gaming consultant who could assess the validity of the claims and provide recommendations to licensees on how to identify and correct purported cheating at the poker tables.

Representatives of Deadwood’s major poker venues were encouraged to attend Wednesday's session and more than 30 casino managers, staff and industry representatives showed up.

“There have been allegations of collusion at the poker tables,” Eliason said. “Some of these individuals were invited to be here to give their input as to the truth of these allegations.”

In a Nov. 5 letter to several major casino owners, Eliason stated that the commission was concerned that casino owners and managers “may not take this matter as seriously as does the commission.”

“The Commission on Gaming staff is aware of concerns raised that a small group of poker players may be using unfair practices, including collusion, at poker tournaments in certain casinos in Deadwood,” Eliason wrote. “In spite of the fact the commission staff has visited with the managers of some establishments on this matter collusive play continues to be a matter of active discussion.”

While gaming advocates attending Wednesday’s meeting said they questioned the credibility of the claims, they encouraged the commission to investigate the allegations.

“Deadwood poker, besides being a foundation of the Deadwood gaming industry, is the cornerstone of Deadwood’s storied history,” said Mike Rodman, newly named executive director of the Deadwood Gaming Association. “If there are patrons violating the intent of those rules outside of the operator’s control, we would urge an investigation by the commission and if necessary, banning those individuals from gaming in Deadwood.

“The industry should not have its reputation tarnished by rumor, innuendo and disgruntled patron’s blogs,” a fiery Rodman told the commission. “We stand in full support of the commission’s quest to put these rumors to rest.”

Commissioners asked operators to view their willingness to assist in identifying and correcting cheating as a resource they could call upon to educate poker dealers and managers and counter the perception of collusion.

“Collusive play occurs all over America,” said Commissioner Harry Christianson, who once was a partner in a major Deadwood casino. “We want to provide the industry with a resource, make poker room people more aware of it, and look for tell-tale signs of that behavior.”

Commission Chairman Ralph Kemnitz said the gaming board wanted to be clear that this involved player collusion and that no one has ever pointed a finger at the casinos.

“It’s something we definitely need to do,” Kremnitz said. “I remember Gov. Mickelson’s original words to this commission and they were, `Keep it squeaky clean.’”

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