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Gamblers remain angered over denied jackpot

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – The group of gamblers included an eye doctor, a hotel housekeeper and a farmer, all brought to the poker table by their common quest to claim a jackpot.

But their Texas hold ‘em poker game in February 2008 at Royal River Casino ended far differently than any of them could have imagined.

When the queen of spades was dealt as the fourth card in the game that night, the players thought they would share in an almost $96,000 “bad beat” jackpot – the biggest in Royal River’s history.

But the casino refused to pay out the jackpot, claiming it had been voided when, during the hand, one of the poker players allegedly said the words, “bad beat” in violation of the game’s rules. The guideline is designed to discourage collusion.

Since then, for more than two years, nine of the 10 poker players that day have chased their jackpot through the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe’s gaming commission, then through tribal court and tribal appellate court. One of the players, Brian Piearson of Brookings, twice has written letters to Gov. Mike Rounds. All yielded nothing.

“Nine people did nothing wrong. Lightening struck for them in a good way, and they had nothing to show for it,” said Andrew Damgaard, a lawyer in the Janklow Law Firm who represented player Bill Williams of Sioux Falls in the effort.

The poker pot dispute surfaces as the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe works to get approval to build a large casino in Sioux Falls. That effort requires federal and state approval.

Piearson, a doctor of optometry, said the experience has made him leery of the tribe’s ability to fairly operate a big new gaming venue.

“The money is of some importance,” he acknowledges of the jackpot. “But my main concern is if their management can’t handle a small casino the size of Royal River, there is no way they should handle a $100 million casino.”

In replies to Piearson’s letters, Rounds noted the tribe is suing the state in federal court over the state’s refusal to enter into negotiations on expanding the tribe’s gaming compact. Because of the ongoing litigation, the governor declined further comment.

Representatives of the tribe fend off speculation its dark shadow will interfere with the tribe’s goals to work with the state and Sioux Falls on a new larger casino in the city.

But the players don’t plan to let up on their pursuit of that jackpot.

“I’ll be on their case the rest of my life,” Williams said.

Donna Larson would have received one of the minor jackpot shares. The money might have meant the most to her. A hotel housekeeper in Pipestone, Minn., she lives with her son in her parents’ basement.

“It would be a nice chunk to save to help my son and I get out on our own. I would like for him to have his own room.

“I also have bad teeth. Hopefully, I could get those fixed if I didn’t get an apartment,” she says.

To win a bad beat jackpot, circumstances have to fall together just right. A bad beat is a poker term that describes a situation when a heavily favored hand loses to what is deemed to be an underdog hand. The Royal River jackpot rules state that a payout would occur if an excellent hand of a full house of aces over 10s or better is beaten by an even greater hand, four of a kind or a straight flush – a bad beat.

The person losing the hand receives 50 percent of the jackpot. The winner gets 25 percent and others at the table share the remaining 25 percent.

In the Royal River game, the two betting at the end, Williams and Piearson, stood to win about $48,000 and $24,000, respectively. The others would have received about $3,000 apiece.

However, the dealer said she heard one of the players mentioning the potential bad beat and she voided the hand. Royal River declined to pay.

Sherry Kriescher, who was the general manager at Royal River in February 2008, defends the gaming commission and points out that its decision was upheld by two courts.

“`Everything was properly in place. That’s why they won that case. I think there would be a different outcome if things were not in place,” she said.

Oth Pathammauong, the Flandreau man alleged to have mumbled something about the bad beat at the table and the lone player not to pursue the jackpot payout, was seen at Royal River a few times after the fateful Texas hold ‘em game and then disappeared.

Don Conlon of Garretson was the player sitting between Pathammauong and dealer, Jan Jones, and he insists while Pathammauong was intoxicated and mumbling to himself, he never spoke of the bad beat while the hand was being played.

Jones no longer is at Royal River. She did not return phone calls. Kriescher also has left the casino. She now is executive director of the Acoma Gaming Commission in New Mexico.

Texas hold ‘em games became popular in South Dakota tribal casinos about five years ago, according to Kriescher. She said casinos offer them primarily as a service to customers.

“They’re more of an expense to a casino than anything. They are almost as bad as bingo, only because of the overhead.”

In 2008, though, Royal River at times had as many as eight tables of Texas hold ‘em being played, according to Williams and others. Interest in the game was further heated by the bad beat jackpot.

For some time, the casino had taken a dollar from every pot of more than $20 to create the jackpot. It built through tens of thousands of hands to almost $96,000. In the game Feb. 2, 2008, Jason Weber, an Emery farmer, had just settled in to play.

“It was my first or second hand. I was just trying to get my chips lined up,” he recalls. He was across the table and one down from Pathammauong, and Weber said he paid Pathammauong little heed. “I never heard him say nothing.”

Larson was so new to Texas hold ‘em she didn’t even know what a bad beat was. Conlon, to Pathammauong’s left, said while Pathammauong was muttering, “he didn’t speak English.”

Piearson, at the head of the table to Pathammauong’s right, and Williams at the foot of the table, are both longtime poker players. After the original deal, Williams was holding a pair of aces, and Piearson the queens of clubs and hearts.

In the first round of community cards available to all the players, the flop, the ace of clubs and queen of diamonds were dealt.

“I folded when I seen the other queen come out,” Conlon said. “I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to have trips (three of a kind).’ “

Williams, holding three aces at this point, and Piearson, with three queens, began to play aggressively, maxing out the raises on the $3 game.

“He knew I had trip aces; I’m that kind of player,” Williams said.

Piearson agreed. He remembers Williams raising so fast he excitedly threw in too many chips.

The next card dealt, the turn, was the queen of spades. It gave Williams a full house of aces over queens. But it also completed Piearson’s four of a kind. The final card, the river, a two of clubs, helped neither of them.

Piearson said he was oblivious to Pathammauong next to him.

“I never heard anything. I had my four queens. I was concentrating more on betting and getting the maximum out of the pot than worrying about what anybody was saying.”

While Piearson was sizing up Williams’ aggressive play, Williams also was reading Piearson. He concluded Piearson was holding exceptional cards, possibly a bad beat hand.

“When that queen came down, I looked at Brian and he looked at me. We knew we were not going to say a thing,” he says.

For a moment, when the cards were played and it appeared the bad beat had been hit, “it was a thrill. It’s the biggest rush you’re ever going to get to hit something like that. Then to have it denied is a screw job,” Williams said.

Larson was bewildered by the explosion of excitement, and Piearson had to spend a few moments explaining to her their apparent good fortune.

“There are very few things that everybody gets to win,” he said.

After the dealer voided the hand, there was enough confusion that the casino brought extra security guards to the card room. Piearson and Williams said the players stayed late into the evening waiting for casino officials to review the decision, and they held out hope they would be paid. That hope continued as the matter went before the tribal gaming commission.

Williams and Conlon speculate the casino refused to pay in order to keep the huge bad beat jackpot active.

While there are diverging accounts of what Pathammauong did or did not say about the bad beat, Williams, Piearson and other players said whatever Pathammauong uttered occurred after the last queen was dealt didn’t affect the bad beat hand.

In a handwritten statement to the gaming commission, Pathammauong wrote “on the night I was playing poker, I was drinking pretty heavily and falling asleep and mumbling to myself. The dealer jump on me about a bad beat. I wasn’t saying anything. I was mumbling to myself, before you know it everyone was blaming me.”

He wrote he was unable to sleep or go to work and feared for his safety. “One guy said he’ll kill me.”

According to Williams, soon after the casino decided not to pay out the jackpot, Kriescher acknowledged the rules against discussing the bad beat were unclear in their intent to prohibit players from colluding. Kriescher counters “these guys were regular players. They know the rules.

“I understand his frustration, I totally do,” she said of Williams. “But we’ve got rules to follow.”

Natalie Turnquist of the Janklow Law Firm argued for the card players in both the lower and appellate court. She said the matter was properly heard in tribal courts rather than in civil court, and the appellate court, especially, “did a nice job understanding it. It didn’t come out in our favor, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fair.”

Damgaard, too, said the players received a fair hearing before the appellate judges. He acknowledged he wishes the justices would have given weight to an argument that Royal River was liable for Pathammauong voiding the bad beat by talking about it, because casino employees allowed the inebriated man to play.

But in the decision that B.J. Jones, director of the University of North Dakota Tribal Justice Institute, wrote for the court, he said it was clear Pathammauong had uttered “bad beat. ... It is irrelevant whether the player who did so was drunk or not as there is no ‘highly intoxicated’ exception to the ban on uttering the term.”

Terry Pechota, gaming commission lawyer, and Sam Allen, Trustee IV on the tribal executive committee, said the bad beat controversy won’t hang like a dark cloud over the casino. When it was litigated “as far as we’re concerned, it cleared the air. The thing is done and finished,” Pechota said.

“These things happen. It’s just part of the business, as I view it,” Allen said. While the tribe and Rounds remain at loggerheads over casino expansion, Allen does not detect any linkage between the bad beat and that impasse.

The bad beat jackpot is available again at Royal River, looming like the Holy Grail: $95,839.30.

Williams continues to pursue his claim to the money. Recently, he asked the American Civil Liberties Union to look into the case.

He’s financially well off, and he doesn’t need the money, Williams said. “But I feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus by the club.”

He also said he wants to see players such as Larson benefit from the money.

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