With $11 prize, seniors’ pinochle has to go underground

AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION — It felt crowded for a small meeting room. About two dozen seniors sat at the tables, sipping coffee from polystyrene cups. A table along the wall held an array of desserts ranging from store-bought doughnuts and cookies to homemade pies and a Jell-O fruit salad.

At the sign-in sheet sat a pile of dollar bills, the price for entry that covered the potluck arrangement and prize money.

Then the decks came out. The cards and the chatter flew fast. Napkins filled up with columns of numbers.

The group had come together Monday to play their weekly game of low-stakes pinochle.

Low financial stakes, that is. Ev Stone, who ran the group for the past two and a half years, said the top prize Monday was $11, with some lower payouts for certain special plays.

Pinochle is a trick-taking game like hearts or euchre, but with a nontraditional card deck and a complicated scoring system.

The group wanted to keep their meet-up location secret because what they’re doing is technically illegal. But the chance to socialize over cards and cookies was important enough that they felt the need to do whatever it takes to keep their moveable meet going.

Over the years the group has played in senior centers, veterans halls, church basements and mobile home parks.

Sally Sanchez, of Mill Creek, has only been playing the game for two years, but it’s been a social lifeline.

“In one year, I’ve met 100 people,” she said. “You know how many people I’ve met at home? I have my dog and my cat.”

Loren Kraetz, 79, still lives in the Arlington-area farmhouse where he first learned the game at age 13. After all this time, he is still learning from the game, he said.

“It keeps your mind kind of acute,” Kraetz said.

This particular group meets in secret. Having to pay to play, and with a prize offered, constitutes gambling under state law, no matter how small the stakes.

They used to play in the Crystal Tree Village senior community in Marysville, but were reported for gambling. “One of the players got their nose out of joint and turned us in to the Washington State Gambling Commission,” Stone said.

A church asked them to leave after three weeks when they became uncomfortable with hosting the card group. They had a room at the Stillaguamish Senior Center in Arlington, which holds a gambling license, but lost that space to an art class.

Other groups of seniors have run into a similar situation. In early 2014, a group in Snohomish was shut down because of a city ban on card games. The City Council there later repealed the ban and passed a separate ordinance to allow non-house-banked card games, city manager Larry Bauman said.

In that case, the Snohomish Senior Center holds the gambling license, Bauman said.

Marysville doesn’t have much choice in not allowing gambling at its own Ken Baxter Community Center, said Jim Ballew, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

“The rule of the city is to comply with state law,” Ballew said.

The city lacks the authority to allow prohibited activities, he said.

Susan Newer, spokeswoman for the state Gambling Commission, said that enforcing the law against such small-time wagering is a low priority for the agency. However, the commission must respond to every complaint received, she said.

Other options such as making the door entry fee voluntary or keeping real money off the table don’t get around the way the law is written, she added.

“Which is too bad, because the Gambling Act was written in 1973, and it would be nice to carve out an exception for them,” Newer said.

The fee for a gambling license for card games like pinochle is $196, and the license holder must be a legitimate charity or nonprofit group, which requires yet more fees to set up and manage.

That’s well more than the amount at stake in Stone’s pinochle games. Monday’s total take from the group’s $3 entry fee was $75, half of which went to payouts and the rest to cover food, supplies and the like.

The only option Stone could find was to try and get a change made to state law. She wrote up a proposed bill that would carve out an exemption for low-stakes card games.

She even found a sponsor in state Rep. Elizabeth Scott, who told Stone in August via email she would file the bill for the 2016 legislative session.

“I will do my best to get it passed into law,” Scott wrote.

Scott later changed her mind and dropped her support.

“I generally don’t support the expansion of gambling in our state,” Scott emailed The Daily Herald through her spokeswoman. “While I enjoyed meeting with Ms. Stone and I understand why she brought her idea forward, it’s not something I can support at this time.”

Stone’s initial thought was to discontinue the group if she couldn’t get the law changed.

“Maybe the commission would never enforce it, but I’m kind of a rules and law person,” Stone said.

Except when it comes to wagering, which is the main appeal in their pinochle games. It keeps the game competitive.

Stone felt tired from getting the runaround, so she passed the torch to other members of the group, who worked their own channels to find a location in north Snohomish County where they can keep their club on the down-low.

They hope they’ll be able to keep their new location, but some of them are still apprehensive.

“We’ve got a good group with good people, and we’ve been kicked all over the county,” said Vince Dobbelaar between hands.

“It seems to strange, it’s so hard to play a penny-ante game of anything,” he said. He then picked up his cards and frowned. “Who dealt this mess?”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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