Following a plea deal, a professional poker player from Michigan Joshua Thatcher was sentenced on January 19 to 12 months probation for running a poker club called 906 Poker Social. He pleaded guilty to one count of gambling operations. In addition to the probation, Joshua agreed to forfeit the equipment seized from him, which included six poker tables, along with $13,050 in cash and other funds held in various bank accounts.
The sentencing hearing was presided over by Judge Jennifer A. Mazzucci of the 25th District Court in Marquette.
Regarding the operations of 906 Poker Social
906 Poker Social was located at 1200 S. Front St. at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Market. In fact, its name appears to be derived from the 906 area code used for UP.
The establishment opened its doors in April 2021 with the slogan “Play Smart and Run Like God”. It dealt cash games and No Limit Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha tournaments and had six tables on site. The venue also hosted a pool table and backgammon board.
Instead of charging a traditional table rake, the club charges weekly, monthly and annual membership fees, as well as charging a $10/hour venue rental fee. This business model, Thatcher believed, meant that the club’s activities were not a form of illegal gambling and therefore not subject to prosecution.
906 Social was the first membership-based arcade in Michigan, although similar ventures had previously appeared in other states with varying degrees of business success. Other Michigan poker rooms are located in tribal and commercial casinos. There are also several charity file cabinets.
Thatcher gets into legal trouble
Joshua Thatcher appears to have been mistaken about the legality of his arrangements. Following an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General and the Michigan Gaming Control Board, 906 Poker Social was shut down on July 8, 2021.
In May 2022, Thatcher was charged with six felonies, including using computers to commit crimes, and a serious misdemeanor for allowing a gambling house. When he pleaded guilty to one felony count of gambling operations in December 2022, the other charges against him were dismissed as part of a plea deal.
After Thatcher was sentenced to 12 months probation, Henry Williams, executive director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board, commented:
Unregulated gambling operations do not offer Michigan residents the same protections afforded through legal, regulated gambling. The mission of the Michigan Gaming Control Board is to ensure fair and honest gaming in Michigan, and we partner with the Michigan Department of Attorney General to investigate and eliminate illegal gambling activities throughout the state.
Why was 906 Poker Social opened in the first place?
In the lead up to the opening of the 906 Poker Social, Joshua Thatcher has been quite open about how his card room will operate and has made several local media appearances. There he explained his motivations for creating a private poker club.
During the pandemic, when most card rooms across the country were closed, Thatcher went to Texas and played at the Texas Card House and other membership-based card rooms. This is where he got the inspiration to open a similar establishment in Michigan.
“Yeah, so in the state of Michigan you’re not allowed to take any rake or change any bet from the pot,” Thatcher explained to radio station WRUP 98.3. “So what we do to make sure we’re legit is we end up having a membership fee … you end up buying tip chips and chair chips to pay our chair rental fee. And that’s basically how it works.”
Joshua stated that because 906 Poker Social is a membership club, it is effectively the equivalent of a private residence in the eyes of the law. Joshua argued that people can legally bet with each other as long as no one wins from the bet.
What the law actually says
Apparently, Michigan officials seem to have a different understanding of the law than Joshua Thatcher. We can look at the relevant part of the MI Act to see where the confusion may have arisen.
The Michigan Penal Code has an exception for recreational card games in senior housing, but that doesn’t even apply in the case of 906 Poker Social. It is more appropriate section 432.202 of the Penal Code, which contains a number of definitions. The definition we are interested in here is:
(v) “Gambling” means any game played with cards, dice, equipment or machine, including any mechanical, electromechanical or electronic device, including computers and cashless betting systems, for money, credit or any representative of value, including, but not limited to, faro, monte, roulette, keno, bingo, fan tan, twenty one, blackjack, seven and a half, klondike, dice, poker, chuck luck, chinese chuck luck (dai shu), wheel of fortune, chemin de fer, baccarat, pai gow, beat the banker, panguingui, slot machine, any bank or percentage game or any other game or device approved by the Board. Gambling does not include games played with cards in private homes or residences where no one makes money to operate the game except as a player. [emphasis added]
We see that poker is listed as a game of chance for the purposes of Michigan law. Whether or not this is an accurate feature of the game is irrelevant, although we happen to believe that poker is a game of skill rather than pure gambling, although chance also plays a role in outcomes, especially in the short term.
The bold text above is probably what Joshua Thatcher was counting on when he opened 906 Poker Social. It exempts from anti-gambling laws card games played in private homes or residences, which appears to be a restriction on home poker games. Unfortunately, this definition does not specifically include commercial establishments.
This is probably what tripped Joshua up. He may have felt that the adjective “private” was the key to legality, while government officials probably thought “homes or residences” was more appropriate.
This kind of vague verbiage makes understanding state gambling law difficult and open to multiple interpretations. This is true in almost every one of the 50 states, but in the case of Michigan, understanding gaming law is especially difficult.
Most of the gambling laws in the Wolverine State were formulated by legislation passed in 1931, although they have been amended and changed quite a bit over the years. However, a second set of gambling offenses was added to the books in 1996 when Michigan began licensing casinos. Parts of Michigan’s gambling law appear to be at conflicting goals, and sometimes seem to contradict each other directly.
For Joshua Thatcher
Joshua Thatcher, a 42-year-old resident of Gwinn, Michigan, has been playing poker for nearly two decades. He has stated that he prefers live poker to online because of the social aspects of playing at a physical table with other people.
Thatcher drew on his experience in private home gaming, often for high stakes, as well as what he observed in social card rooms in Texas to create his idea of what the ideal gaming environment would be. Noting that there were very few poker opportunities in the Upper Peninsula, the scene seemed ripe for the emergence of a card room.
After consulting with a lawyer who told Thatcher, “Yes, you’re legal, but you’re toeing the line of what’s legal,” he opened 906 Poker Social. The club was only open for a few months before the authorities raided it and closed it down. According to information posted on his Facebook page, Joshua lost $98,000, which was seized by law enforcement.
Although disappointed by the actions of government officials in closing down his enterprise, Joshua did not let this incident interrupt his life. He continued to travel to poker rooms in the United States, including several trips to Las Vegas.
Joshua has won more than $80,000 in live poker tournaments in his lifetime, including more than $70,000 since 2001. Today he creates Youtube content for his channel PLO professor. As the name suggests, most of his videos are about Pot Limit Omaha strategy.
Online poker beckons
If you live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or another part of the state where there are few good live poker opportunities, then you may be interested in playing online. Even if your house is quite close to several physical poker rooms, you can still enjoy online poker because of its convenience and the greater number of games that are available.
Michigan does have regulated state poker, but there are only a few sites, so you may have a better selection of rooms and bonuses to choose from if you sign up with an offshore poker site instead. Check out this Michigan online poker guide for additional information on available sites and other considerations when playing MI internet poker.
Residents of other parts of the country can view this page dedicated to online poker usa for all the latest information. Playing in offshore poker rooms is legal; we urge you to read this poker legality guide for US players if you have any doubts about this topic.