Following a plea agreement, Michigan professional poker player Joshua Thatcher was sentenced on Jan. 19 to 12 months of probation for operating a poker club called 906 Poker Social. He pleaded guilty to a single count of Gambling Operations. In addition to probation, Joshua agreed to forfeit the equipment seized from him, which includes 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. Mazzuchi of the 25th Circuit Court in Marquette.
About 906 Poker Social’s Operations
906 Poker Social was located at 1200 S. Front St. in Marquette on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Indeed, its name appears to have been derived from the 906 area code in use for the UP.
The establishment opened for business in April 2021 with the slogan “Play Smart and Run Like a God.” It dealt No Limit Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha cash games and tournaments and had six tables on-premises. The venue also hosted a billiards table and a backgammon board.
Rather than charging a traditional rake at the tables, the club levied weekly, monthly, and yearly membership fees as well as charging a $10/hour seat rental fee. This business model, Thatcher believed, meant that the club’s activities were not a form of illegal gambling and were therefore not subject to prosecution.
906 Social was the first membership-based cardroom in Michigan although such enterprises have previously appeared in other states with varying degrees of business success. Other Michigan poker rooms are located inside tribal and commercial casinos. A few charitable cardrooms exist too.
Thatcher Gets Into Legal Trouble
It seems that Joshua Thatcher was 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.
Thatcher was charged in May 2022 with six felonies, including the use of computers to commit crime, and a high misdemeanor for permitting a gambling house. When he entered his guilty plea to a single felony count of Gambling Operations in December 2022, the other charges against him were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.
Following Thatcher’s sentencing 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 provided through legal, regulated gambling. The Michigan Gaming Control Board’s mission is to ensure fair and honest gaming in Michigan, and we partner with the Michigan Department of Attorney General to investigate and eliminate illegal gaming activities across the state.
Why Was 906 Poker Social Opened in the First Place?
In the leadup to opening 906 Poker Social, Joshua Thatcher was quite open about how his cardroom would operate, and he appeared several times in local media outlets. There he explained his motivations for starting a private poker club.
During the pandemic, when most cardrooms across the country were closed, Thatcher went to Texas and played at Texas Card House and other membership-based cardrooms. This was 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 type of rake or change any of the wagering out of the pot,” explained Thatcher to the WRUP 98.3 radio station. “And so what we do, in order to make sure that we’re legal, is we end up having a membership fee…you end up buying tip chips and chair chips to pay for our chair rental fee. And essentially, that’s how it works.”
Joshua stated that because 906 Poker Social was a membership club, it was basically the equivalent of a private residence in the eyes of the law. Joshua contended that individuals can legally wager among themselves as long as nobody was profiting from the wager.
What the Law Actually Says
Clearly, the Michigan authorities appear to have a different understanding of the law than Joshua Thatcher did. We can examine the relevant portion of MI law to see where the confusion may have arisen.
There is an exemption in the Michigan Penal Code for recreational card games at senior housing facilities, but this doesn’t even remotely apply in 906 Poker Social’s case. More relevant is section 432.202 of the Penal Codewhich contains a number of definitions. The definition we’re interested in here is:
(v) “Gambling game” means any game played with cards, dice, equipment or a machine, including any mechanical, electromechanical or electronic device including computers and cashless wagering 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, craps, poker, chuck a luck, Chinese chuck a luck (dai shu), wheel of fortune, chemin de fer, baccarat, pai gow, beat the banker, panguingui, slot machine, any banking or percentage game, or any other game or device approved by the board. Gambling game does not include games played with cards in private homes or residences in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player. [emphasis added]
We can see that poker is listed as a gambling game for the purposes of Michigan law. Whether or not this is an accurate characterization of the game is irrelevant although we happen to believe that poker is a game of skill rather than pure gambling notwithstanding that chance also plays a role in the results especially over the short term.
The bolded part of the above text is likely what Joshua Thatcher was relying upon when he opened 906 Poker Social. It exempts from the anti-gambling laws games played with cards in private homes or residences, which seems to be a carveout for home poker games. Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t specifically include commercial establishments.
This is probably what tripped Joshua up. He may have thought the adjective “private” was the key to legality whereas state officials probably felt that “homes or residences” was more relevant.
This kind of unclear verbiage makes understanding state gambling law difficult and subject to multiple interpretations. This is true in almost every one of the 50 states, but in the case of Michigan, comprehending gaming law is especially thorny.
Most of the gambling statutes in the Wolverine State were formulated by legislation passed in 1931 though they have been amended and altered quite a bit over the years. However, a second set of gambling offenses was added to the books in 1996 when Michigan began to license casinos. Separate portions of Michigan gambling law seem to work to cross purposes, and they sometimes appear to directly contradict each other.
About Joshua Thatcher
Joshua Thatcher, a 42-year-old resident of Gwinn, MI, has been playing poker for close to 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 upon his experiences in private home games, often for high stakes, as well as what he observed in Texas social cardrooms to generate his idea of what the ideal playing environment would be like. Noting that there were very few options for poker in the Upper Peninsula, the stage seemed ripe for the appearance of a membership cardroom.
After consulting with an attorney, who told Thatcher, “Yeah, you’re legal, but you’re walking up to the line of what’s legal,” he opened 906 Poker Social. The club was open only a few months before the authorities raided it and shut it down. According to information posted on his Facebook page, Joshua lost $98k, which was seized by law enforcement.
Although disappointed by the actions of government officials in shuttering his enterprise, Joshua did not let this incident interrupt his life. He continued to travel to poker rooms across the United States, including several trips to Las Vegas.
Joshua has earned more than $80,000 in live poker tournaments during his life, including more than $70,000 since 2001. Today, he produces content on Youtube for his channel PLO Professor. As can be inferred by this name, most of his videos are about Pot Limit Omaha strategy.
Online Poker Beckons
If you reside in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or some other part of the state where there are few good choices for live poker, then you might be interested in playing online. Even if your house is pretty close to several brick-and-mortar poker rooms, you may still enjoy online poker because of its convenience and the greater number of games that are offered.
Michigan does have regulated instate poker, but there are only a few sites, and so you might have a better selection of rooms and bonuses to choose from if you sign up for an offshore poker site instead. Check out this guide to Michigan online poker for additional information on the sites available and other considerations when playing MI internet poker.
Residents of other parts of the country can browse over to this page devoted to online poker USA for all the latest information. Playing at offshore poker rooms is legal; we urge you to read this guide to poker legality for American players if you have any doubts about this topic.