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Isaac Delvalle paces in the desolate atrium outside the poker room of Magic City Casino. The tan 49-year-old takes a few steps, checks his watch, and sneaks a drag from his bummed cigarette. He's practically twitching. It's midnight, an hour till close, and the air reeks of smoke, bad cologne, and desperation.
Delvalle is a Cuban Fredo Corleone, a deadbeat optimist who's been chasing luck ever since he hopped on one of the last Freedom Flights from Havana in 1971. Sometimes he gets a break — last year, he won a freak $30,000 bad-beat jackpot at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — but he's a professional squanderer. He's blown triple that prize since then, he says. All of it was spent on his two vices: cards and girls.
Earlier tonight, he came to the old dog track on Douglas Road at Seventh Street to collect a marker from a pal, but the guy didn't show. Delvalle hadn't intended to play. He's been trying to avoid card rooms since losing his job as an electrician, but he has the backbone of a dishrag. So he sat down at a $2/$4 Texas hold 'em table in the heart of the casino's poker room, the kind preferred by serious regulars because the blinds keep out both cheap riffraff and nutty high-stakes gamblers.
"I'm unemployed — what else am I going to do?" he asks.
The poker room beats to a steady bass line of shuffling plastic chips, bad cable television, and loudmouths. Lately, the 18-table hangar has been filling up early with players in search of the $175,000 Royal Flush jackpot. In April, a man won a Florida record $195,423 at one of these tables.
Things started off well after he cashed in his last $20 around 8 p.m., Delvalle recalls. He got an ace and a queen on his opening hand. He casually bet two white chips and sipped from his free mini-bottle of water. "First rule of poker: Don't drink when you play," Delvalle says, smirking.
All but two players folded, leaving about $16 in plastic gold on the black felt tabletop. An intimidating buddha bet $4, and Delvalle called. The dealer copped a glance at both players, waited a beat, and unholstered an ace of clubs on the river. And just like that, with his queen kicker, Delvalle won a tidy $24. "That asshole tried to raise me with a pair of nines," he hisses.
But at these midstakes tables, money can disappear faster than a shot of cafecito. "Hold 'em is cards, cards, cards, just throw away cards again and again," he says. "The money is gone faster here because when you start winning, you get cockier and you bet on more hands." Slowly, the neat pile of white chips before him, stacked high like a Jenga tower, had vanished.
Four hours after the game began, outside the poker room, beneath the klieg lights that illuminate the nearby empty dog track, he's restless. He asks everyone on a smoke break for change. He has lost all of his money. Well, not all. In his hands he holds four quarters, which he shuffles like chips. "I just need gas money to get home to Miccosukee, where I live."
Delvalle is in some ways the ideal casino customer. He's single, excitable, and willing to spend money even when he's dirt broke. He stalks poker rooms as furiously as a junkie trawls for his next fix. Lancey Howard from The Cincinnati Kid would describe Delvalle as "loose money." The chieftains of Florida's pari-mutuel industry view him that way too. To them, he's the future. For many decades, gambling in the Sunshine State meant old-timey pastimes such as dog races and jai alai. But the past decade has seen a break-neck race toward Las Vegas-style gambling, with all the major players donating escalating millions to politicians and lobbyists to see who can penetrate one of the nation's largest untapped gambling markets.
Last month, those campaign contributions resulted in a $1.5 billion compact with the Seminole tribe that opens the door to expanded gambling for the first time since 1978. The tribe gets a five-year monopoly on blackjack, baccarat, and chemin de fer, while pari-mutuels in South Florida, among the biggest campaign donors to state legislators, get expanded operating hours, no-limit poker, and a 30 percent tax cut on their slots revenue that will likely generate $140 million.
Legislators defend the pact — and the casino tax cut — as a way to plug the state's billion-dollar budget hole and help the struggling pari-mutuel industry. But multibillion-dollar corporations own most of these pari-mutuels, and some people see the agreement as the result of an industry with too much influence. Nathan Dunn, a lobbyist for the conservative group Florida Family Action, says the industry preys on the poorest Floridians. "This amounts to a bailout for gambling executives," he says. "The suggestion that we're going to give tax breaks to certain industries in this toughest of economic times while families are struggling is highly irresponsible."
These days, South Florida pari-mutuels — including several in Broward — are staking it out for the long term through lobbying, union-busting, and shady political alliances. No pari-mutuel tells the story of gambling in Florida quite like Magic City Casino, a glitzy parenthesis in the heart of working-class Miami. Despite irate governors, corporate takeovers, and cultural relevance, one family has run the casino since the 1950s. They've accumulated a multimillion-dollar fortune and stand to earn much, much more.