NEW YORK — While out on bail in an international illegal gambling case, Abe Mosseri went to a federal judge with an unusual request: He wanted to go to Las Vegas. To play poker.
The judge allowed it, accepting Mosseri's argument that he's a professional poker player who should be allowed to earn his living until the chips in court fall where they may.
Mosseri is among a handful of pro poker players facing similar charges who have won the same freedom, a largely overlooked twist to a sprawling case alleging that two Russian-American organized crime enterprises laundered $100 million from illegal online sports betting.
Lawyers for the poker players have come to court to argue – with little or no resistance from prosecutors – that their clients have a legitimate need to regularly travel to casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, N.J., and elsewhere.
"This is not Mr. Mosseri's desire to get some hot weather in Vegas," defense attorney Michael Bachner said at a May hearing where Mosseri's travel restrictions were lifted. "He just wants to engage in his livelihood, which is a legal activity he has done for many, many years."
Even when another well-known player, Justin "Boosted J" Smith, pleaded guilty late last month and agreed to forfeit $500,000, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman afterward ruled Smith could pursue his card-playing career until he is sentenced in January.
Smith, a 25-year-old college dropout who faces up to a year in prison, lives in Hollywood, Calif., has dabbled in filmmaking and has a sizeable following on Twitter. He "makes a living by lawful poker playing and poker tournaments and supports members of his family that way," his lawyer, Mark MacDougall, told the judge.
The poker defendants' freedom to hold 'em or fold 'em while under indictment isn't surprising, given ambiguities in gambling laws, said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School and expert on gambling and the law.
Department of Justice and federal court opinions have found the Interstate Wire Act applies only to sports betting, not other forms of gambling, Rose said. And while some states have outlawed running poker games for profit, "It's not clear that there's any federal law at all against playing poker," he said.
In the case of the poker players in the Russian mob case, "It sounds like everybody believes that these guys are going to play poker legitimately and that they'll come back to court," he said.
Pro players argue that poker isn't even gambling, because it's a game of skill, not chance – a view supported by a federal judge's ruling last year that threw out the conviction of a man charged with running an illegal poker business in the back room of a Staten Island warehouse.
U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision was the first time a federal judge had ever ruled directly on whether poker constituted gambling. But an appeals court reversed the decision earlier this year, saying the games constituted an illegal business.
Of the more than 30 defendants in the Russian mob case, a wealthy art world impresario, Hillel Nahmad, and a former poker game hostess to the stars, Molly Bloom, have drawn the most attention. Mosseri, Smith and other pros come from a world where the most successful players can potentially win millions of dollars playing Texas Hold 'em and seven-card stud at the World Series of Poker and other televised events.
Most players make a modest living, pay taxes and resent federal cases targeting their profession, said Chad Holloway, a senior editor at the Las Vegas-based pokernews.com.
The card-playing community "feels that the Department of Justice coming after poker players is an attack on their freedom," Holloway said.
Prosecutors insist that Smith and others played dirty by getting involved in a conspiracy to run an illegal Internet bookmaking operation that catered to super wealthy bettors.
At the hearing for Mosseri, prosecutor Joshua Naftalis claimed that wiretaps revealed he used his house account at Bellagio casino in Las Vegas to aid the illegal gambling operation.
The discovery of $215,000 in chips and $30,000 in cash in Mosseri's safe deposit box at the hotel, where he stays for free while playing high-stakes games, "suggests money laundering to us," Naftalis said.
The judge found that the 40-year-old Mosseri could still travel to Las Vegas to play in a poker tournament, but barred him from staying at the Bellagio and ordered him to stay in constant touch with the federal probation department about his winnings.
"Mr. Mosseri, there is a saying that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," the judge said. "Don't assume that to be the case here."