Staten Island mortician Joseph Fumando was convicted last week of running illegal Texas Hold’em games on Staten Island. The conviction came in Brooklyn Federal Court. The verdict came down after just 20 minutes of deliberation from the jury, and Fumando will now face a year or more in prison.
New York City’s underground poker games are the stuff of legend, but not every game has to have Mafia connections or celebrity players to be notable. There are plenty of other illegal poker operations to be found throughout the Big Apple, and the cast of characters in these games are often more interesting than in any big screen card game. Such was the case for Fumando and his crew, who could literally be said to have been drawing dead.
Fumando was known in his games as “The Undertaker” for obvious reasons, though his operation appears to have been very lively up until it was busted. Federal investigators began looking into the game in 2010, after the Queens District Attorney’s office heard about an illegal gambling club in Staten Island from an undercover NYPD narcotics detective who spoke about the operation on a wiretap.
That led to undercover officers infiltrating the club, which was known as “The Press,” because it was located in a building that was formerly home to a printing business. A year later, 13 suspects were arrested, including Fumando, the detective who inadvertently revealed the existence of the game, and two firefighters.
Fumando’s lawyer attempted to argue that he was only a player at the club, and not the operator. But the government had a star witness in Deborah Berardi, a card dealer who cut a deal in exchange for her testimony against Fumando. She said that the game featured waitresses and hot food along with prizes. Prosecutors also said that the operation collected a rake of at least five percent from the games.
While Fumando’s name may be new to you, the raid that shut down his game has been big news in the poker world. The same bust also caught Lawrence DiCristina, who was charged with conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling business. DiCristina’s case became a major story as his conviction was overturned on appeal, as a District Court Judge found that poker was a game of skill and therefore could not be considered illegal gambling.
DiCristina ultimately lost that case, as the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that poker’s precise definition as a gambling game wasn’t relevant, thus overturning the lower court’s acquittal. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
While the cases of DiCristina and Fumando are interesting from a legal perspective, they pale in scope with the larger gambling ring busted by the FBI last year. In that case, authorities broke up a ring that had connections to Russian organized crime groups and included high stakes poker games in New York City that were populated by celebrities, athletes and Wall Street executives. Charges were filed against several notable names in connection with the ring, including poker hostess Molly Bloom, professional poker players like Abe Mosseri and Justin Smith, and alleged operators Illya Trincher and Hillel Nahmad.