Mahjong 'scandal' in Altamonte Springs
Right in the heart of the quiet little city of Altamonte Springs, four women (ages ranging from 87 to 95)—Lee Delnick, Bernice Diamond, Helen Greenspan and Zelda King—were enjoying their weekly game of mahjong in the Escondido Condominium clubhouse when they were interrupted by Altamonte Springs police who came to shut them down.
Apparently word got out that they were gambling and one person (whom King said is considered a “troublemaker and lives in Building 11”) called the police, citing some Altamonte Springs ordinance that said it is against the law to play mahjong for money. The police closed the clubhouse. The condominium management sent the ladies a certified letter stating that until further notice there would be no mahjong, bingo or poker played in the Clubhouse. Several times later that week, the police came by to make sure the ladies weren’t in there playing their beloved game.
“This is ridiculous,” King said. “We haven’t played in the clubhouse for weeks! We have to go to each other’s homes to play and not everyone lives in Escondido. It is an international game and we are being crucified!”
King, who is 87, said that playing mahjong is good for senior citizens, and mentioned that her neurologist, Dr. Ronald Oppenheim, has told her that it is one of the best games to play for older people because it can delay and possibly prevent dementia.
The ladies offered to just play for the fun of it. No deal. The Escondido property manager suggested that they “lay low, until they can try to resolve things legally.”
Finally, things did get resolved legally. It appears there is no ordinance in Altamonte Springs against mahjong gambling. In fact, the only ordinance found by the Heritage was in the Florida Gambling Laws, Statute 849.085, which states: “Certain penny-ante games are not crimes; ‘Penny-ante game’ means a game or series of games of poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes, or mahjong in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value. (The ladies have a $4 limit).
“Dwelling” means residential premises owned or rented by a participant in a penny-ante game and occupied by such participant or the common elements or common areas of a condominium, cooperative, residential subdivision, or mobile home park of which a participant in a penny-ante game is a unit owner. (No problem there. Several of the ladies live in Escondido and pay homeowners association dues, which allow them access to the clubhouse.)
A penny-ante game may not be conducted in which any participant is under 18 years of age. (The ladies are well over that age).
A debt created or owed as a consequence of any penny-ante game is not legally enforceable. So, if one of the ladies can’t pay her debt incurred from losing the game, she can’t be forced to pay up.
What ordinance the snitch in Escondido was referring to, and why the police responded to the call in the first place is not clear. In a Mar. 26, 2013 report of a gambling ring bust (for very high stakes), Rob Pelton of the Altamonte Springs police told News 6,”We aren’t out to get the average poker player playing with his friends on the weekends. This was clearly operating as a business they were out to make money.”
Heritage called the Altamonte Springs police for comment, but they did not return the call.
Heritage last spoke to King as she was boarding a plane for Boston to visit her daughter. She was glad this was all resolved and now the ladies can have a good laugh about it as they continue to enjoy their mahjong games.