Gambling has boomed since New York sportsbooks launched, generating over $11 billion in 2022. But there are still illegal gambling rings operating throughout the state, and one takes place in broad daylight seven days a week.
Columbus Park, located in NYC’s Chinatown neighborhood, props up tents as bettors gather to risk big money on table games, according to the New York Post. Police recognize the illegal operation and have even been spotted watching the illicit NY casino action, but no punishments have been handed down.
A majority of the participants are of Asian descent, speaking Cantonese and other Chinese dialects as they bicker with other bettors and table dealers. The clientele is predominantly middle-aged or elderly.
The most popular games are Chinese blackjack and pai-gow poker. Chain smoking cigarettes is a commonplace among the Columbus Park bettors, which is also illegal in NYC parks.
Illegal NY casino-style gambling at Columbus Park
At upstate tribal and commercial casinos, and also in nearby Atlantic City, casinos are filled with table games, slot machines and sportsbooks. In Columbus Park, they use benches meant for playing chess or checkers to run table games.
Sometimes, they even lay out green felt to replicate the experience at a real casino. Tents also pop up above the makeshift table games to shield patrons from the sun.
According to the New York Post report, Chinatown casino organizers arrive at Columbus Park at sunrise to stake claim on the tables. Here’s what a Chinatown resident told the New York Post about their experience in the park:
“They come and sit right next to you, [and] set up the tents right above you [if you’re sitting]. They make you feel really uncomfortable.”
It’s unclear how much the gambling ring brings in each day, but bettors can be seen waving $100 bills around and some hands reach up to four figures.
Locals said gambling has been taking place at Columbus Park for decades. But never to this magnitude.
Police recognize the problem but don’t intervene
Funny enough, Columbus Park is located near New York federal and state courthouses, as well as a few law-enforcement buildings.
If caught gambling in a city park, an individual could be charged with a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct. Promoting gambling, like what’s been happening at Columbus Park, carries a felony charge, a $5,000 fine and up to four years in prison.
Joe Puleo is the president of Local 983 and District Council 37, which oversees NYC park officers. Puleo said gambling isn’t enforced due to staffing issues. He also said his groups follow NYPD’s lead on these types of issues. Puleo told the New York Post:
“It’s amazing that so many people are gambling in front of the courts of all places. The only thing worse would be if they were gambling a few blocks away outside City Hall.”
According to locals, police officers have come to Columbus Park in recent months demanding the gambling tents be taken down. As soon as they leave, the tents go back up.
Meghan Lalor, Parks Department spokesperson, acknowledged the gambling operation at Columbus Park is an issue. She said her department is working with the NYPD to enforce the anti-gambling law.
Gambling in Chinese communities goes way back
Betting has been a staple in Chinatowns across the United States for a very long time. The origins date back to the 19th century.
President Chester A. Arthur passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This allowed Chinese immigrants to enter the United States, but their families were forced to stay behind.
With no families to come home to, the laborers spent much of their time away from work gambling. This would have a lasting impact on Chinese Americans and Chinatowns across the country.