What happens in Columbus Park, stays in Columbus Park.
Gamblers have transformed Chinatown Park into an open-air casino where anything goes — where high rollers illegally bet big bucks on card games with pots reaching into the thousands, and the cops turn a blind eye.
The Post visited the park on four different days over the past week and spotted as many as 10 tents pitched and attracting hundreds of mostly middle-aged and elderly punters trying their luck on one of dozens cement and wooden tables.
“There’s nowhere else in New York that’s happening,” said wide-eyed Jason Roman, a 36-year-old photographer stunned by the Las Vegas-style action. “It’s casino-level gaming here.”
Many gamblers huddled in protective masks or chain-smoked cigarettes, as groups of seven played pai-gow poker, Chinese blackjack and other games of chance for real money – which is illegal in city parks.
The tables and benches set up in the square of the park – named after the first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen – are meant to be used for eating, relaxing and playing more conventional games like checkers and chess.
But gambling organizers treat them like turf, showing up at sunrise most mornings to make sure strangers unaffiliated with the games aren’t sitting there, park patrons said. They cover some tables with casino-style green felt.
“They come and sit right next to you, [and] set up the tents directly above you [if you’re sitting]said a Chinatown resident who frequently visits the park. “They really make you feel uncomfortable.”
“They own this!” snapped another resident, sarcastically referring to the tables. “It’s difficult for tourists and anyone who buys food here.”
Players in hoodies, baseball caps and other casual attire waved hundred-dollar bills at each ante. Stone-faced dealers lined their pockets with player losses – sometimes taking four figures per hand.
High stakes, low rent
The makeshift gambling den doesn’t have the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but it has the same high stakes and is more convenient.
“People don’t like to go to Atlantic City [to gamble]man!” barked a player from Brooklyn. “Takes two, three hours to get there.”
Last Sunday, granny carts full of plastic bags stood still as high rollers punched thousands after taking big wins. An elder brought a bag of groceries containing leeks and hung them on a nearby bench while playing cards.
Players and dealers mainly speak Cantonese and other Chinese languages, and many tear up cigarette after cigarette by hand, strewing the ground with cigarette butts and engulfing the tents with plumes of smoke. Smoking, like gambling, is illegal in city parks.
The interaction between players and dealers generally resembles the jokes you’d see in any casino: losers complain, dealers laugh at people who don’t play by the rules, and high rollers rejoice in winning. huge pots.
“Everybody loses,” fumed a bettor in Cantonese after a dealer revealed his hand, according to a Post translator. “It’s bad luck that the host has good cards. »
Most players and dealers insisted they didn’t speak English. Others were tight-lipped about games
“There is no organizer – you stay here and be the host,” one player insisted through the interpreter.
However, reporters saw the same few people handing out cards and managing bet money over the course of four days. And the betting continued, even under the stars. At dusk, the plaza is closed and dozens of remaining players head to the south end of the park for after-hours play, dumping their chips near a soccer field and public restrooms.
The wild scene takes place seven days a week in the park located along Baxter, Worth and Mulberry streets – ironically near federal and state courthouses and law enforcement office buildings.
People caught playing in city parks face a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, but that has nothing to do with the criminal charges and jail time they would face if caught for running a real gambling operation like the one that seems to have popped up in Columbus Park.
Those convicted of promoting gambling, a felony, could face up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The New York Constitution prohibits gambling operations, with certain exceptions such as state-run lotteries, licensed casinos, horse racing betting, bingo and other games used to collect funds for religious groups and non-profit charities.
And in city parks, it’s even illegal to bet a few dollars with friends. Violators could be charged with a disorderly person offense.
However, the game at Columbus Park has been around for decades — never quite like it, locals said.
Neighborhood merchants and longtime park patrons say authorities have generally turned a blind eye because the games were low-key and the stakes low.
Wellington Chen, executive director of Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp., said many working-class Chinese New Yorkers traditionally come to the neighborhood to eat, then head to play and let off steam after working 70-80 hours. . -weeks.
“Instead of going to a bar, they go to a park and get the adrenaline pumping,” he said.
But over the past year, interest in the games has grown with its pots – particularly in recent months after organizers began cavalierly raising tents with little enforcement from city cops. or parks peace officers, merchants and customers added.
“It’s a New York City park; how is it legal? wondered a patron. “They set up tents; they play. What does the city park get out of it?
Geoffrey Croft, a watchdog of city parks for more than two decades, shouted “Oh, my God!” after seeing photos of the outdoor casino.
“Who knew the state licensed Columbus Park to play,” he joked.
“I’ve never seen gambling on this scale in a park before, but I guess like the rest of the city these days, enforcement is really lacking.”
Joe Puleo, president of District Council 37 Local 983, which represents park officers, said his members were not strictly enforcing the park’s rules of play because they were understaffed and “following the example of the NYPD on these matters”.
“It’s amazing that so many people are playing in courts from all places,” he said. “The only thing worse would be if they played a few blocks from City Hall.”
On Friday, two police officers were spotted and photographed standing by the tables watching the players play. They laughed among themselves and then left a few minutes later without doing anything, according to the photographer.
The NYPD said as of Thursday it had received seven 911 calls this year regarding gambling complaints at Columbus Park.
Despite the game, overall violent crime has historically been minimal in and around Columbus Park, with a few exceptions.
Last year, a man lost a kidney after a stranger dug it out with an 8-inch blade, at the intersection of Baxter and Worth streets.
Local residents and traders said they’ve seen cops and park officials over the past few months sometimes ask for tents to be lowered – without making arrests or issuing summonses – only to see game organizers quickly put them back on. in place and restart the games after the departure of the authorities.
Parks Department spokeswoman Meghan Lalor said her agency “is aware” of the “problem” of gambling and is working with the NYPD “to enforce the no-play rule at Columbus Park.”
An NYPD spokesperson was more cryptic when asked about the game, saying simply that “the park is used daily by a large number of individuals in the Asian community for a variety of activities.”