Self-made Canadian billionaire Calvin Ayre brought international attention to Costa Rica this week after his luxury home in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, was raided by Costa Rican officials who believed he was running an illegal poker tournament there.
Ayre, who runs the online betting Web site bodog.com and was filming a reality TV show at his house, accused police of violating his constitutional rights and invading his property for no reason.
“Here I’m spending a million to create a show that is basically a tourism brochure for Costa Rica and I get the police trying to cook up charges against me,” Ayre told The Tico Times in an exclusive interview at his house this week.
Ayre, who is ranked number 746 in Forbes Magazine’s listing of the world’s richest people, has amassed assets valued at $1 billion through his Costa Rican-based company Bodog Entertainment Group. Ironically, the Canadian magnate appeared on the cover of Forbes Magazine’s annual issue of the world’s richest people the day before the March 10 raid in an article entitled: “Catch Me If You Can.”
Whether Costa Rican officials were inspired by this headline is unclear, but at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday, 25 police officers, three prosecutors and a judge descended on the 44-year-old bachelor’s home in Santa Ana’s exclusive Valle del Sol residential area. Based on articles they had seen in the press about the billionaire, officials were expecting to find evidence that Ayre was violating the country’s gambling laws, said Michael Soto, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) official who coordinated the operation.
When police arrived, a crowd of some 100 people, speckled with models and celebrities, prepared for a final party to be filmed as part of a six-part reality series aboutonline gambling and Ayre’s lifestyle, entitled “Calvin Ayre Wildcard Poker,” shot last week for the U.S. TV channel Fox Sports.
With a search warrant citing an article published in the daily Al Día that suggested Ayre was hosting gambling at his home, police searched the grounds and seized two computers, four 9mm pistols and financial documents and arrested five Canadian citizens for immigration reasons, alleging they were working as body guards while here on tourist visas, Soto explained.
Costa Rica’s gaming law, which dates back to the 1920s, establishes that government institutions must regulate all gambling in the country. Soto told the Tico Times if there was gambling going on at Ayre’s party, he would have had to have permission from the municipal government and the Social Protection Council, which runs the national lottery and oversees other games of chance.
According to a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch, the Prosecutor’s office is investigating whether Ayre has broken any laws, but at press time, the case was being sent from the central office to Pavas, in western San José, and a new prosecutor had yet to be named to the case, so nobody was authorized to comment on the investigation.
Violation of the country’s gaming laws is punishable by a fine.
Ayre, who referred to the foray as “a little misunderstanding” and “one little bump” in his dealings in Costa Rica, denied any real gambling was taking place at his home. Police officials have since conceded the same.
A poker tournament, with a grand prize of $500,000 of Ayre’s money, was part of the
reality show, but the Canadian billionaire said that it was not gambling.
The difference, he stressed, was that nobody was risking any money in the tournament.
According to Ayre, the players were not betting with money, no player paid to be in the game, and, in fact, some U.S. celebrities were paid just to appear in the tournament. Among the famous, and kind of- famous, who played in the tournament were actress Jennifer Tilly, actor Willie Garson (of Sex in The City) and musician Willa Ford.
“It’s just people seeing who’s the best poker player and then they win a prize. It’s all my money. I’m just putting up a prize to see who is the best poker player,” Ayre told The Tico Times. “It’s the same as if I offered a prize to see who’s the best golfer, and had a golfing tournament. Neither of those are gambling.”
Furthermore, he said, all the filming of the tournament was shot away from his home at a location he declined to name.
According to various reports in Costa Rican media, the scenes were shot at a rented studio at the Channel 7 TV station.
As for the alleged bodyguards, Ayre said they were unpaid actors portraying bodyguards for the show, and a Costa Rican firm was hired to actually provide security for the shooting.
The gambling magnate did acknowledge that one licensed pistol was taken from his home.
“They know it’s a licensed gun because they took the license too,” he said, and speculated that the other three guns police said they confiscated could have come from the Costa Rican security guards he hired.
“If that’s the case that’s not my problem,” Ayre said. “I hired a licensed firm to provide security. It’s implicit when you hire a licensed firm that they themselves are going to be following the rules.”
Immigration Police have since released the Canadians who were arrested and asked them to leave the country.
Ayre, who comes from a family of grain and pig farmers in Canada, founded Bodog in 2000 with $10,000. Originally a software provider, the San José-based company transformed into one of the biggest online gambling sites in the world, processing more than $7 billion in wagers in 2005. In addition to taking bets on sports, poker and casino games, Bodog Entertainment Group now encompasses a record label, a television production unit, real estate, multiple Web sites and online magazine.
While most of his customers are from the United States – Forbes reported 95% of Bodog’s sales from there, Ayres said that sounded too high – U.S. law prohibits the use of communication devices, such as the Internet, to take bets. But because Ayre is not a U.S. citizen, operates his business outside U.S. territory and has no assets in the United States, he has so far managed to avoid the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in San José told The Tico Times they had no information regarding Ayre, and the U.S. Justice Department did not return Tico Times’ phone calls by press time.
According to Ayre, his company employs approximately 200 people in Costa Rica and infuses “millions” of dollars into the Costa Rican economy every year.
“I probably dumped a million into the local economy just last week producing that show here,” he told The Tico Times.
Ayre, who left the country Wednesday to finish the filming of the party segment in Los Angeles, California, explained that he initially reconsidered future business in Costa Rica following the raid on his property, as he was angry with authorities for disrupting the filming of his show and invading his home based on what he says was information from “an inaccurate tabloid article,” and “inaccurate translations” of press releases and other articles.
“It’s exactly as if you open a murder investigation after watching a murder movie. In this case, they didn’t even watch the show, they read an advertisement for it and launched the investigation.”
Ayre charges that police violated his constitutional rights and said in a statement released the day after the raid that he thought the Costa Rican government should launch an investigation into the incident.
The gambling tycoon has also charged that police officials ate the food from the buffet left out for the party and swam in his pool, which the police have flatly denied.
“We are a professional police force and that is how we act in all situations,” OIJ spokesman Francisco Ruíz told The Tico Times.
While it is unclear if the alleged swimming and eating were caught on tape, some of the raid was,Ayre said, adding he plans on using the footage in the show.
“What’s better for reality TV than a bigass police raid?” he asked.
Though good for reality TV, Soto said the airing of the footage would be “inconvenient” for Costa Rica.
But the billionaire, a legal resident of Costa Rica, said that despite his initial frustration, he has since redoubled his commitment to Costa Rica, and is intent on building a television production industry here (see separate article).
“I’m committed to improving things in Costa Rica,” Ayre said, noting that he also runs the charitable Calvin Ayre Foundation.
“I’m committed to living here for the rest of my life and I want Costa Rica to be a better place. I want Costa Rica to be a respected place in the international community because this is my home.”
Tico Times reporter María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this report