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South Carolina Court Confirms Poker A Game of Skill

6th October 2009 7:35 am GMT

Reaffirming an earlier court's decision that poker, specifically Texas Hold'em, is a game of skill and should therefore not be considered gambling under law, a South Carolina court has reversed the convictions against five individuals accused of illegal gambling, having concluded that state gambling laws were overly vague and broad, as it could be used to convict anyone playing poker in their own home.

The court case stemmed from 2006 when police officers from the town of Mount Pleasant entered the home of Nathaniel Stallings, where twenty people including the five defendants were playing poker for real money, arresting them all for violating state laws for participating in a "game with cards" in a "house used as a place of gaming."

The defendants disputed the charges, arguing that because Texas Hold'em was a game in which skill, not chance, predominated, they were not guilty of the charged offence. The defendants urged the trial court to adopt the "dominant factor" test for the purpose of determining whether Texas Hold'em was a game of skill. Under this test, if the predominant consideration in the outcome of a game is skill rather than chance, that game does not constitute "gaming".

With expert testimonies from Michael Sexton, a World Poker Tour player and commentator, and Dr. Robert Hannum, a professor of statistics and probability at the University of Denver, the trial court agreed that Texas Hold'em was indeed a game of skill, but was obliged to find the defendants guilty since neither the South Carolina Supreme Court nor the legislature had expressly adopted the dominant factor test for determining whether an activity constitutes "gaming".

The court left it to a higher court to decide if state gambling laws were overly vague.

Late last week a higher court agreed with the defendants and concluded that the Supreme Court, if faced with the question, would adopt the dominant factor test for the purpose of defining the term "gaming", and reaffirmed the trial court's view that Texas Hold'em is a game of skill, citing the "overwhelming" evidence that skill dominates chance.

The court concluded that a place devoted exclusively to the playing of Texas Hold'em was not a "house used as a place of gaming" if the game itself is not defined as "gaming", and therefore the defendants were not in a prohibited location and should have their convictions reversed.

The court also argued that the defendant's convictions must also be reversed based upon the ambiguous language of the statute, and concluded that a residence is not a "house of gaming" simply because persons are invited there on a regular basis to play Texas Hold'em.

As an alternative basis for reversing the convictions, the court said that the South Carolina laws were unconstitutionally vague in the absence of the dominant factor test, and because the statute does not articulate what is meant by a "place of gaming", there is no way for people to know when they are in violation of the statute.

In addition the court stated that a significant due process concern was raised by the very broad reach of the statute, which had the "potential to make criminals of virtually every man, woman, and child in the state of South Carolina."

Lauding the ruling, John Pappas, Executive Director of the Poker Players Alliance said: "Poker is not a crime in South Carolina or anywhere else, and we are grateful to the court for compiling the overwhelming evidence that proves this case and protects the rights of players.

"This ruling is fully consistent with the declarations of other judges and juries across the country that Texas Hold'em is clearly a game of predominant skill and adults who play should not be criminalised."

The court reversed the convictions against Robert L Chimento, Scott Richards, Michael Williamson, Jeremy Brestel, and John T Willis.

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