The New York Criminal Law Blog

Rounders: Fed Judge Rules Poker is a Skill, Not Gambling

A Federal Judge has finally verified what Matt Damon's character argued back in 1998, reports The Associated Press.

"Why does this still seem like gambling to you? I mean, why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every single year? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? It's a skill game, Jo."

Judge Jack Weinstein overturned a conviction for a New Jersey man that had been running card games in Staten Island. Lawrence Dicristina faced a lengthy sentence after a jury convicted him of running an illegal gambling operation under the 1970 Illegal Gambling Business Act. Judge Weinstein overruled the jury, as he reasoned that Texas Hold 'Em was more skill than chance.

Matt Damon, a.k.a. Mike McDermott was wise beyond his years.

The statute on its face seems to have had Mr. Dicristina dead to rights. It prohibits running gambling operations. An illegal gambling business is defined by the statute as a gambling business which is a violation of state law.

The judge even stated that under New York State law, the poker game was illegal.

Easy case, right?

Well, Judge Weinstein wasn't completely convinced. He felt that not only does it have to violate an underlying state law, but it must independently be definable as gambling. New York state law defines gambling as a game with any element of chance. The Federal law isn't quite as explicit.

It mentions a few games by name, including slot machines, roulette, and lotteries. These games are almost completely chance-based. In addition, the judge cited the legislative history and debate in Congress that preceded the passage of the law specifically discussed poker games and one Congressman was assured that his games would remain legal.

The judge also cited a study that showed that out of 103 million hands dealt, 75 percent were won by convincing the other players to fold before the cards were revealed. That furthered the argument that the game was highly skill-based.

If this decision stands, it now means that under Federal law, it is not gambling if the game is merely influenced by chance. Theoretically, that could extend to blackjack as well, as that game is extremely skill-based.

Does that mean we'll all end up with poker joints on every corner? Will gambling spread throughout society, corrupting our morals and draining our gambling-addicted spouses' wallets? No. There's still state law to deal with. The decision might, however, influence the legal debate over online poker sites.

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