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Poker Is More a Game of Skill Than of Chance, a Judge Rules
by: Mosi Secret
The game was Texas Hold ’Em. About $300 bought a place at the table in the back room of a warehouse on Staten Island, where waitresses floated around with food and drinks and the play lasted until breakfast.
The pot went not to the luckiest among them but to the most deft — the player who could guess his opponents’ intentions and disguise his own, make calculated decisions on when to hold and fold, and quickly decide how much to wager. That, anyhow, is how one federal judge saw it from his chambers in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
In a ruling that goes to the heart of what it means to play poker, Judge Jack B. Weinstein tossed out the conviction and vacated the indictment of the man who ran that gambling business. The judge’s reason: poker is more a game of skill than a game of chance, so game operators should not be prosecuted under the federal law the prohibits running an illegal gambling business.
“The most skillful professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers,” he wrote in the exhaustive 120-page ruling that detailed the history of poker in the United States. The decision comes as state courts across the country are grappling with whether playing poker defies the law. No federal court had ever ruled directly on whether poker constituted gambling. The United States attorney’s office, which was reviewing the decision, did not say whether it would appeal the case.
The Poker Player’s Alliance, an organization that works to decriminalize poker and that filed an amicus brief in the case, released a statement lauding the decision.
“As we worked for years defending players against vague gambling laws, we have patiently waited for the right opportunity to raise the issue in federal court,” John Pappas, the executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Today’s federal court ruling is a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it.”
Lawrence DiCristina ran the warehouse where the games took place — that was not in dispute — taking 5 percent of each night’s pot to cover the cost of his staff and profit for himself. He was arrested last summer, charged with operating an illegal gambling business, of which he was convicted in July. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
But Mr. DiCristina’s lawyer, Kannan Sundaram, a public defender, said poker was not a game of chance and therefore not subject to the law. He called an expert witness, Randal D. Heeb, an economist, statistician and poker player in national tournaments, who testified in a special hearing about the skill involved.
Judge Weinstein put off ruling on the issue until after the trial, allowing the jury to render its verdict first.