Proponents of legalized online poker had a good day on Tuesday, as Federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein ruled that poker is a game of skill and does not fall under federal statutes (specifically the Illegal Gambling Business Act) saying, “Nor does the definition of ‘gambling’ include games, such as poker, which are predominated by skill.”
The ruling stems from a case against a New York man who was accused of violating the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA) for running poker games out of his warehouse. Lawrence Dicristina and his defense appealed the initial conviction, saying that poker is not gambling, and is a game of skill. With the help of the Poker players Alliance (PPA) Dicristina and his defense team marched a number of experts up to the stand citing studies and expert testimony showing that the outcome of a poker game is predominated by skill and not chance.
In his 120-page Opinion, Judge Weinstock stated, “In poker, increased proficiency boosts a player’s chance of winning and affects the outcome of individual hands as well as a series of hands. Expert poker players draw on an array of talents, including facility with numbers, knowledge of human psychology, and powers of observation and deception.”
John Pappas, the Executive Director of the PPA, was quoted in a press release from the organization as saying, “Today’s federal court ruling is a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it. Judge Weinstein’s thoughtful decision recognizes what we have consistently argued for years: poker is not a crime, it is a game of skill.”
It should be pointed out that Judge Weinstock felt the prosecution did have a valid case, and that the defense had a valid argument as well, but felt that the IGBA’s language was too ambiguous and ruled for lenity: “…the rule of lenity requires that the defendant’s interpretation be adopted, and his conviction be dismissed. His acts did not constitute a federal crime.” Adding later that, “While questions of burdens of proof generally apply to factual matters, the rule of lenity, in essence, places a burden of proof on the government with respect to statutory interpretation. In order to prevail, the government must show that it is more probable than not that the meaning that it relies upon is the appropriate interpretation of the statute.”
And the most important part for poker players and proponents (which I half-quoted above):
“Contrary to the government’s argument, chance (as compared to skill) has traditionally been thought to be a defining element of gambling and is included in dictionary, common law, and other federal statutory definitions of it. See Part V(A)(2)-(3), (B), supra. The influence of skill on the outcome of poker games is far greater than that on the outcomes of the games enumerated in the IGBA’s illustrations of gambling. While a gambler with an encyclopedic knowledge of sports may perform better than others when wagering on the outcome of sporting events, unlike in poker, his skill does not influence game play. A sports bettor is better able to pick a winning team, but cannot make them win.
In poker, by contrast, increased proficiency boosts a player’s chance of winning and affects the outcome of individual hands as well as a series of hands. Expert poker players draw on an array of talents, including facility with numbers, knowledge of human psychology, and powers of observation and deception. Players can use these skills to win even if chance has not dealt them the better hand. And as the defendant’s evidence demonstrates, these abilities permit the best poker players to prevail over the less-skilled players over a series of hands.”
We will find out in the future what this ruling, as well as the previous decision by the Department of Justice to reinterpret the Wire Act (applying it only to sports-betting), will mean for the prospects of legalized online poker on the federal level.