Poker News | Gambling and the Law

Poker is Skill-Based, Ruled Pennsylvania Court

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It can be classified as a landmark ruling for poker, and it came at the hands of a judge in a Pennsylvania court. In the combined cases of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Diane A. Dent and Walter Watkins, Judge Thomas A. James Jr. found in favor of the defendants, who were on trial for violating state gambling statutes by hosting and dealing a poker game. Not only did he find the parties not guilty, but he did so on the basis that poker is a game of skill and thus did not fall under the criminal category of unlawful gambling.

The official ruling was made on Friday, January 16, in the Columbia County criminal court. Walter Watkins awaited his fate after allegedly hosting a poker game in his garage, and Diane Dent was there for judgment on the accusation that she served the role of dealer in said game. Both faced 20 counts of violating state law regarding illegal gambling, despite the house not taking a rake but on the premise that players were expected to tip the dealer.

Attorneys for all parties, including the Commonwealth, agreed that the primary issue to be decided by Judge James was whether the Texas hold’em version of the game should be considered gambling. The judge then set out to write a decision based on that question of whether the game was one of skill or chance. As he evaluated the argument, he mapped out his thought process in the written decision and concluded that poker is a game of skill.

First, the judge noted, “Gambling in and of itself is not unlawful in Pennsylvania… Under Pennsylvania case law, there are three elements of gambling: consideration, chance, and reward… In our case, it is apparent that the ante and the betting is consideration and that the pot is the reward. Thus, the controlling sub-issue is whether Texas Hold’em is a game of skill or a game of chance or, if both, does skill trump chance or vice-versa.”

After stating that Pennsylvania courts had yet to address the skill vs. chance issue, Judge James began to expound on the fact that there are over 600 books about poker on the market. “The compelling case that Texas Hold’em is much more a game of skill is found in many diverse sources. Without statistical analysis, many of these ‘how-to’ books state uncategorically that poker is a game of skill.” He then cited “Caro’s Secrets of Winning Poker” by Mike Caro and went subsequently further to cite academic sources that have studied online poker. His conclusion was then stated:

“Using the predominance test, in conjunction with analyzing skill versus chance using the four prong dominant factor test, it is apparent that skill predominates over chance in Texas Hold’em poker. First, each player has a distinct possibility of exercising skill and has sufficient data available to make an informed judgment. Second, each player has the opportunity to exercise the skill, and they do possess the skill (albeit in varying degrees). Third, each player’s skill and efforts sufficiently govern the results. Fourth, the standard skill is known by the players and governs the results. Skill comes with varying degrees of competence, but that is the case with any competition involving skill.

“The academic studies and the experts generally agree that a player must be skillful to be successful at poker. At the outset, chance is equally distributed among the players. But the outcome is eventually determined by skill. Successful players must possess intellectual and psychological skills. They must know the rules and the mathematical odds. They must know how to read their opponents “tells” and styles. They must know when to hold and fold and raise. They must know how to manage their money.

“This court finds that Texas Hold’em poker is a game where skill predominates over chance. Thus, it is not “unlawful gambling” under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code.”

With that, the defendants were dismissed, and seized property of Mr. Watkins was ordered returned to him.

And with that, a court of law ruled that poker is not gambling because of the strength of the skill factor. It not only sets a strong precedent for other pending cases in various states in America, but it bodes well for an effort to exempt poker from the UIGEA on the federal level.

In response to the decision, John Pappas of the Poker Players Alliance was quoted as saying, “Clearly, the judge had an understanding of how poker is played. Coming to this decision, to him, was not a far leap. The decision sets an excellent bar for us in the future.”

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Jean-Robert Bellande AKA @BrokeLivingJRB is out and about with Dan Bilzerian AKA The Instagram King playing poker and living the high life.

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