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Poker News | Gambling and the Law

South Carolina Court Finds Players Guilty but Poker a Game of Skill

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The case was nearly three years in the making. Five poker players in South Carolina finally had their day in court on Friday, February 13th, and though the judge noted that he was persuaded that poker was a game of skill, he was compelled to find the players guilty of breaking an antiquated gambling law. The decision was a mixed bag of good and bad news for the poker community.

It all began in April of 2006 with a home poker game. The $20 buy-in regular game was advertised on the internet and typically brought enough players for two or three tables. But the efforts of the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina police department brought the SWAT team to the April 4th game in full gear and with weapons drawn to break up the game and arrest nearly 20 participants. While most of them pled guilty to the 1802 law that outlaws “any game with cards or dice,” five of them - Robert Chimento, Jeremy Bristel, Michael Williamson, Scott Richards, and John Willis - decided to take their case before a judge. Though it took nearly three years to make it happen, they finally received their wish.

Defense attorney Jeff Phillips represented the five poker players and brought in several key witnesses to testify that poker is a game of skill and should not be enforceable under the 1802 law. Poker veteran, author, and commentator Mike Sexton was brought in to testify to the skill factors in poker, as was Robert Hannum, a University of Denver statistics professor. The Poker Players Alliance (PPA) assisted in the defense, as did long-time poker pro Bob Ciaffone .

When arguments had been heard, Municipal Court Judge J. Lawrence Duffy stated to the court, “I have determined in my mind that Texas Hold’em is a game of skill.” However, the official ruling in the case to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendants would be written the following week.

When that ruling was delivered on Thursday, February 19th, the information contained within was mixed. Since the defendants did not argue the fact that they were caught with chips, money, and cards at the time of arrest, the judge struggled but found no precedent to enable him to rule that the defendants were not guilty. But before that statement, he made several statements about the game of poker.

After referencing the testimony of Sexton and Hannum as uncontroverted and the rulings of other states in poker-related cases using the “dominant factor” test to determine the involvement of skill, Judge Duffy wrote, “This Court, based on the above stated facts, finds that Texas Hold’em is a game of skill. The evidence and studies are overwhelming that this is so.”

However, the law under which the poker players were prosecuted, regardless of its antiquity, stated that a crime was committed if any person “in any house used as a place of gaming” was found to be playing “any games with cards or dice.” Thus, the judge wrote, “It is and appears to have been the public policy of the State of South Carolina to suppress gambling and that gambling in all forms is illegal in South Carolina… In light of all the matters set forth above, this Court will not set itself to definitively conclude that this State will or does follow the ‘Dominant Test’ Theory and thus is compelled, since it has no clear guideline from the Legislature or from the majority of this Supreme Court to find the defendants guilty of violating Code Section 16-19-40, and therefore are required to pay the fines and assessments required by such a violation.”

With the poker players being found guilty, despite the court’s finding that poker is a game of skill, reactions were mixed, as evidenced by the words of PPA executive director John Pappas, “We are humbled by Judge Duffy’s thoughtful decision and applaud the effort put forth by the legal team defending these poker players. The positive language in this ruling comes on [the] heels of other key legal victories for the rights of poker players in Kentucky, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. It’s becoming quite clear the legal community agrees that this great American pastime is a game of predominant skill, not luck, and should not be considered gambling under the law.”

Defense Attorney Phillips added, “While I am disappointed that the judge found my clients guilty by holding them to a standard that is not defined by the law, there are many positive elements that we can take from this opinion as we prepare for the appeal. Our solid arguments were superbly supported by the expert testimony arranged by the PPA. The testimony of Mike Sexton and Professor Robert Hannum were invaluable and helped explain the skillful essence of poker to the court. We are grateful for their involvement in the case.”

With that, it seems that the defendants in the case, with the help of their attorney, are prepared to file an appeal and look for an even more favorable ruling from the South Carolina Court of Appeals.

To join the million-plus members of the Poker Players Alliance and help in the fight for poker players’ rights, visit www.PokerPlayersAlliance.org.

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