Poker not illegal gambling, rules US federal judge

In a decision that further ups the ante for the regulation of online poker in the US, a federal judge has ruled poker is a game “predominated by skill” and therefore not classified as gambling under the Illegal Gambling Business Act.

Federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein’s ruling in the case of electric bicycle salesman Lawrence Dicristina, charged in 2011 with illegal gambling for running a poker club in the back room of his Staten Island warehouse, undercuts one of the principal laws used by federal prosecutors to close the US-facing operations of PokerStars, Full Tilt and UltmateBet in April last year.

The DoJ also ruled in December that the 1963 Wire Act, outlawing the interstate (cross-border) transmission of wagers in the US, applied only to sports betting, effectively clearing the way for individual US states to explicitly authorise and regulate online poker and other games within their borders.

Decristina’s lawyers, supported by evidence and expert testimony provided by lobby group the Poker Players Alliance, had  filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the basis that poker was predominantly a game of skill, not chance, and therefore not covered by the 1970s law.

In his landmark ruling handed down yesterday Weinstein accepted the arguments of the defence, and dismissed the indictment against Dicristina: “Neither the text of the IGBA nor its legislative history demonstrate that Congress designed the statute to cover all state gambling offenses. Not does the definition of ‘gambling’ include games, such as poker, which are predominated by skill,” concluded Weinstein.

Weinstein’s 120-page legal opinion includedf studies and charts showing that poker players with more accomplished skills in areas such as bluffing, raising and folding consistently beat less experienced opponents. Weinstein noted that government expert Dr David DeRosa, presenting at a post-verdict hearing on 10 August, “did not discuss [defence expert] Dr Heeb’s analysis of the relative performance of skilled versus unskilled players in playing the same hand”, presented at a pre-trial hearing on 6 July.

The PPA “lauded” the federal court’s ruling: “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. Today’s federal court ruling is a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it,” said John Pappas, the organisation’s executive director.

Pappas pointed out that given the opportunity to counter the defence’s arguments, “even federal prosecutors could not provide an expert of any kind that could conclude that chance predominates over skill in poker.”

But while the ruling deems poker is unprosecutable under the IGBA and exonerates Dicristina of the federal charges against him, poker is still illegal under state law in New York itself, meaning Decristo could face further charges. The US government is also expected to appeal yesterday’s ruling.

The PPA’s Rich Muny however said that the ruling could support regulation in US states without specific laws on poker, while Dicristina’s lawyer told Newsweek that Weinstein’s ruling “could encourage pro-poker challenges under other gambling statutes”.

Casino Choice journalist

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