By Larry Neumeister
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that poker is more a game of skill than chance and cannot be prosecuted under a law created to stop organized crime families from making millions of dollars from gambling.
The decision by Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn was embraced by advocates of card games pushing to legalize Internet poker in the United States. The judge relied extensively on the findings of a defense expert who analyzed online poker games.
The ruling tossed out a jury's July conviction of a man charged with conspiring to operate an illegal underground poker club, a business featuring Texas Hold'em games run in a warehouse where he also sold electric bicycles. There were no allegations in the case that organized crime was involved or that anything such as money laundering or loansharking occurred.
"Because the poker played on the defendant's premises is not predominately a game of chance, it is not gambling" as defined in the federal law, the judge wrote in a lengthy decision that traced the history of poker and federal laws to combat illegal gambling.
Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
The judge said his findings will not prevent federal law enforcement authorities from curbing the influence of organized crime because poker games operated through the Mafia can be prosecuted through federal racketeering laws. He said it also does not prevent states from banning card games operated as businesses, which many of them have. He mentioned that state courts that have ruled on the issue are divided as to whether poker constitutes a game of skill, a game of chance, or a mixture of the two.
Defense lawyer Kannan Sundaram had asked the judge to reject the jury verdict against Lawrence Dicristina on the grounds that the law doesn't apply to the case. Sundaram said Tuesday his client was happy with the decision.
Attorney Tom Goldstein, who made arguments before Weinstein on behalf of the Poker Players Alliance, called the decision a validation for poker players, the tens of millions of people who play the game, and believe they are not gambling, taking a chance, but exercising skill in playing against each other.
He said the decision was the most thorough and detailed poker ruling he had seen by a U.S. court.
John Pappas, executive director of the advocacy group representing more than a million poker enthusiasts, said the "thoughtful decision recognizes what we have consistently argued for years: poker is not a crime, it is a game of skill."
He called it "a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it."
"As the judge's opinion aptly notes, poker is an American pastime that is deeply embedded in the history and fabric of our nation and his decision sets aside the notion that the vague laws render the game criminal," he added.
In his ruling, Weinstein traced the history of poker and the passage of the Illegal Gambling Businesses Act. He said there was little mention of poker by members of Congress, likely because Mafia involvement in poker games at the time was limited.
He noted that one senator was worried when the merits of the law were debated in 1970 that it might affect those colleagues of his who "engage in a friendly game of poker now and then."
He was assured it would not.
The judge also cited a study that analyzed 103 million hands of Texas Hold'em poker, where 75 percent of poker hands ended when one player induced his opponents to fold so that no cards were revealed.
"Other studies have found that skilled players defeated unskilled players both in simulations and in real-world play," he said.