Judgement Day for Poker
In the seemingly endless back-and-forth battle for poker to gain legitimacy and legal status, a Federal District Court Judge ruled last week that poker is a game of skill.
Poker loyalists have praised the ruling in a case overseen by Judge Jack Weinstein in which a New York man was appealing his conviction for running an illegal gambling business. Weinstein agreed with the defendant, Lawrence DiCristina, that his operation was not illegal since poker is a game of skill - not a game of chance - and therefore is not "gambling".
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In a 120 page brief, Weinstein set DiCristina free saying, "Neither the text of the IGBA nor its legislative history demonstrate that Congress designed the statute to cover all state gambling offenses. Nor does the definition of "gambling" include games, such as poker, which are predominated by skill. The rule of lenity compels a narrow reading of the IGBA, and dismissal of defendant's conviction."
So what does this mean for poker exactly?
Impact on Poker
First, it's important to realize that while this is good news for poker, it didn't directly change anything other than Lawrence DiCristina's life. In other words, it doesn't mean PokerStars and Party Poker can re-enter the U.S. market. It doesn't mean it's legal to play online poker now. It doesn't even mean that it's now legal to run a poker room.
Lawrence DiCristina's poker business is still in violation of New York state law. However, he wasn't prosecuted by the state. He was convicted by a federal jury (yes, the federal government spending resources to go after a guy running a poker room, pretty incredible, right?) under a 1955 law that made it illegal to run an unlicensed gambling business.
Judge Weinstein's ruling changed very little regarding poker's legal status in the U.S. It did not automatically make online poker legal. It did not even make live poker games legal since there are still laws against unlicensed poker games for profit on the books in nearly every state.
The only thing this ruling directly accomplished is to (probably) put an end to the federal government prosecuting people for running a live poker game. But let's be honest, that's not really much of a big deal. The Feds going after someone for running a poker game is virtually unheard of. It's entirely possible they went after DiCristina's poker game because he was a target for other reasons (like how Al Capone was ultimately brought down over tax evasion). Who knows?
Fuel for Progress
Where there is cause for celebration with Judge Weinstein's ruling is how it impacts the momentum of poker's battle for legal status. When considered in combination with a ruling last December that the Wire Act doesn't apply to poker, there has been some nice precedent set in poker's favor lately.
So what do these poker-friendly court rulings actually mean for the future of the game?
The real impact of these decisions is that there is now legal substance behind the philosophy that poker should be viewed as separate from other games like blackjack, lotteries and bingo. Conservatives who have fought to ban various forms of poker by lumping it in with non-skill games like craps no longer have much of a foot to stand on.
As PPA director John Pappas said, "[the ruling] demonstrates that poker should be treated differently than other forms of gaming."
Confidence for States
The most realistic pro-poker outcome from Judge Weinstein's ruling is that more states in the U.S. will consider either legalizing their own forms of online poker (like Nevada has already done) or opt-in to the legal frameworks of other states.
It's reasonable to expect that online poker's gradual rise to legal status via the state-by-state approach will now go more smoothly thanks to Judge Weinstein's ruling. States now have more reason to feel confident that they are not doing anything to upset the federal government by legalizing online poker.
For example, it's very unlikely that New Jersey governor Chris Christie would veto a poker bill again following the two federal rulings on poker that have occurred since that time.
We may see states with an interest in legalizing online poker (not to mention increasing revenues) such as California, New Jersey, and Colorado view Weinstein's decision as a "let's go for it" moment to join Nevada in the legal online poker fray.
Judge Weinstein's ruling is great for poker, but it does not in any way deem that online or on-land poker is now legal. It's just one ruling in one jurisdiction at the smallest level of federal courts and a decision that will likely be appealed, no less.
The ruling is cause for cautious optimism, however, that poker's days of being lumped in as any ordinary gambling game are over.