Definition Could Affect Poker’s Legal Status

Published July 1, 2007

Poker players, whether they play online or in brick-and-mortar casinos and card rooms, agree winning consistently depends largely on skill, even though an element of luck comes into play with the turn of the cards.

The “luck or skill” question could factor heavily in a judgment on whether a ban on Internet gambling–particularly poker–is legally justifiable.

Under U.S. common law, games that are predominantly chance are considered gambling, while those that are mainly skill are not. Poker, both low-stakes and high-, has proven to be the biggest draw for online casinos.

Case law has cut both ways. In 1989, a California circuit court judge found poker to be a game of skill. The decision kept the state’s card rooms open. In 2005, however, a North Carolina state judge called poker a game of chance, allowing local authorities to shut down a card room.

Debate is likely to intensify now that Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has introduced a bill to reverse the ban on online wagering passed by Congress last year.

Skills Make Difference

There’s a strong case to be made for poker as a game of skill. In games of chance, such as lotteries, slots, or roulette, every player has the same odds of winning. In poker, the outcome of the exact same hand, dealt under the exact same conditions with the same opponents, can differ dramatically depending on who’s playing the cards.

Poker, also unlike roulette, slots, and lotteries, attracts scholars, academics, and players interested in the mechanics of statistics and game theory. The Harvard Faculty Club hosted a poker “strategy session” in April.

The Internal Revenue Service recognizes “professional poker player” as a legitimate occupation. The game sports a class of elite players, as in golf and tennis, who win consistently year in and year out–a characteristic that, by definition, would not be possible in a game of chance.

Steven Titch