South Carolina Holds Hearings on Legalizing Poker



Senate Bill 535 is making waves in South Carolina. Fresh off the trial of five poker players in Mount Pleasant in which the defendants were found guilty due to a lack of direction by South Carolina state law, S 535 would legalize “social gambling.”

In addition, during tough economic times, S 535 would pave the way for the introduction of “casino night events conducted as a fundraising activity of limited duration by a non-profit organization.” The bill specifically legalizes home games provided that no rake is taken. S 535 reads, “Gambling in a private home where no house player, house bank, or house odds exist and where there is no house income from the operation of the game is social gambling and is” acceptable should it be passed.

State Senator Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) is the brains behind S 535, which was introduced on March 5th and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. According to the Post and Courier newspaper, bills that are introduced in South Carolina carry a life span of two years, “which means that if the bill does not pass by the end of the 2009 session in late May or early June, there’s always time in 2010, which is an election year.”

A public hearing on S 535 was held on Monday in Greenville. A separate bill introduced by McConnell, S 560, was also discussed. That bill, although not related to poker, would legalize certain forms of raffles for churches and other non-profits. According to the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), the main lobbying organization for the poker industry, about 150 people showed up for Monday’s hearing, with the audience split evenly between opponents and advocates of the bills. Among those calling for their passage were the American Legion and former Appeals Court Judge Billy Wilkins, who spoke on behalf of the PPA. On the other side of the aisle were parties such as the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

John Pappas, Executive Director of the PPA, told Poker News Daily that about 40 of its members were in attendance supporting the bill. He explained, “The folks from our side represented a variety of people from lawyers to Average Joes.” In addition to legalizing traditional poker home games with no rake, S 535 also allows dice games, billiards, backgammon, and chess where no betting takes place and no cash or other prizes are awarded to its winners. The law in question was passed in the early 19th Century.

At a hearing in front of a South Carolina Senate panel, Bob Chimento, one of the players arrested as part of the Mount Pleasant poker case, recalled the scene when his home game was abruptly broken up in 2006: “Guns were drawn and pointed at us. They weren’t pointed at the ground; they were pointed at us over a $100 fine. Someone could have been seriously injured that night or someone could have been killed.” Chimento was among five defendants (along with Jeremy Bristel, Michael Williamson, Scott Richards, and John Willis) who were found guilty in February of illegal gambling. The poker players were allegedly playing in a benign home game and, if S 535 had been on the books, they would be in no hot water legally.

Although Judge Larry Duffy found overwhelming evidence that poker was a game of skill, he deferred to an appellate court to determine whether the “Dominant Test” should apply. In other words, under current state law, it is unclear whether a game dominated by skill is legal in South Carolina. The game took place in Nathaniel Stallings’ home in Mount Pleasant in April of 2006. The PPA sent World Poker Tour Host Mike Sexton to testify that poker was a game of skill using video evidence from past tournaments. Dr. Robert Hannum, a statistics professor at the University of Denver, presented results from a recent study showing that out of 103 million hands of Texas Hold’em on PokerStars, three-quarters did not go to showdown. Instead, they were won by the betting of players. Of the 24.3% of hands that went to showdown, the player holding the best hand won just 50.3% of the time. In the other 49.7% of cases, the player who had the best hand folded by the time the cards were flipped over.

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