Poker News

The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday regarding a 2006 case involving a home poker tournament. The discussion centers on whether the state’s gaming laws were violated and/or whether poker is a game of skill or chance.

The five justices sitting on the South Carolina Supreme Court – Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal and Associate Justices Costa Pleicones, Donald Beatty, John Kittredge, and Kaye Gorenflo Hearn – heard arguments from the state’s Assistant Attorney General, Sonny Jones, and from Billy Wilkins, who is representing five men convicted in 2006 of misdemeanor charges of illegal gambling.

During his statement, Jones admitted that “casual, in home poker games do not violate a state law against card or dice games.” Jones did contend, however, that organized games – such as the one the five men are accused of participating in – are illegal because they were advertised over the internet and money was taken from the prize pool for the host, thus making it a “house of gaming.”

“It is our position that this statute does not encompass the Friday night poker game or the penny ante poker game,” quotes Jones during his statement. Chief Justice Toal responded to Jones’ assertion by saying, “I am surprised that you made that concession… that there are some forms of personal card playing in your home, among friends, that involve money, that are not gaming.”

Jones, who has brought the case to the Supreme Court in the attempt to overturn a circuit court decision from Judge Markley Dennis, said that the conviction of the five men should stand because “This was not a casual game.”

Wilkins took a two-pronged approach to persuade the Supreme Court that the circuit court decision should stand. First, Wilkins took the “skill versus luck” argument to task, comparing poker to another admitted skill game, bridge. “Playing Texas Hold’em is like bridge. It is not gaming because it is predominantly a game of skill.” In his circuit court decision, Judge Dennis ruled that Texas Hold’em is a game of skill and not chance and, as such, not governed by the state’s gaming laws.

For his second approach, Wilkins challenged the state’s assertion that the building that hosted the poker tournament was not a house of gaming. The building in use, according to Wilkins’ statement, was a residence and wasn’t transformed in any way into a gaming establishment. “I don’t think it would ever be a house of gaming,” Wilkins said.

The case in question dates back to April 2006, when law enforcement officials raided a private home in Mount Pleasant that they believed was operating an illegal poker game. Brandishing weapons and ski masks to obscure the identities of some of the undercover operatives, the officers interrupted a small tournament with 22 participants. All were issued citations for illegal gambling and authorities seized over $6,000 during the raid.

Players stated that the tournament had a small buy-in ($10) that only built a $220 prize pool. The players also contended that officers wrongly confiscated money that was in the pockets of players in addition to money that was found in other locations throughout the home.

Seventeen of the players pled guilty to the charge of illegal gaming and were issued small fines. Five, however, chose to challenge their citations. In the local court, the men were found guilty, but Judge Dennis’ circuit court decision overturned those convictions and set the stage for the current proceedings in front of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The South Carolina legislature has attempted to amend their gaming laws – which date back to 1802 and make any game involving cards or dice illegal – several times since the 2006 case came to light, but different proposals for an amendment have fallen short. Chief Justice Toal took the state legislature to task for not addressing this issue, stating, “We’re stuck with a very old statute that doesn’t say one word about betting anything.”

The justices will not issue a decision overturning the circuit court or upholding that decision for several months.

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