In a now six-year old case, the South Carolina Supreme Court determined by the slimmest margin that poker in the Palmetto State is illegal, even if it is in a private home.
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 – decided by a split decision (3-2) yesterday afternoon that the laws of the state regarding gambling stretch to poker games in a private homes and dismissed the claim that poker is exempt from the state’s gaming laws because it is a game of skill and not of chance. While they did admit that a “casual” game of poker in a residence isn’t affected by the state’s laws, they did say it was illegal to play in a “house of gaming.”
The case dates back to 2006 when police raided a home in Mount Pleasant, SC, and discovered what was described then as a “high stakes” poker tournament in action (the buy in was actually only $10, building slightly more than a $200 prize pool). The police confiscated a few thousand dollars from the players involved and ticketed over two dozen people for gambling (most paid their fines without contesting the charges). Five men, however, chose to challenge the state’s laws on gambling; they were convicted in the local courts, but that decision was overturned on appeal in 2009, leading the state to take the case to the Supreme Court in 2010.
The Court decided on Wednesday that those five men should not have had their convictions overturned due to the fact that the game was highly organized as it was advertised on the internet and a “juice” was taken from the prize pool for the tournament. In this case, the Court said, a private home could be considered a “place of gaming” and therefore made the poker game illegal. In regards to the long bubbling “skill versus chance” argument of poker’s status as gambling under South Carolina statutes, the Court said this had no effect of whether state laws were broken, it was simply a matter of ”money changing hands” that made it illegal.
“Whether an activity is gaming/gambling is not dependent upon the relative roles of chance and skill, but whether there is money or something of value wagered on the game’s outcome,” the Court wrote in its decision.
One of the five men who were charged in the case (and fought their charges), Bob Chimento, was on hand for the decision on Wednesday. After the announcement of the decision, Chimento commented to the Charleston Post and Courier’s Diane Knich, “They (the Justices) are cowards. They don’t have the guts to bring the law into the 21st century.” Chimento, like the other men in the case, have already paid their fines long ago and are not expected to face any further punishment.
The state’s laws on “gambling” are some of the most antiquated statutes in the United States. Enacted in 1802, the laws essentially make any game that involves cards or dice illegal. If this statute was fully enforced, it would include such popular board games as Monopoly as well as those games normally identified with casinos, such as poker, craps and roulette.
In issuing their ruling, the South Carolina Supreme Court did make a statement on the relevance of the laws regarding gambling in the state. Chief Justice Toal, in writing the decision, did call on the state’s legislature to revise the laws regarding gaming in the state, calling the 1802 law that the Court had to enforce “hopelessly outdated.” Although the South Carolina legislature attempted to revise those laws last year to allow for “friendly” games of poker in a private residence, the bill never saw the light of day on the floor in Columbia after it was passed out of committee in February 2011. When the new legislature is seated in January 2013, it is thought that updating the gaming laws in South Carolina will be on the agenda.