Supreme Court Deals Itself Out of Poker Case

The US Supreme Court has declined to decide whether poker is a contest of skill or is instead a game of chance covered by a federal law directed at illegal gambling.

Groups representing millions of poker-playing Americans had hoped a victory for them would help clear the way for legalizing online poker. The case before the court involved the traditional card game, one that past Supreme Court justices, as well as presidents and members of Congress, were known to enjoy.

In June of 2011, federal agents broke up an after-hours game played in the back room of an electric bicycle warehouse on Long Island. The business owner, Lawrence DiCristina, hosted games of Texas Hold 'Em and in return took five percent of the pot in each hand played.

DiCristina was charged with violating the federal Illegal Gambling Business Act, a 1970's-era organized crime law. Its definition of gambling lists several forms -- including slot machines, lotteries, and bookmaking -- that his lawyers argued were games of chance.

A federal judge agreed and tossed out the conviction, ruling that poker was a game of skill in which "increased proficiency boosts a player's chance of winning and affects the outcome of individual hands as well as a series of hands."

Expert poker players, he said, "draw on an array of talents, including facility with numbers, knowledge of human psychology, and powers of observation and deception."

But a federal appeals court reinstated DiCristina's conviction, ruling that whatever else the anti-gambling law encompasses, it includes any gambling operation that's illegal under state law. New York statutes, the court said, cover poker.

By declining to take up the appeal, the Supreme Court Monday left his conviction intact.