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.
First published February 24 2014, 7:00 AM
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering the Justice Department and the U.S. Supreme Court since March 1993. Williams was also a key reporter on the Microsoft anti-trust trial and Judge Jackson's decision.
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Prior to joining NBC, Williams served as a press official on Capitol Hill for many years. In 1986 he joined the Washington, D.C. staff of then Congressman Dick Cheney as press secretary and a legislative assistant. In 1989, when Cheney was named Assistant Secretary of Defense, Williams was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. While in that position, Williams was named Government Communicator of the Year in 1991 by the National Association of Government Communicators.
A native of Casper, Wyo. and a 1974 graduate of Stanford University, Williams was a reporter and news director at KTWO-TV and Radio in Casper from 1974 to 1985. Working with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, for which he served as a member of its board of directors, he successfully lobbied the Wyoming Supreme Court to permit broadcast coverage of its proceedings and twice sued Wyoming judges over pre-trial exclusion of reporters from the courtroom. For these efforts, he received a First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.