South Carolina poker players may not be sure when to fold 'em even after a judge ruled Thursday that Texas Hold 'em is a game of skill.
What Mount Pleasant Municipal Judge Larry Duffy didn't decide is whether that determination matters under an 1802 South Carolina law that, read literally, makes any game with cards or dice — including popular board games such as Monopoly and Sorry — illegal.
State Attorney General Henry McMaster says his office has adopted a looser interpretation that only considers games more reliant on chance than on a player's skill — including Texas Hold 'em, a popular type of poker — to be gambling and therefore illegal. Dozens of other states have similar laws.
Though Duffy said evidence was "overwhelming" that poker was a game of skill, he said he did not have enough guidance from higher courts or state lawmakers to know if that analysis makes a difference under South Carolina law.
McMaster's office called Thursday's ruling insignificant, but if it is appealed, the South Carolina Supreme Court may eventually have to decide if Texas Hold 'em is legal in the state. Locally, the ruling could keep police from arresting people involved in friendly house games.
Case stems from raid
The case stemmed from a 2006 raid on a poker game that organizers said was played casually among friends but prosecutors characterized as a for-profit gambling operation.
"It's becoming quite clear the legal community agrees that this great American pastime is a game of predominant skill, not luck, and should not be considered gambling under the law," said John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Association. An estimated 55 million Americans play some form of poker, and the Washington, D.C.-based association has been closely watching the case.
But Duffy's ruling doesn't help five of the 20 people arrested in the raid who didn't pay fines to settle their cases. In a separate part of the ruling, he found them guilty of operating a gambling house — something their attorney says also isn't clearly defined under state law.
"If an essential element of the criminal charge is not defined, and the court doesn't even know what it is, how can my clients expect to know whether or not they are in violation of the law?" said Greenville attorney Jeff Phillips, who plans to appeal to a circuit court.
Town prosecutor Ira Grossman said that, while the skill vs. chance finding "has no relevance as it pertains to the law," he was happy with the rest of Duffy's ruling.
"This circumstance wasn't a small poker game amongst good friends as it has been ridiculously mischaracterized by the defense," Grossman said. "It was a for-profit gambling operation."
Phillips has said there was no profit for the organizer except some money used to pay for pizza and beer for the players.