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Expert Witness in Poker Case Takes No Chances

Over the past few months, courts have been addressing the question of whether games like poker or Texas Hold 'Em depend on luck or skill. The question is important because, typically, state gambling laws outlaw games based entirely on chance but may allow those that involve skill or judgment. As described in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, back in January, a Pennsylvania county court dismissed charges against two individuals who ran a poker game out of a garage, finding that because the outcome of poker has more to do with skill than chance, it was not illegal under the state's gambling laws. Likewise, in a recent South Carolina case, a judge also determined that poker is a game of skill, but he said the state's 1802 law still led him to convict individuals charged there for running a gambling house.

So how does a defendant charged with illegal gambling prove that his activities depend on skill? Hire an expert witness, of course. Today I came across a fascinating account at Poker News Daily by poker expert Mike Sexton, who testified in the South Carolina case. To Sexton, testifying in this critical case, wasn't a game -- and Sexton didn't leave the outcome to chance. He writes:

Proving that skill predominates over chance in a court of law is quite different than discussing it among poker players. Even if someone was a big favorite to win a pot, people who really don't play poker see that any card can come up in the end and, therefore, many would think that Hold'em poker is primarily a game of chance.

Sexton recognized that he'd need to prove that poker relies on skill, he'd need to show more than just the fact that better people have an edge and the same people win year after year in tournaments. So Sexton tried to identify each component of the poker game in which a player has full control over a decision.

In my testimony, I listed ten points that I felt were vital to becoming a successful poker player and stressed that there is so much more to playing poker than just the cards you get. I brought footage of actual hands that were played on the World Poker Tour to use for demonstration. They showed bluffing (where the guy won the pot, not because of his cards, but because of his skill), amateurs making mistakes, tells that were read properly by an opponent, someone making a tough call, and someone making a good laydown. These visual aids were very impressive in demonstrating that skill predominates over chance in No Limit Hold'em.

Ultimately, the judge held that poker is a game of skill, but he ruled against the defendants because he found that they still ran a gambling house.

Finally, if you're wondering, the defendants in this case didn't pay Sexton's fees (as well as those of several other gaming experts) out of their winnings. The nonprofit Poker Players Alliance helped fund the attorneys and the expert witnesses to stand up for the rights of poker players.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 30, 2009 at 03:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (23)


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