To a poker pro, it's brutally obvious that the game is one of skill, not chance. I've made my living over the past nine years by having an edge on my opponents. I didn't somehow get lucky over hundreds of thousands of hands, and I've yet to meet a person who thinks I did. Poker is a strategy game, requiring logic, mathematics, psychology and intuition to play well. This statement is hardly debatable — but it was still nice to hear a federal judge agree with it.
In United States v. DiCristina, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein ruled last month that poker is a game of skill and therefore not a violation of the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA). The news is unequivocally good for poker players, setting a precedent that other courts may look to. And yet, it's hardly cause for celebration.
The IGBA was enacted in 1970 to crack down on organized crime. It was never intended to prevent ordinary people from playing poker — the statute does not include the game on its list of gambling activities.
But plenty of state laws do. In New York, where I live, poker is considered gambling; even home games are illegal, if common. The same is true in Maryland, New Jersey and many other states. Just this past week, delegates to the Republican National Convention endorsed a platform that includes support for "the prohibition of gambling over the Internet."
Against such opposition, Weinstein's ruling is a narrow victory. It does nothing to reverse anti-poker legislation, nor does it prevent Congress from passing more restrictions. I'm glad that we poker players are not gangsters in the eyes of the IGBA, but the IGBA hasn't been anywhere close to our biggest impediment.
What is it about poker that makes the game a target of paternalistic laws? It can't simply be the money at risk — billions of dollars are gambled on Wall Street every day with the enthusiastic support of the federal government. If wagers are legitimate in finance, then they should be okay in a card room. Poker isn't craps — a game in which, according to the laws of probability, players will always lose in the long run. In poker, there are good bets and bad bets, and players have to figure out which are which.