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APNewsBreak: SC justices: Organized poker illegal

Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Organized poker games are illegal, even when they happen in a private home, South Carolina's highest court ruled Wednesday.

In a split decision, justices also noted that centuries-old state gambling law prohibits any wagering on Texas Hold 'Em and dismissed the idea that poker could be exempt from that law as a game of skill rather than of chance.

The court was considering the appeal of a case that began with a raid on a home near Charleston in 2006. Police seized several thousand dollars in cash and a small amount of marijuana, ticketing about 25 people for illegal gambling.

A local judge found five men guilty, but that decision was overturned by a circuit court judge in 2009. State prosecutors appealed, and the high court heard arguments in 2010.

Read literally, a South Carolina law on the books since 1802 makes illegal any game with cards or dice — including popular board games like Monopoly. Henry McMaster, who was state attorney general when the case was argued before the high court, said that he followed a loose interpretation of that law, only considering games that are more reliant on chance than on a player's skill — like Texas Hold 'Em — to be gambling and therefore illegal.

On Wednesday, justices said the five men's convictions should not have been overturned. The justices ruled that, when it's used for organized games — such as the one in 2006, which was advertised online — even a private home can be considered "a place of gaming."

As for the skill vs. chance argument, the justices said that the factors had little bearing on whether state law had been broken — so long as money changed hands.

"Whether an activity is gaming/gambling is not dependent upon the relative roles of chance and skill, but whether there is money or something of value wagered on the game's outcome," the court wrote.

Prosecutors did not immediately comment on the decision. Billy Wilkins, an attorney for the men, noted that the justices didn't say casual games were prohibited. He said it made clear that casual, friendly poker games in a private home are not illegal in South Carolina.

"The Opinion explicitly states that a friendly game of Texas Hold' Em on a Friday night in one's residence is not unlawful," Wilkins said in an email to The Associated Press.

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Jean Toal said she agreed with the majority decision but also called on state lawmakers to revise South Carolina's 200-year-old gambling statute, calling the provision "hopelessly outdated."

During this year's session, legislators worked on a bill that would officially legalize friendly games of poker in people's homes, but that measure never advanced to the floor for debate. Lawmakers return for a new session in January.


Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP