Idaho court ruling on poker starts federal row, tribes claim poker is a game of skill and legal in state
On 15th May 2014, an Idaho district Court in USA passed a landmark ruling in State of Idaho v. Michael Kasper ruling that playing Texas Hold ‘em poker with family and friends is not illegal while dismissing charges against Michael Kasper and one other accused.
Facts and issues
The defendants, Michael Kasper and one another were charged with violating the Idaho Code as they were found playing Texas Hold ‘em poker at a private home with few friends. While the other accused pleaded guilty and got away with fines, Kasper a popular radio station host decided to challenge the charges as he thought it was unfair to make playing poker a criminal offence.
The main grounds for challenge was that the charges were unconstitutional as provisions of the Idaho Code on gambling were vague and citizens could not foresee that their conduct was illegal. It was pointed out that while Article III, Section 20 of the Idaho Constitution prohibits gambling and poker has specifically been listed as one of the forms of gambling in the Constitution itself, Section 18-3801 of the Idaho Code makes an exception for bonafide contests games of skill in which awards are only made to entrants while prohibiting ‘operation’ of casino games including poker.
The Court then examined the defendants’ evidence and expert testimony of various witnesses who gave compelling statistical, scientific and literary evidence that pointed in the direction that Texas Hold ‘em poker was predominantly a game of skill. It was further argued that there are many contests (such as golf) where participants pay an entry fee and win a prize based on their performance and the game of Texas Hold ‘em poker is similar to such skill contests (involving substantial amount of skill).
On the other hand the state argued that given the language of the statute it was apparent that poker was not permitted in Idaho and hence the challenge to the constitutionality of the charges was untenable. The investigating officer appearing on behalf of the state however conceded that given the prohibition of ‘operation’ of poker and other games of chance, playing poker amongst family and friends is not illegal as per the Idaho court. The investigating officer further conceded that he also played poker amongst family and friends and he did not consider it illegal.
The Court while dismissing charges against the two defendants’ held that the Sections of Idaho Code as applied to the present case were unconstitutional. Further the Court observed that the state’s stand was confusing, perplexing and contradictory when it said that poker is permissible when played amongst family and friends and specially when they conceded that Texas Hold ‘em poker is a game of skill. Further, the Court held that there was no evidence to suggest that the defendants’ were not playing the game amongst friends. The Court also observed that there seems to be considerable and uncontroverted evidence to suggested that No Limit Texas Hold ‘em is preponderantly a game of skill.
Tribal gaming dispute
The State of Idaho in addition to charges against poker players had filed a motion for granting temporary injunction in the Federal District Court of Idaho against the Coeur d’Alene tribe claiming that the tribe cannot offer poker in its already operational casinos.
While tribes in USA enjoy a special status due to provisions in the US Constitution, they are only allowed to offer Class II type non-banked card games permitted or not expressly prohibited by state laws as per sovereign right conferred under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IRGA). The Coeur d’Alene tribe claims that various forms of poker are already permitted under the Idaho state lottery and merchant contests.
Further placing reliance on the Kasper judgment the tribe has also claimed that No Limit Texas Hold ‘em poker offered by them in casinos (where prize is given only to the entrants) is a game of skill and hence perfectly legal under the laws of Idaho.
Implications of the Kasper verdict
The Kasper verdict strengthens the claim not only of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and residents of the state that poker is perfectly legal within the state, but is also a welcome step for other jurisdictions where matters are pending on the element of skill involved in poker. Along with the decision of the New York federal court and other US court decisions, this verdict strengthens proponents of the position that poker is a mind sport akin to chess and hence should not be considered illegal.
How it adds weightage to the Indian Poker Debate?
This decision will also add credence to the petitioner Adda52’s case in the pending M/s Gaussian Networks case before the Delhi High Court. While the Idaho Court ruling is certainly not a binding precedent as far as Indian courts are concerned, the fact that yet another US court has accepted the proposition that at least some forms of poker is a game of skill is certainly good news for Indian poker lovers.
Since the petitioners in the Adda52 case are likely to put forth the same arguments about preponderance of skill in poker (India like Idaho and various US states uses the preponderance test to determine the degree of skill in a game), the kind of statistical and literary evidence presented in the Kasper case as well as the expert testimony is likely to be replicated by the petitioners in the Delhi High Court. The Idaho court’s observation and law enforcement agencies admission that poker could be a game of skill will only add more value to the case for recognising poker as a game of skill in India.
About the Author
Jay Sayta is a law student of the National University of Juridical Sciences Kolkata and runs GLaws.in; India’s first and only website on gaming laws. Jay started GLaws.in about three years ago as a resource to monitor developments in the gaming industry. In a short span of three years, GLaws.in has become a premier resource for everyone associated with the Indian gaming industry.
Jay has advised many companies and start-ups on various aspects concerning the Indian gaming industry. He has also written several articles in journals and other publications and has been quoted as an expert on gaming laws by several top newspapers such as Financial Times, Times of India and Mint.