An Irrepressible Tide, Pardner!

As quiet as it is irrepressible, the game of “Texas Hold’em” has become universal over the past decade.  It is a form of draw poker, and it is especially popular in bars.

At the start of each game, usually the players put $1 or $2 in the pot; then two cards are dealt, and the players can bet again; three more cards are dealt to each player and after each round the players can bet.  (Colorfully enough it is called the flop, turn, and river.)  The best hand after five cards are dealt to each player takes the pot.

After an undercover State Policeman played in some Texas Hold’em games, the Columbia County (Williamsport), PA District Attorney arrested the owner of the hall which sponsored the games.  The DA alleged that the defendants were promoting gambling in that it is more a game of chance than skill.

The case found its way to the Superior Court in 2009 (Commonwealth v. Dent), and Judge James of that Court decided that skill was more important than chance in the game; the defendant was exonerated.  In his opinion the Judge cited three elements that must be present for a game to be considered gambling: consideration (dollars!), chance, and reward.

Although Texas Hold’em as gambling has been challenged in several states, and the results are mixed, this was the first time a Pennsylvania appellate court considered the issue.  In a lively opinion, Judge James wrote: “The academic studies and the experts generally agree that a player must be skillful to be successful at poker.  At the outset, chance is equally distributed among the players.  But the outcome is eventually determined by skill.  Successful players must possess intellectual and psychological skills.  They must know how to read their opponents’ ‘tells’ and styles.  They must know when to hold and fold and raise.  They must know how to manage their money.”

Compared to 25 years ago, there has been a virtual explosion of legalized gambling, for better or worse.  As an assistant DA, I prosecuted a number of gambling cases which would hardly be noticed today; getting a jury to convict in this environment must be nearly impossible.  Think of pleading with members of a jury to convict a numbers’ writer when just last night that obnoxious groundhog was imploring him or her to buy Pennsylvania Lottery tickets during their favorite TV shows!
 Ken Butera


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