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S.C. Poker Players Guilty, Though Judge Agrees Poker is Skill

In the latest in a series of state-level court cases involving poker, five South Carolina poker players have been found guilty of violating the state's anti-gambling laws for their involvement in a private Texas hold'em tournament in Mt. Pleasant in 2006. The ruling comes despite the fact that the judge in the case, Municipal Judge Larry Duffy, expressed his view that Texas hold'em is a game of skill, not chance.

In the order, Judge Duffy noted that even though he "finds that Texas hold'em is a game of skill" and that "the evidence and studies are overwhelming" in support of such a view, South Carolina's anti-gambling laws do not make clear whether the game's skill component should factor into determinations of whether or not poker is to be judged gambling. Lacking such clarity, Judge Duffy said the court was "compelled" to find the five defendants guilty and thus "required to pay the fines and assessments required by such a violation." It is expected that the verdict will be appealed.

The five men — Bob Chimento, Jeremy Brestel, Scott Richards, Michael Williamson, and John T. Willis — were arrested for participating in a Texas hold'em tournament hosted by Nate Stallings, a renter in the home where the tournament took place. Stallings advertised the tournament via the internet, and reportedly took $20 buy-ins as well as a rake to cover food and drink. In January 2007, Stallings pled guilty to operating a gambling house for which he paid a fine.

As has happened in other recent state-level cases involving poker players being charged with violating gambling laws, the defendents' attorneys made the skill-vs.-luck question a primary issue in their clients' defense, calling both professional poker player Mike Sexton and Dr. Robert Hannum, Professor of Statistics at the University of Denver, to testify as witnesses. As his statements prove, Judge Duffy was indeed persuaded by arguments that poker was a skill-based game, and he additionally alluded to last month's Pennsylvania case in which Columbia County Judge Thomas A. James ruled poker was a game of skill.

The Poker Players Alliance, who helped provide for the testimony of the expert witnesses in the case, expressed cautious optimism at Thursday's ruling, as well as appreciation for Judge Duffy's acknowledgement of the skill component in poker.

"The positive language in this ruling comes on [the] heels of other key legal victories for the rights of poker players in Kentucky, Colorado, and Pennsylvania," said PPA Executive Director John Pappas. "It's becoming quite clear the legal community agrees that this great American pastime is a game of predominant skill, not luck, and should not be considered gambling under the law," added Pappas.

John Ridgeway, the PPA state representative for South Carolina, echoed Pappas by saying he believed "the court's finding is a tentative victory for poker players," adding that he "expect[s] a higher court to agree that under the proper standard, it is not illegal to play a game of skill."

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