The running battle over whether poker is a game of luck or skill heads to the S.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, and the state's top judges will determine if the public should be allowed to shuffle up and deal in the privacy of their own homes.
Four years after the debate began with a police raid on a Mount Pleasant card game, both sides will appear in front of the five justices in Columbia.
Because of the court's time limitations, the hearing shouldn't last more than a half-hour, with both sides splitting time to make their case. A final decision probably won't be published for months.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster is challenging a ruling from a Charleston judge last year that declared the popular poker game Texas Hold 'em to be one of skill, not chance.
In doing so, Circuit Judge Markley Dennis said playing that particular game in a private residence does not violate the state's anti- gambling laws.
Hold 'em, Dennis said, is determined more by "the relative skill of the player" than anything else. "A more skilled player will consistently beat a less skilled player, and a player's skill can be improved over time through study and practice," he added.
Because of that skill factor, Dennis said he expected his ruling would survive the court's "dominate factor test" that the justices have relied on when evaluating whether players' ability matters -- versus chance -- in determining the legality of games. Dennis also called the state's anti- gambling laws as applied to the case "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad."
Dennis' opinion tossed out the convictions of five players who had been arrested in the police raid but opted to fight the charges.
McMaster appealed, saying the judge went too far by declaring one gambling game to be more skill-oriented than another.
"In the General Assembly's view, the ills resulting from games played for money does not depend upon the particular game or the nature in which it was played," he said.
The case dates to April 2006 when Mount Pleasant police raided a private home on Glencoe Street. About two dozen people were cited after authorities discovered two Texas Hold 'em tables operating. Authorities said the game was a for-profit gambling operation and a nuisance.
About 20 players pleaded guilty, opting not to fight the charges. The others chose to go to court, eventually being convicted of gambling by Municipal Court Judge Larry Duffy. Dennis' ruling overturned Duffy's.
Since then, the case has attracted interest from around the country, especially from poker-playing advocates.
Hold 'em has been called the "Cadillac" of poker, has a wide following and is the central game in the annual World Series of Poker. Each player is dealt two cards down, then players wager on five shared community cards as they try to make the best hand and claim the pot.
While both sides have made their positions clear in legal filings, each declined to make public statements last week before their Supreme Court appearance. In McMaster's filing, his office said its legal stance follows what the state Legislature envisioned when it comes to policing gambling.
"Despite respondents' effort at misdirection, this is a simple case," the filing says. "Respondents were playing cards, 'Texas Hold 'Em poker,' for money in what had become a 'house used as a place of gaming,' " attorneys wrote. "Players learned of the poker games, which were held on a regular basis, over the Internet. Numerous players attended and participated in these games. If this scenario does not violate (state law), few would."
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.