It isn't time to go "all in" just yet, but five poker players busted for gambling in Mount Pleasant three years ago apparently have scored an early appeals win.

The judge overseeing their case wrote this week he is reversing the outcome of their February trial, essentially tossing out their convictions.

In a one-page letter, Circuit Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. said it was likely that the players' chosen game of "Texas Hold 'em" -- which relies on bluff, bet and card know-how to be successful -- would withstand the legal test of being a game of skill versus an illegal game of chance.

"When faced with the issue, it is my opinion that the S.C. Supreme Court will likely adopt the 'dominate factor test,' " Dennis wrote attorneys from both sides of the case. "Under the dominate factor test, Texas Hold 'em is not gaming or gambling," he said.

Additionally, the judge said a section of the state's anti-gambling laws, as applied to this case, is ambiguous and "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad." The municipal court decision "must be reversed," he said.

Greenville attorney Jeff Phillips, who represents the five players, said he wanted to limit his comments until Dennis' signed order is published. But most observers agree the case is far from over and that Dennis' ruling would have been appealed up the chain, either way.

The case began in April 2006 when Mount Pleasant police raided a home on Glencoe Street. An estimated two dozen people were cited after authorities discovered two poker tables operating in the home they said was both a for-profit gambling operation and a community nuisance.

About 20 players opted not to fight the charges, pleading guilty. The others chose to confront the charges in court, eventually being convicted of gambling charges in front of Municipal Court Judge Larry Duffy. After the conviction, they paid misdemeanor ticket fines up to $262.

Ira Grossman, prosecutor for the town of Mount Pleasant, declined to talk strategy Friday but said Dennis' ruling is another step in what has become a widely followed case. "Everyone involved in this case assumed that it would reach the highest courts in the state," he said. "I would say that an appeal is likely."

The decision does not affect Mount Pleasant's ability to investigate other poker operations or make arrests, Grossman said, because it applies only to the present case. It also does not immediately affect other gambling challenges elsewhere in South Carolina.

The Mount Pleasant case joins a multi-tiered debate over gambling in South Carolina. One of the more visible fights is expected to come during the upcoming term of the state Legislature in January when a bill legalizing "social gambling" is expected to surface again. The bill, from state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, creates "an affirmative defense" from prosecution when the gambling is done in a private home, as long as "no house player, house bank or house odds exist, and where there is no house income from the operation of the game."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or