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Is poker a game of luck or skill? As a legal matter, courts have largely tried to avoid answering that question. That is, until now. A federal judge in Brooklyn has overturned the conviction of a man who operated a backroom poker game. And, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the ruling could have far-reaching consequences.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Poker is a game of skill. Poker is a game of skill. That's what professional poker player Sammy Farha must have been saying, in this hand against Chris Moneymaker.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The card is the eight of spades, so Moneymaker down to his last chance. He needs a deuce.
PESCA: Farha was a 90 percent favorite to win the pot. Moneymaker had only two cards left in the deck that would help him. Poker is a game of skill.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And - it is a deuce!
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The magic of Chris Moneymaker.
PESCA: Terribly bad beat for Farha. What do you expect against a guy named Moneymaker? But it was a tough break - and a statistically improbable one, at that. Perhaps the layman who sees such vagary as a fate concludes that successive poker is mostly based on luck. That's also what the lawmaker had concluded, up until now.
JOHN PAPPAS: Well, this is actually, the first time a federal court has ruled on the issue. And they ruled resoundingly in our favor.
PESCA: That's John Pappas. He's the executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, a grassroots lobbying group that filed an amicus brief, supporting the defendant in the case. The defendant ran a Staten Island poker game, which ran afoul of the law.
Up until now, that law applied to poker. But Judge Jack Weinstein found it shouldn't. Judge Weinstein, relying on the research of Randal Heeb - an economist, statistician and poker player - found that while luck determines what cards a player gets, skill plays the bigger role in a player's ultimate success. With such charts as "Win-Rate Comparison: King Nine Offsuit,' the 91-year-old judge delved into the complexities of the argument more thoroughly than any past court has. John Pappas was pleased with the result, and impressed with the methodology.
PAPPAS: This wasn't a - you know, back of a cocktail napkin opinion. This was a 120-page treatise on why poker is a game of skill.
PESCA: Maybe the government's case was hurt by the fact that its expert witness was not an experienced poker player. His arguments - such as that poker can't be considered a game of skill, if most people lose - were brushed aside by the judge, who noted that in the Olympics, only three participants get medals. It doesn't mean there's no skill involved.
It was unclear whether the court had experience playing poker. At one point, the opinion refers to hole cards but used the wrong spelling, W-H-O-L-E. But the judge did note that other jurists were familiar with the game, specifically, quote, "Justice Douglas was a regular at President Franklin Roosevelt's poker parties, and Chief Justice Vincent played poker with President Truman." The ruling does not overturn state laws, but does provide a guideline for potential future prosecution and policy. The government can appeal the decision - or can just decide to fold.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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