Top SC prosecutor: Casual poker games not illegal

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COLUMBIA  — Casual in-home poker games do not violate a state law against card or dice games, one of South Carolina's top prosecutors argued Tuesday, a concession that surprised the Supreme Court's chief justice and contradicts the state's previous assertions that any betting games are illegal.

But Assistant Attorney General Sonny Jones told state Supreme Court justices on Tuesday that organized games — like one held by five men in Mount Pleasant in 2006 — are illegal because the game was advertised on the Internet and took in money for the house, which at that point he said constituted a "house of gaming."

"It is our position that this statute does not encompass the Friday night poker game or the penny ante poker game," said Jones, arguing to reverse a circuit court judge's decision overturning the men's gambling convictions. "This was not a casual game."

"I am surprised that you made that concession," Chief Justice Jean Toal told Jones in response. "That there are some forms of personal card playing in your home, among friends, that involve money, that are not gaming."

During a raid on a home near Charleston in 2006, police seized several thousand dollars in cash and a small amount of marijuana, ticketing about 25 people for illegal gambling. A local judge found the men guilty, but that decision was subsequently reversed by a circuit court judge. Attorney General Henry McMaster's office is appealing that decision.

Read literally, a South Carolina law on the books since 1802 makes illegal any game with cards or dice — including popular board games like Monopoly and Sorry. McMaster has traditionally said that he followed a loose interpretation of that law, only considering games that are more reliant on chance that on a player's skill — like Texas Hold 'Em — to be gambling and therefore illegal.

But last year, in overturning the men's illegal gaming convictions, Circuit Court Judge Markley Dennis also weighed in on the chance versus skill argument, ruling that Texas Hold 'Em is a game of skill, not chance.

Jones says that issue is not part of the current appeal. Instead, prosecutors focused on their argument that the Mount Pleasant men were operating a "house of gaming," an organized, regular game the men had advertised online and which attracted enough people that overflow guests had to park at a nearby business.

An attorney representing the Mount Pleasant men argued that his clients were playing casually, only took money at the door to cover their food costs and shouldn't be accused of "gaming" anyway, since the card game they were playing hinges more on a player's skill than on pure chance.

"Playing Texas Hold 'em is like bridge," Billy Wilkins said. "It is not gaming because it is predominantly a game of skill."

Wilkins argued that the home where the game took place was not transformed into a "house of gaming" because the building was still primarily considered a residence, not a hall used only for gambling.

"I don't think it would ever be a house of gaming," Wilkins said.

State legislators have tried to advance bills to decriminalize friendly poker games and raffles for charity, but those issues stalled in both chambers. On Tuesday, the court's chief justice seemed to suggest they should try again.

"We're stuck with a very old statute that doesn't say one word about betting anything," Toal said, adding that state lawmakers should have updated gambling laws when they debated outlawing video poker more than a decade ago.

The justices will issue their decision in several months.


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