Federal appeals court reinstates poker conviction

Poker card game
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Poker may be a game of skill, but that does not protect a man who hosted games of Texas Hold 'em from prosecution under an anti-gambling law, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, reversed a decision last year that Lawrence DiCristina could not be prosecuted because Texas Hold 'em was a game of skill rather than of chance.

At the center of the case is the Illegal Gambling Business Act, a federal law enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime. The law makes it illegal to run a gambling business that violates a state's laws and either earns more than $2,000 a day or remains in operation for more than 30 days.

DiCristina was convicted under the law for running games of Texas Hold 'em at a warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., which he publicized by text message and word of mouth.

In August 2012, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn set aside the verdict, saying the statute was ambiguous as to what gambling it covered and that Texas Hold 'em—as a game of skill—was not covered.

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But in its ruling Tuesday, the 2nd Circuit disagreed with Weinstein's finding about ambiguity.

"Because we find no such ambiguity, we decline to limit the statute's reach beyond its plain terms," U.S. Circuit Judge Chester Straub wrote for a three-judge panel. The 2nd Circuit sent the case back to Weinstein to schedule sentencing. DiCristina faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The latest ruling is a potential setback for supporters of legalizing online gambling in the United States.

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An advocacy group called the Poker Players Alliance, which wrote one of several friend-of-the-court briefs backing DiCristina, called Tuesday's ruling "unfortunate."

The alliance noted that the ruling did not dispute that poker was a game of skill and said it remained committed to pushing for a federal definition of gambling as a game predominated by chance.

Neal Katyal, a lawyer for DiCristina at the firm Hogan Lovells, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.