A bunch of guys in a big room playing poker: a typical scene but one that could have led to jail time for its operator. Until a federal judge said game on – here’s the story I wrote for the SF Chronicle.

By Michael Shapiro, Sept. 6, 2012

Anyone who has played poker even a few times knows it’s a game of skill, and a federal judge agreed in a ruling last month.

Why does that matter? Because federal gaming statutes that outlaw poker are based on its being a game of chance. With U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein‘s ruling that it’s a skill game, the path to legal poker – on land and online – has become more clear.

The recent case, United States v. DiCristina, involved a buy-in game in a New York warehouse, where the house took 5 percent of each pot. The U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, by saying that Texas Hold ‘Em is a skill game, threw out the conviction of the man who ran the game, who’d faced up to 10 years in prison.

“The opinion is significant,” said Whittier Law School Professor I. Nelson Rose, a specialist in gambling law. It undercuts “the most important remaining federal statute that could be applied to Internet poker, now that the Department of Justice has limited the (1961) Wire Act to sports betting.”

But Rose says the effect of the decision could be limited by state laws. “Gambling is always a state issue,” Rose said. Nevada and Delaware are on their way to legalizing online poker, he noted, and California will probably follow suit. Other states may pass laws to ban poker.

Jeff Ifrah, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in gambling, says the court’s ruling lays the foundation for legal online poker in the United States: “The only thing that distinguishes online poker from land-based operators was whether the federal statute was violated,” he said. “Now that that’s been thrown out the window, I definitely think it does something to restore the integrity of the game.”

James McManus, author of “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker,” agrees that the ruling doesn’t mean that poker will now be legal everywhere. State and local jurisdictions can certainly regulate the game or pass laws banning it. California, for example, could allow poker in restaurants and bars, while Oregon could pass laws banning any wagering on card games, McManus said.

Weinstein’s federal court decision, combined with the Justice Department’s ruling in December that 1961’s Wire Act only applies to sports betting “adds up to poker becoming legal at the federal level,” McManus said. (Read more about the December ruling at bit.ly/Mb17CY.)

McManus says poker is a proud American tradition. And he says that the best poker players rely on ability, which is why they’ve become celebrities. “No one knows professional craps players or bingo players or lottery players,” McManus said. “Obviously (poker) is a game of skill.”

And that could be the key to poker’s liberation – in California, throughout the United States and on the Web.