Before the defendants’ attorney even finished his closing argument, the judge spoke up and made his opinion known.
Texas hold’em is a game of skill. There was no doubt in his mind.
While that belief is old news to many poker players, there haven’t been many instances where a judge has explicitly vocalized it in a court of law. But Municipal Judge J. Lawrence Duffy did exactly that on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina, in the middle of one of biggest poker-related trials of the new year.
“It really shocked us,” said Bob Chimento, one of the five defendants in the case. “I don’t personally know how he can’t rule in our favor.”
While Judge Duffy said that it was clear to him that poker was a game of skill, he said that he needed to still decide if the defendants’ conduct broke the law. That decision will be announced Thursday.
“To me, the message was — how can any reasonable person not think this is a game of skill?” said Jeff Philips, the defendants’ attorney.
The five men — Chimento, Scott Richards, Michael Williamson, Jeremy Brestel, and John Taylor Willis — were arrested in April 2006 after their weekly poker game was raided by local police.
“It’s not really a matter of the judge trying to determine the facts of the case,” said Philips. “I believe he pretty much accepts the facts as we have presented them. He just needs to determine whether or not the facts are in violation of the law.”
The defense brought in World Poker Tour announcer Mike Sexton as one of their expert witnesses in the case. Both Philips and Chimento believed Sexton’s testimony helped their case a great deal.
“It definitely helped,” said Chimento. “No doubt about it.”
Philips said the verdict will rest on the judge’s decision of what standards he will use in determining if this poker game broke South Carolina law.
“If he adopts the dominant factor test (skill over chance), which I hope that he will, then he has already said that the clients will be not guilty,” said Philips. “If, however, he adopts some other standard which we are not aware of, then [he can rule that] even though poker is a game of skill, somehow simply playing a game of cards for money is a violation of the statute.”
Philips said he was hopeful that the judge would rule in their favor, but that he wouldn’t be surprised at anything.
“The prosecutor tried to intimidate the judge in his closing arguments by saying that if he were to rule in favor of the defendants, the town of Mount Pleasant would be covered with casinos,” said Philips. “We’ve specifically told the judge that that will not be the case, and that’s not what we’re arguing for.”
If convicted, the maximum penalty the defendants face is a $100 fine or 30 days in jail.
“Whether it goes our way or their way, it’s not done,” Chimento said. “We fear that if we win, the state’s going to appeal it. And if they win, I guarantee we’re going to appeal it. It’s not over in any way, shape, or form.”