Monday, January 26, 2009

In PA, Bingo's Gamblin', Poker Ain't

Gambling by seniors is a concern, not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide, because involvement in games of chance can become additive, and the financial consequences can become dire.

Bingo is a game of chance, seniors know. But seniors who play poker in PA can be relieved: Playin' Texas Hold 'em ain't gambling.

The Senior Journal noted on November 12, 2008, in a brief posting online that "Senior Gambling [is] Getting Attention":

Gambling addiction is a significant problem in the United States impacting adults of all ages and their families.

Older adults are, perhaps, more vulnerable than other age groups given their greater dependence on fixed incomes and more limited ability to recover to secure debt or recover from gambling losses.
* * *

The traditional game of chance for seniors is bingo, a pastime that serves as a recreational event in many communities.

The growth of riverboat and Indian casinos, state and national lotteries, and Internet access to off-shore sports and parlor betting, has dramatically increased access for all adults including seniors. * * *

An Associated Press article, dated April 2, 2001, entitled "Wagering: boon or blight of retirement?" reposted by Today's Senior Network, is representative of reports noting that "[a]s the number of older gamblers surges, experts worry that seniors are more vulnerable to financial ruin." See also: "Are seniors gambling away their retirement?" by Liz Weston, posted on MSN-Money, who noted that "[c]asinos, slot machines and poker parlors on seemingly every corner present high-rolling seniors a growing opportunity to lose their nest eggs."

I noted the debate in Pennsylvania in a prior posting, "Gambling, "Gray Lives" & Grief" (11/02/06); and that debate continued as licensed casinos began operation in the Commonwealth statewide.

On January 15, 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a commentary by Daniel R. Reynolds, entitled "Gaming law has been a bust." He asserted that, "[a]s Pa. officials tout a rise in revenue, they overlook the cost, and an unfair tax system."
This year will mark the fifth anniversary of Pennsylvania's gaming law, originally conceived as a way of protecting the state's horse-racing industry. Neighboring states such as Delaware and West Virginia had instituted slot-machine gaming to boost purses at their racetracks.

But the bill's initial intent got hijacked at some point. Signed by Gov. Rendell in July 2004, the bill was sold not as horse-racing protectionism, but as a tax-relief vehicle. Revenue from gaming, it was said, could be used to trim property taxes.

Written by the office of now-indicted former State Sen. Vincent Fumo, the bill expanded gaming way beyond the imagination of the framers of the horse-racing protection bill, who merely envisioned slot machines at the state's four racetracks. As it turns out, when slots casinos become operational in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will have 61,000 slot machines - more than any other state except Nevada.

State officials say they are cutting taxes with gaming revenue. In fact, they are subjecting Pennsylvanians to higher taxes.

The government says nearly $1 billion in gaming revenue has been made available to trim property taxes, but it isn't fluttering down from heaven or being printed by the Federal Reserve. It's coming out of the pockets of Pennsylvanians who are walking into casinos, putting it into slot machines, and not getting it back.

Expanding gaming in Pennsylvania is simply an additional de facto tax -- on top of the state lottery implemented many years ago. * * *

In response, some organizations have addressed "compulsive gambling" by education of consumers and training of professionals.

For example, the
Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Its purpose is to educate and disseminate information on compulsive gambling and to facilitate referrals.

The Pennsylvania Council provides speakers, workshops, seminars, and information on this public health problem to business, industry and labor groups, schools and colleges, health care and treatment facilities, and to community and religious organizations.
In 2008, CCGP held a 2008 Statewide Conference on Problem Gambling. Its website lists weekly Gamblers Anonymous local meetings at statewide locations. Its next training sessions, "Advanced Gambling Treatment Seminars - Level II," will be offered this month and beyond by that organization "Courtesy Of The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem." [Links added.]

But, at least in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, such outreach efforts need not be directed towards poker players. Because they are not "gamblers."

It has been judicially determined, in that county at least, that participation in a game of
Texas Hold 'em, even with bets, is not gambling, since it is a game of skill.

The ruling by the Court of Common Pleas of Columbia County, PA was reported on January 24, 2009, in an article entitled "
A Crazy Game of Poker; Judge Rules Poker is a Game of Skill in Gambling Case" by Eric Bower, posted by BloomUToday.
Last week Columbia County Judge Thomas A. James Jr. ruled that Texas Hold’em poker is a game of skill and therefore not gambling under Pennsylvania law.

The ruling stems from gambling charges filed against Walter “Buzz” Watkins and his girlfriend Diane Dent in September.

Watkins is a manager at the Good Old Days Bar in Bloomsburg and also runs the poker tournaments held there.

In addition to hosting poker at Good Old days, Watkins also hosted cash poker games in a garage at his residence in Bloomsburg. The legality of those games soon came into question after State Police received complaints about the poker games and began an undercover investigation. * * *

The game being played at the garage was $1-$2 No Limit Texas Hold’em poker.

The undercover officer indicated that Dent was the dealer when he played. The officer reported that Dent or Watkins would exchange player’s cash for playing chips when they entered the game. Dent and Watkins would also exchange chips for cash when a player left.

No fee was taken by Watkins or Dent to play[. I]nstead, players were encouraged to tip Dent at the end of every hand based on the pot’s size, just as they would in conventional casinos. * * *

Police filed 20 charges each against Watkins and Dent on September 19th. Watkins said that around 15 officers raided his garage while poker was being played when he was arrested. Watkins also said that Dent was asleep in the residence that was also raided by police when she was arrested. * * * [Link added.]
The judge's opinion resolved the case in favor of Watkins and Dent, according to the article.
All charges in the case were dropped last week after Columbia County Judge Thomas A. James issued a 16 page opinion on the case.

The basic question, according to Judge James’ ruling, is whether poker is dominated by chance or skill.

James wrote is his opinion “Simply, if chance predominates, Texas Hold’em is gambling. If skill predominates, it is not gambling.”

In Pennsylvania, video poker machines are not allowed because their outcomes are primarily due to chance, not skill.

In the case of Texas Hold’em, however, Judge James explained that extensive literature exists that describes winning strategies to play the game.

James quoted several books on the matter including Mike Caro’s “Secrets of Winning Poker”. In an excerpt from the book James used, [the author said] “the money flows from the bad players to the strong players.” * * *
The decision issued by Judge Thomas A. James, Jr. on January 14, 2009, in the matters of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Watkin and Dent (PDF; 14 pages, plus Order) is fascinating reading.

I recommend it to poker players of all ages.

* * *

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.

There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

-- "
The Gambler"
sung by
Kenny Rogers

Update: 01/29/09:

The American Bar Association Journal's "Law News Now" posted an article on January 29, 2009, entitled "Is Poker a Game of Skill that is Legal? S.C. Judge Will Decide" by Debra Cassens Weiss, on this topic.
Five college buddies nabbed in a poker bust are asking a South Carolina judge to decide whether Texas Hold 'em is an illegal game of chance or a permissible game of skill.

A South Carolina law bans ''any game with cards or dice'' but state Attorney General Henry McMaster says his office interprets the statute to ban games that rely more on chance than skill, the Associated Press reports. And for years, the office has viewed Texas Hold ’em as an illegal game of chance.

Thirty-eight other states have laws that also bar games of chance, according to Colorado lawyer Chuck Humphrey.

Some poker players are beginning to claim — with some success — that the laws don’t apply to them. A Pennsylvania judge ruled Texas Hold ’em is a game of skill and acquitted a man who held poker games in his garage, according to CardPlayer.

And a Colorado jury acquitted the organizer of a poker league after a University of Denver statistics professor testified poker is a game of skill, according to a press release by the Poker Players Alliance. * * *