Legalize Poker? Expert Witnesses Will Be Responsible

By Ryan Thompson, Esq
As poker continues to rise in popularity in mainstream America, it could very well be expert witnesses who ultimately cause the game to become largely legalized.

Over the last decade, poker (specifically Texas Hold’em poker) has emerged from the back rooms of smoky taverns, exited the underground gambling dens of low-level mobsters, and announced itself to conventional society as being a legitimate contest between skilled competitors.

The general public has been receptive. Multimillion-dollar tournaments are now televised on ESPN as more and more Americans are playing online every day, most of the time illegally through websites based offshore or overseas.

As the public watches often-familiar, famous faces continue to make final tables and win, television-viewers are able to witness each player’s strategy, lending to the idea that the game is based more on skill than chance. This fact, according to experts, distinguishes poker from “gambling” and should thus remove poker from the jurisdiction of state gambling laws.

“It is my considered opinion, based on my experience, on research that I have personally conducted, and on a review of the scholarly literature, that Texas Hold’em is a game in which skill predominates over chance in determining the outcome,” wrote expert witness Robert C. Hannum, a professor of risk analysis and gaming at the University of Denver, in an affidavit filed last month in a Wisconsin circuit court. “Thus, in my opinion, it would be incorrect to describe Texas Hold’em as a game of chance.”

The lawsuit, Verrett and Kroon v. Schimel, was filed by a poker advocacy group against the state attorney general of Wisconsin and seeks declaratory judgment to have the court rule poker as a bona fide game of skill. A decision of such would thereby allow a poker player to gamble legally on the outcome of oneself, similar to lawfully betting on yourself in darts, pool, golf, tennis, or even pie-eating.

Hannum’s statistically exhaustive 22-page expert witness affidavit goes to great lengths to show how little chance (or how the cards are dealt) affects the overall outcome in poker. He cites statistics and mathematical analysis and extensively examines other scientific studies on poker.

“In contrast with these numerous studies finding that skill predominates over chance in poker, I am aware of no study reaching the conclusion that poker is a game predominately of chance,” Hannum writes. “In my opinion, the studies above establish conclusively that in the long run, skill predominates over chance in poker.”

To the average legal observer, it would seem that a judge will be hard-pressed to disagree with Hannum and the associated statistical science and would thus be forced by sheer mathematics to rule in favor of poker’s categorization as a game of skill rather than an act of gambling.

While the case will directly affect only poker players in Wisconsin, it’s difficult to think that the trend will not follow across the United States.

Do you think that experts have the power to change the legality and landscape of poker-playing across the nation?
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Ryan Thompson, Esq

Ryan’s experience in the legal industry coupled with his work in journalism brings a unique voice to his exclusive BullsEye articles. He is an assistant general counsel and writing professor at Niagara University. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. Admitted to the New York bar in 2005, he previously worked at a Fifth Avenue law firm where he specialized in in-court litigation. Lured back to the dying newspaper industry in 2007, Thompson worked as legal editor of the historic Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he remained for nearly five years. In 2012, Thompson returned to his hometown of Buffalo and lives there now.

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