Is it a federal crime to host a poker game? The U.S. Supreme Court may soon weigh in on the answer. At their private conference this Friday, the justices will consider a petition for review filed by a New York man facing up to five years in prison for hosting poker games in the back of his bicycle shop.
At issue in DiCristina v. United States is the reach of the Illegal Gambling Business Act, a federal law enacted as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, which lays out federal penalties for anyone who “conducts, finances, manages, supervises, directs, or owns all or part of an illegal gambling business.” According to the Justice Department, small business owner Lawrence DiCristina violated that law by running games of “No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em” where DiCristina charged players a fee of five percent of each hand’s pot.
DiCristina counters the government’s position by arguing that because poker is a game of skill, and not a game of chance, it does not count as a form of gambling, and therefore the federal statute should not apply to his activities. “Using this anti-Mafia statute, federal prosecutors have targeted low-profile poker games with no connection to organized crime,” DiCristina told the Court in his petition. And because of that federal overreach, the petition continues, “DiCristina, a small business owner with no prior criminal record, now is a federal felon because he hosted poker games for money in his bicycle shop.”
Unsurprisingly, the case has caught the attention of professional poker players. In a friend of the court brief submitted on DiCristina’s behalf, a group of professional and amateur players, including Poker Hall of Fame member Michael Sexton and 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event winner Gregory Raymer, urges the Supreme Court to side with DiCristina. “Poker is similar to golf, bridge, Scrabble, and numerous other games of skill where players put up a monetary stake, compete against each other, and reward the winning player,” the brief states. “Unlike poker, competitions involving these games have never been branded federal felonies.”
The Supreme Court could announce as early as next week whether or not it will hear the case.