Poker and Private Property in South Carolina

In South Carolina, the fate of five men has hung in the balance for the last four years. They crime they have been accused of is running an illegal house of gambling from the home of one of the defendants. In actuality, the five men were playing a twice weekly, kitchen table game of poker, in which they paid an agreed upon fee (a “rake) in order to pay for drinks and snacks.

At first blush, the case seems like an inconsequential example of a backward law in a conservative state, but as it has wound through the judicial system in South Carolina it has sparked debate about landmark issues and the decisions could have reverberating implications for the rest of the country.

In 2006, the five men were arrested and convicted for illegal gambling. In 2009, however, Judge R. Markley Dennis reversed the gambling convictions and declared that the particular game the men were playing, Texas Hold ‘Em, is a game of skill and not one of chance. The men were still convicted of operating a gambling house, but the ruling was seen as a victory by poker players. In particular, online gamblers saw it as a step towards defending their favored game on the Internet (as case could be cited as precedent in future hearings on the legality of online gambling).

In South Carolina it is illegal to play a game of chance. Games of skill, however, are legal.

The state’s laws regarding gambling are out of date and incredibly vague.

The 1802 law in South Carolina regarding gambling states that any game with cards and dice is illegal. That does not just mean poker, it involves games such as Chutes and Ladders, Yahtzee, and even Go Fish.

But interpretation of the the law has been left largely in the hands of law enforcement. This most recent case has lawmakers and legal scholars to question the wisdom of leaving the topic so ill defined. Earlier this week Senior Assistant Attorney General Sonny Jones said that low-stakes, friendly games of cards are not illegal under South Carolina law:

“It is our position that this statute does not encompass the Friday night poker game or the penny ante” get-together…Occasional games of bridge are also safe.”

Assistant Attorney General Havird Jones said it is up to law enforcement to decide if a poker game has drifted into an illegal house of gaming.

He said common sense, purpose and legal language should help police determine what is at hand.

While the statement seems promising for the right to play poker, leaving the definition vague and for cops to determine on the seem leaves the legality of individual behavior within his or her own home that much more opaque. It does, however, get to the heart of the issue under debate with this case. When does one’s private residence become “public” because of the activities they choose to engage in within the privacy of their own home?

Henry McMaster, an attorney general in the state, is challenging the Charleston judge’s ruling that Texas Hold ‘Em is a game skill. If he is successful, they may not need to address the limitation of private property rights in the state of South Carolina. While a decision is not likely to be issued for several months, South Carolinians — as well as poker players — ought to watch the proceedings carefully, as they will have broad implications for both gaming and property rights on residents in the state and the rest of the country.