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Judge Issues Ruling Blocking Live Poker Tournaments in Idaho

Live Texas Hold’em tournament poker is once again banned in Idaho, at least for now, after a United States District Court judge issued an injunction that will force the Coeur d’Alene casino in Worley, ID to cease running tournaments because they violate state law.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill made the ruling Friday against the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe, preventing the hosting of live tournaments at their casino in Worley, the Spokesman-Review reported. The tribe started offering tournaments back in May and the state filed for an injunction in June, claiming that the games fell under Idaho’s state ban on gambling.

Back in June, Judge Winmill agreed to stay the lawsuit after the tribe argued that both parties had agreed to arbitration. However, the ruling notes that the tribe changed their minds and decided to litigate for a dismissal. One of their primary arguments was that Texas Hold’em is a game of skill and does not apply to the state’s ban on gambling.

Poker Is Gambling Due to Element of Chance

The judge ultimately denied the Tribe’s request to dismiss because some elements of poker are subject to chance. Judge Winmill wrote:

“The second problem with the Tribe’s assertion argument that poker is a game of skill is Idaho’s statutory definition of ‘gambling.’

As already noted, this definition says gambling means to risk money ‘in whole or in part . . . upon chance . . .’ Idaho Code § 18 – 3801 (emphasis added). There is no dispute that in a game (or a series of games) of Texas Hold’em, players risk money at least partly upon chance. So even if the statute did not expressly refer to ‘poker,’

Texas Hold ’em would fit the definition of gambling. But should there be any doubt on this point, the legislature expressly listed ‘poker’ as a form of gambling.”

Judge Winmill also went on to state that only three forms of gambling are legal in Idaho and Texas Hold’em is not one of them. Since poker involves an element of chance, it is illegal under the state’s gambling ban and Texas Hold’em is poker.

Tribe Will Appeal

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe intends to appeal the judge’s decision with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They claimed on Friday that they would file a motion to stay Judge Winmill’s ruling.

There is also some dispute whether the tribe backed out of arbitration. “It appears there may be a misunderstanding by the court,” tribal legislative affairs director Helo Hancock stated after the ruling.

“Our compact is clear that it is the aggrieved party that is supposed to file or provide notice of their intent to arbitrate,” Hancock added. “And we’re not the aggrieved party. We don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. It was the state who sued us, and accordingly it would be the state’s responsibility as the aggrieved party to file notice of their intent to arbitrate.”

Idaho Governor Butch Otter was pleased with Winmill’s ruling, stating, “I appreciate the initial determination that the Coeur d’Alenes’ decision to conduct Texas Hold ’em games violates state law and the Idaho Constitution. The Legislature and the people of Idaho have made it clear what kind of gambling they will accept. That does not include poker. And no matter how much the Tribe insists otherwise, Texas Hold ’em is poker.”

Not First Time Poker Upheld as Gambling Under State Law

Judge Winmill’s ruling does shine the light on the classic “luck vs. skill” argument in poker and her ruling is not the first time an “element of chance” made the game illegal.

Back in November 2011, a Portsmouth, Virginia court declared that poker constituted illegal gambling under state laws. The Virginia statute declares illegal gambling as wagering something of value on a contest or something where the ultimate outcome is uncertain or a matter of chance. Judge Thomas Shadrick declared that while poker is skillful, the result of every hand is still uncertain.

While most would agree that Texas Hold’em is a skill game, the game does have an element of luck involved. This element is sometimes highlighted late in tournaments when a player suffers a bad beat elimination or a less skillful player goes on an incredible run of cards to win an event.



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James Guill

James Guill began his poker career in 2006, spending two years traveling the US tournament circuit. Since 2008, he has covered the game extensively for some of the biggest names in the industry. When not writing about the latest poker news, he can be found hunting for antique treasures in Central Virginia.