Columns » Max Brantley

Risky business

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An outfit called the National Poker Challenge, which runs poker leagues in Memphis and Portland, was planning to start holding poker games in a room on Rodney Parham Road in mid-August until city officials stepped in.

City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the game would run afoul of anti-gambling laws. He said state law prohibits the risking of money on a contest or chance, where one person must be the loser and the other a winner.

National Poker Challenge hopes to disabuse Carpenter of the notion that its games constitute gambling. You play for free. Yes, there are cash prizes, apparently generated by $100 “subscription” fees to be able to log into the company's website to reserve seats for games and track player statistics. That's not dissimilar, I'd note, to paying a fee to enter a road race, golf tournament or bass classic with a cash prize.

There is at least one obvious contradiction to the assertion by Little Rock authorities, including the police, that this enterprise amounts to gambling and is thus illegal.

Gambling in Arkansas is prohibited by the Arkansas Constitution, with two exceptions — pari-mutuel wagering on horses and dogs and, now, “charity” bingo.

But what about the video poker and blackjack machines that are now merrily jingling at Oaklawn and Southland Parks? (Southland also offers electronically dealt poker and blackjack games and Oaklawn is making preparations to add these electronic card tables, too.)

The legislature has decreed, essentially, that “electronic games of skill” are not gambling. It has permitted them at Oaklawn and Southland. A group filed a lawsuit challenging the local option election procedures in the law, but, curiously, did not challenge the baseline presumption that poker and blackjack do not amount to unconstitutional gambling.

Of course poker and blackjack are gambling, each with strong elements of chance, but not purely chance. Skill can indeed increase your odds of winning — more so at the table than at the machines, which will take 10 percent or so of your money over time as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow.

It's hardly surprising that entrepreneurs are seeking a legal toehold in the popular poker business. The state legislature has said poker is a game of skill. Why should the skillful be limited to practicing at Oaklawn and Southland? Furthermore, no money appears to be at risk in the games staged by the National Poker Challenge. That would seem to put players out of reach of even the state's ancient anti-card playing statute. It says:

“If any person is guilty of betting any money or any valuable thing on any game of brag, bluff, poker, seven-up, three-up, twenty-one, vingt-et-un, thirteen cards, the odd trick, forty-five, whist, or at any other game of cards, known by any name now known to the law, or with any other or new name or without any name, upon conviction he or she shall be fined in any sum not less than ten dollars ($10.00) nor more than twenty-five dollars ($25.00).”

Money is being bet at Oaklawn and Southland on 21 and poker and other games, such as the famous “lock and roll” machines. But the legislature has specifically legalized electronic games in these locations.

As ever, the law is an ass. It can be whipped and cajoled and pushed to carry whatever burden is required, particularly when the handler carries a fat wallet. There's a simple solution for the National Poker League. Hire a lobbyist.

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