June 22, 2022

A-Rod’s poker game is illegal. Is it mine too?

Alex Rodriguez is being investigated by Major League Baseball for allegedly participating in poker games held at a record executive’s mansion in Beverly Hills. ESPN.com called these private affairs “illegal”. Does that mean my home poker game is also illegal?

Probably not. Gambling laws differ from state to state. California, where Alex Rodriguez allegedly played, prohibits eleven specific games under Penal Code 330, as well as any “banking” or “percentage” games. Poker is not on the list, nor considered a banking game (in which players bet against the house). In a percentage game, the organizer earns money beyond their own earnings in exchange for accommodation. It follows that poker played in a private home is legal as long as the owner does not demand special compensation. But even if he does, there is a loophole: if the host “rakes the pot,” or removes a percentage, no more than five times, the game is technically still legitimate. Of course, in A-Rod’s case, we have no idea if he was involved in a percentage play or how many times the organizer raked the pot, so it’s hard to determine if the Yankee is guilty of anything other than violating MLB industry rules. .

Private gambling is very rarely prosecuted in California. In state history, no one has ever been prosecuted for raking the pot more than five times in a private game. If, against all odds, you were prosecuted, you would be charged with a misdemeanor. Other states regulate participation in private poker games differently. About half of the states, including New York, have no laws against participating in a private game of poker. On the other end of the spectrum, Utah has completely banned gambling and does not grant any exemptions for playing poker at home. Even in Utah, however, violation of these laws only results in a misdemeanor charge.

California gambling laws date back to the 1870s and 80s, when the state decided to crack down on casinos that had sprung up during the gold rush. As a result, many of the 11 games specifically prohibited by the California Penal Code – faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, red and black, rondo, tan, fan-tan, seven-and-a-half, twenty-one, and hokeypokey – are unfamiliar to the modern day player. The original roster actually included a 12and game, stud horse poker – not to be confused with stud poker. The similar names of the two games actually confused the state attorney general, who banned stud poker in 1947, knowing that the two games were identical. (The decision was overturned about 20 years ago. As for the stud, it was eventually delisted.)

For a game to constitute gambling, it must involve prize, consideration and chance. Recent court decisions in Pennsylvania and Colorado have challenged the status quo notion that poker really qualifies because it seems to require more skill than luck. In Colorado, a man named Raley started a bar poker league in which the league kept 10% of the $20 entry for league expenses and to pay the dealer. He was charged with illegal gambling. He was later acquitted based on the testimony of a professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Denver, who presented a study showing that skilled players win poker games 97% of the time. The Colorado and Pennsylvania decisions were ultimately overturned on appeal, reiterating the established understanding of poker as a form of gambling based primarily on chance.

A question about today’s news? Ask the explainer.

Explainer thanks Joe Kelly of Suny Buffalo, I. Nelson Rose of Whittier Law School,and Bob Snyder of Bob Snyder & Associates.