Court ruling fails to answer Portsmouth poker question

By Clay Barbour, The Virginian-Pilot – 2/28/2013

Card sharks hoping game rooms would soon become commonplace received bad news Thursday when the state Supreme Court failed to deliver a ruling on the legality of playing poker in Virginia.

The justices did, however, leave the door open for future challenges.

Former poker hall operator Charles Daniels sued Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle C. Mobley in 2010, challenging a state law regarding the legality of Texas Hold ‘em, a form of poker that has become widely popular.

Daniels argued that poker is predominantly a game of skill, not chance, and therefore legal. He lost in Circuit Court in 2011. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the appeal in 2012.

On Thursday, justices ruled the lower court did not have the right to rule on the law itself, leaving the issue of whether poker is illegal still undecided.

Attorney Steve Emmert, who runs the Virginia Appellate News & Analysis website, said the ruling means those wishing to challenge the existing law will themselves have to gamble on their chances to win in court.

“They would have to set up a test case poker hall and get arrested,” he said.

Daniels was never arrested. He ran The Poker Palace, one of a half-dozen card halls in Portsmouth that were flourishing at the time. For years Mobley had maintained the existing law was flawed because it made an exception for games of skill.

But in July 2010, Mobley changed course and announced that he would view poker games as illegal, forcing the poker halls to shut their doors. The court essentially ruled that Daniels did not have standing to challenge the law.

Neither Daniels nor his attorneys were immediately available Thursday. Bill Prince, Mobley’s spokesman, said the attorney was pleased the court ruled he could not be sued for enforcing the law, but was still bothered by the law itself.

“This is what we have said for years,” Prince said. “The legislature needs to make this law more clear.”