1983 | Ottawa, IL

Skill Is Not a Crime

“Everything that contains an element of luck is not gambling.”

The position of the state of Illinois on gambling is ambivalent, inconsistent, contradictory, and self-serving. We have state-regulated racetrack betting. We have bingo. We have the Illinois State Lottery. People gamble in their homes.

They gamble on the golf course. They bet on baseball, basketball, football, and prizefights. They shop at certain stores so they can be in the store’s weekly lottery drawing. They buy and sell futures contracts through their stockbrokers. They gamble in taverns, private clubs, and fraternal organizations.

Gambling is more than endemic in Illinois. It is epidemic. Officially, however, it is illegal in most situations. How is this illegality recognized? It is tolerated, accepted, smiled at, and, in rare instances, prosecuted. 

The defendants quite correctly claim that the game of “Hold’em” poker which they were playing was a contest for the determination of skill. And it might be said that the element of endurance was also involved. The money paid at the conclusion of the contest was prize money for the two most skillful contestants. 

The state argues that poker is not a game of skill but is a game of pure chance or luck. This allegation is a canard. Anyone familiar with even the barest rudiments of the game knows better. Pure luck? Send a neophyte player to a Saturday night poker game with seasoned players and he will leave his clothes behind and walk home in a barrel. Pure luck? This is true of bingo or lottery. But it cannot be said of poker. The court should take judicial notice that poker is a game of skill. It cannot be gainsaid, of course, that there is an element of luck in poker. Of course there is. There is an element of luck in everything in life. Even the prosecution of a lawsuit contains an element of luck. But everything that contains an element of luck is not gambling.

About This Text

James Heiple, from his dissenting opinion in People v. Mitchell. In 1980 in Peoria, Illinois, state investigators busted a Texas Hold’em poker game in which winners were to be awarded set amounts based on overall performance. Two players were convicted of gambling, and the decision was upheld on appeal. Heiple’s dissent argued that the game fit under the gambling statute’s allowance for “any bona fide contest for the determination of skill.” Heiple resigned in 1997 after being charged with resisting arrest when he was stopped for speeding in Pekin, his hometown. Police claim the justice drove away, ignoring their sirens. While being handcuffed in his driveway, Heiple reportedly asked police, “Do you know who I am?”