PHOTO BY DAVE ZATAL             

Home Games and the Law

By W. Knox Richardson

Right now — right as you are reading these words — somewhere on Oahu, there is a home poker game in progress. Poker, once the staple of seedy back room smokers, has ascended in the eyes of popular society to a level heretofore reserved for 1950s major league baseball and 1960s rock music. Names like Chris Moneymaker, Phil Hellmuth and Gus Hansen – all poker pros — are appearing on sports jerseys. Ask any ten-year-old boy or girl: which is the better hand – a flush or a straight.

Today, on Oahu, in Hawaii, and all over America, poker pros have taken on superstardom status. Oscar-winning actors and professional gamblers are exchanging work roles. Thespians win at the tournament tables while pro card players act out cameo roles in major motion pictures.

You can’t turn on TV these days without coming across a televised poker event, thanks to the invention of the “hole card camera” that shows the world what a player has in his hand and makes a formerly boring, one-sided presentation much more exciting and educational for the home audience. What started on cable has migrated to prime time network TV for such venues as the venerable World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour, The Legends of Poker, Poker Royale and a dozen others.

Unlike poker of the past, both sexes are now playing in these events and in many cases women are winning against their more celebrated male counterparts. Poker is truly an equal opportunity game.

Simultaneously, online poker websites have sprung up like weeds, providing a quasi-legal form of 24/7 gaming from anywhere in the world, including Oahu. For most poker players, they get started online and then migrate to home games to test their skills in a real world environment.

Here is one such story.

Patrick — not his real name — mustered up his courage and knocked on the apartment door. He came with a friend for safety and courage. After a moment, the door opened wide and standing there was John, the host for the evening home poker game, and he invited them in.

As they entered the high-rise Waikiki unit, Patrick noticed the living room was dominated by a casino-sized poker table, covered in the requisite green felt, supporting 10 equal stacks of multi-color gaming chips. His heart already racing; this wasn’t the Internet, he thought. Patrick took a seat at the table and was told others would be showing up soon. While he waited he thought about what was to come. Patrick was about to play No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em — the hugely popular modern incarnation of popular poker — in a live setting for the first time with a group of nine other card players, most of whom he had never met. It was enough to make a grown man think twice.

Within minutes, others showed up and first-name introductions were made. John, the host, then dealt a single card to each player that determined both the seating and order of play. Patrick and his friend were seated apart. This helped ensure no collaborative cheating occurred.

When all were seated, each player contributed $20 cash into the pool and received $2,000 in playing chips. This form of game had 10 players, each starting with the same amount of chips. Play would proceed until only one player was left holding all the chips on the table. There was no rake, that is, the house did not take a cut (more on that key point later). Every dollar contributed would eventually be paid out to the lucky first, second and third place winners.

In this form of poker there are no antes, but there are forced bets called “blinds.” On every hand, two players – called the big and small blinds – put in their bets providing each hand with minimum pot, or “action.” At first the blinds are low. The large blind was $10 and the small blind was $5. With every new hand, the blinds move around the table. Two players put in the small or large blinds. Each player also takes a turn dealing. Every six minutes the blinds are increased until they could be high $1000 or more per hand. This changes the dynamics of the game as its progresses, the smallest bet being equal to the big blind for that hand.

With the blinds changing so rapidly, players were soon betting up. Some won and others, well, left the table minus their original $20.

Though Patrick knew only his one friend at the table, he had met the host previously and really had no problem playing with strangers. They played with fresh, unused decks of cards and each player took turns dealing.

Within an hour, Patrick was in fourth place and almost “in the money,” but his inexperience in live games finally bested him and he lost all his remaining chips to another nearly anonymous player. His friend lost earlier so when Patrick was out of chips, he got up from the table, said his good byes and they departed. He was feeling good for having done as well as he did and confident next time things would be different — he would be shooting for third place for one thing, he thought to himself. Still smiling, he walked home in a light Honolulu rain.

But wait a minute. Isn’t gambling illegal in Hawaii? Yes, gambling is a misdemeanor and you can go to jail. Unless you follow six simple rules from a 1973 loophole in the law that makes home games, also known as “social gambling” an exception. Such gaming is not so much legal, but following these rules gives you a legal defense against the crime of gambling.

Section 712-1231 of the Hawaii State Statutes covers social gambling. Under this law, social gambling is a defense against the charge of general gambling. To be effective, all of the following conditions must be met:

1. Players compete on equal terms with each other; and

2. No player receives, or becomes entitled to receive, anything of value or any profit, directly or indirectly, other than the player’s personal gambling winnings; and

3. No other person, corporation, unincorporated association, or entity receives or becomes entitled to receive, anything of value or any profit, directly or indirectly, from any source, including but not limited to permitting the use of premises, supplying refreshments, food, drinks, service, lodging or entertainment; and

4. It is not conducted or played in or at a hotel, motel, bar, nightclub, cocktail lounge, restaurant, massage parlor, billiard parlor, or any business establishment of any kind, public parks, public buildings, public beaches, school grounds, churches or any other public area; and

5. None of the players is below the age of majority (18); and

6. The gambling activity is not bookmaking.

The concept of an affirmative defense means that a person charged with gambling must prove these facts to the court, or the jury, by “a preponderance of evidence.”

According to a spokesman from the Honolulu County’s Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, social gambling isn’t a problem on the island, as few if any arrests have ever been made and no one in recent memory has needed to avail themselves of the available affirmative defense.

This however was before that huge impact of TV poker and a flurry of new home games sprouting up all over Oahu. There are, in fact, several Websites that promote home games on Oahu from Schofield Barracks to Hawaii Kai, and there are dozens of potential players who list their availability to play in such games.

Still, the PA’s office says that it is not a problem so far. No complaints have been filed with the Honolulu Police Department and no prosecutions for home games that violate any of the six rules described earlier. The PA’s spokesman noted, however, that police are not required to make a determination whether or not the gaming is or isn’t “social gambling.” Should the police knock on your door during a home game, you could be arrested and only later offer up your defense to the courts. It is a risk many players on Oahu are willing to take and do so on a daily basis.

The next step is a quick trip to Las Vegas to play with the big boys in a casino-hosted tournament where players often win tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes a million. Maybe more — $7.5 million in the recent World Series of Poker. Anyone can play, so long as they can afford the entry fees. In which case, the battle cry of poker players everywhere is heard: "Shuffle up and deal."

So you want to host
a home poker game?

If you’re looking to host a home game for the first time, make sure it’s a poker-perfect night by setting it up right. There are a few things you’ll need to decide before sending out e-mails and making phone calls to invite people to your big poker night:

What Kind of Poker Night Will it Be?
Do you want to have an informal gathering of friends and play dealer’s choice, where each player gets to choose the game played each hand? Or do you want to focus on one game, like Texas Hold’em, all night? Or do you want to imitate the action of the televised poker tournaments at your home?

How Many People Should You Invite?
If you’re playing a dealer’s choice game, stick to five-to- seven people. In any game where seven-card stud is a possibility, you can’t have more than seven players at the table. On the other hand, if you’re hosting a Texas Hold’em only night, you should aim for six-to-ten players.

What’s the Buy-In and What are the Stakes?
No matter what kind of poker night you’ve decided to have, you should make it clear how much money your friends should bring to play, or "buy in" to the game with. A good way to set the buy-in for a new game is to choose an amount that you would spend on a night out. Whether it’s $10 or $100, it should be enough so the money matters a little, but not so much that anyone is going to miss paying their electric bill if they lose it.
The other thing to consider is what the stakes, or the betting structure, will be. Will it be a spread-limit, fixed-limit, or no limit game? How much will the minimum and maximum bets be?
Once you know the answers, decide on a day and time and deal out the invitations. And remember the rules for "social gambling" in Hawaii.