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A recent New York court ruling regarding the ancient Chinese tile-based game of Mah Jong may prove to have positive effects on the potential legalization of online poker. During Criminal Court Judge John H. Wilson’s ruling in People v. Feng, he declared that “the court declines to declare Mah Jong to be a per se ‘contest of chance’.” This ruling could prove to have implications in other games where there are elements of both chance and skill, such as poker.

The so called “skill vs chance” debate for poker has been ongoing in the United States ever since the UIEGA was first passed in 2006. Under most U.S. laws, definitions of illegal gambling have traditionally revolved around words such as “luck” and “chance.” Contests of skill are largely determined to be outside the bounds of “illegal gambling.” For instance, New York state provision CPL 225.00(2) defines “gambling” as: “When (a person) states or risks something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under his control or influence, upon an understanding that he will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”

The defense in the Mah Jong case successfully argued that Mah Jong does not fit this description of a “contest of chance,” under the letter of the New York law. Judge Wilson also stated: “The mere fact that the game combines skill and luck does not make it a contest of chance.” Despite this, the Judge did rule against the defendants for the charges of promotion of gambling. This was due to the fact that the house was running an establishment where the house took a share of players’ winnings.

Like Mah Jong, poker has significant components of both luck and skill. This debate has continued without any applicable rulings being made, until this recent New York Criminal Court ruling. Although the ruling was for a completely different game, this is the first solid stance a judge has made regarding the issue of luck vs skill.

The effects of this could start a domino effect, eventually allowing for easier legalization of poker. It is likely that if poker can also get itself into the category of a skilled game, rather than a gambling game based on luck, that it may expedite pro-online poker legislation. Although there are still many other hurdles to jump before we see legalized online poker, this could be a good event to help garner support and help progress to the goal of legalization and regulation.