Given that Georgia’s anti-gambling law was written in 1802 and last updated in 1999, it is no shock that the state does not have any laws that directly address online poker. As always in states that take a conservative view of gambling generally, we suggest caution. Given the result in the Chimento case, there is simply no way of predicting (a) whether law enforcement authorities would attempt to enforce SCCL 16-19-40 against online poker players and (b) whether South Carolina courts would uphold that type of enforcement.
Theoretically, the statute shouldn’t apply if servers are located outside of the state. However, the statute theoretically shouldn’t have applied in the Chimento case, either, but it did.
As is the case in many of the Southern states, South Carolina has very conservative (and some might say antiquated) gambling laws on the books. For the purpose of the legality of poker, the relevant statute is South Carolina Code of Laws §16-19-40 on “unlawful games and betting”, which was written in 1802. The law bans the play of “any game with cards” in “any tavern, inn, store for the retailing of spirituous liquors or in any house used as a place of gaming, barn, kitchen, stable or other outhouse, street, highway, open wood, race field or open place”. The owner of the space in which such a game takes place is also guilty of a crime.
As far as state laws go, this one is pretty cut and dry. It prohibits poker, seemingly whether there is betting taking place or not, in public or in private. Certainly there is no licensed poker in South Carolina and there are no tribal casinos at all.
In 2006, 20 poker players were arrested in a raid of a local home game in which the only rake taken was used to cover the cost of food and drinks consumed by the players. All players were charged with violating SCCL 16-19-40. Several, led by Bob Chimento, went to trial in a case now known as Town of Mt. Pleasant v. Chimento. They argued that, because the statute focuses on “houses of gaming”, it meant to criminalize gambling – and poker, as a game of skill, isn’t gambling.
The judge agreed that poker is a game of skill but convicted the defendants anyway because they failed to demonstrate that the Dominant Factor test was the appropriate standard in South Carolina. The defendants successfully appealed to an intermediate court and had their convictions overturned. The state took over the case from the city and appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
In 2012 the South Carolina Supreme Court finally issued its decision in the case, reversing the intermediate court and reinstating the convictions against the defendants. Overall the outcome was a muddled one that saw the court split 3-2 with a concurring opinion and a dissent.
Regardless, home poker games (for now at least) run afoul of Georgia law.