I didn’t know anything about poker when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, but I can imagine a situation where I would have learned about the game had there been card rooms nearby. Perhaps rather than playing Tekken or NCAA Football on the Playstation (the original – yes, I’m old) one weekend, my roommates and I would have enjoyed playing in a poker tournament for a few bucks. But Virginia has essentially no legal gambling beyond the lottery (there has been horse racing in the past), so I had to resort to studying instead of owning souls.
This past week, though, my retroactive dreams inched closer to becoming a reality as the Virginia Senate voted to legalize brick-and-mortar poker.
Prior to making it to a floor vote, SB 1400, introduced by Senator Louise Lucas, passed through the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee by a tight vote of 8-7. All seven Senators who voted against it were Republican. Seven of the Senators who voted for the bill were Democrat, but one Republican, William DeSteph, Jr., crossed party lines and took the pro-poker side.
When it came to the full Senate vote, the results were quite similar, but things got even more interesting. There are 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats in the Senate and once again, the vote was split by party with DeSteph going with the Democrats and voting for the bill. Two Senators did not vote, so it ended up tied, 19-19. In that case, Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor gets the tiebreaking vote. That man is Ralph Northam, a Democrat, who voted to pass the bill.
The next step is for the bill to move on to the House of Delegates, where it has already been assigned to the Committee on General Laws. If it is as partisan an issue as it was in the Senate, it doesn’t look like the bill will advance, as Republicans outnumber Democrats 66-34.
Currently, the definition of “illegal gambling” in Virginia is a bit vague, but it has been interpreted to include poker:
“Illegal gambling” means the making, placing or receipt of any bet or wager in the Commonwealth of money or other thing of value, made in exchange for a chance to win a prize, stake or other consideration or thing of value, dependent upon the result of any game, contest or any other event the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance, whether such game, contest or event occurs or is to occur inside or outside the limits of the Commonwealth.
SB 1400 exempts poker from that definition by adding the sentence, “Poker games shall be deemed games of skill, and nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to make any such game illegal gambling.”
The bill also contains pages of language laying out a framework for the regulation of poker tournaments. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would be the entity that has control over the tournaments, though it would be the Charitable Gaming Board that would set the regulations.
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