Sexton testifies at S. Carolina poker trial

Mike Sexton

Mike Sexton appeared in a South Carolina court today to defend poker as a game of skill.

Sexton was a witness for the defense, in the case of Bob Chimento and four other poker players who were charged with illegal gambling arising out of a 2006 police raid in connection with their weekly poker game.

Although Chimento and his fellow defendants could have pleaded guilty and paid a fine of between $100 and $250 to make the case go away, they decided to fight.

They filed a motion to dismiss the criminal case against them on the grounds that the statute was unconstitutional, but the lower court judge ruled against them and the case was instead set for trial.

PokerListings spoke with Sexton right after his court appearance to discuss his testimony.

PokerListings: Tell us about your testimony in the case.

Sexton: I was there to testify on whether or not poker was predominantly a game of skill or a game of chance. I think the testimony went well on our side because before the judge has even ruled on the case - he's going to write a ruling and have it out next Thursday - he was adamant and convinced that poker - No-Limit Hold'em specifically - was predominantly a game of skill rather than a game of chance.

PokerListings: So the judge was receptive to the testimony?

Sexton: He stated in court that there is no question about that. Now, in his mind there's still a question as to whether these guys were operating a house of gaming or not, and that's what he's going to rule on next week.

But as to the part of poker being predominantly a game of skill, there was no question in his mind. The ultimate ruling for us is if these guys get acquitted and he makes that the primary factor in his decision.

PokerListings: What was the prosecutor's position on this issue?

Sexton: The prosecutors were trying to put on a case that these guys were running a house of gaming. That nobody knew each other; that they were running a game for profit, etc. Our defense attorneys argued against that and we'll see how the court rules on that issue.

PokerListings: The judge might rule against the defendants regardless of the "skill issue" because the language of the statute only refers to any game of cards, correct?

Sexton: That's the way the pros is trying to get the judge to rule, that it says in the statute, any gambling on any game of cards consists of a house of gaming. We read the statute that if chance is the predominant factor, then it's gambling; if it's skill, then it's not.

PokerListings: Were you cross-examined by the prosecution? What were you asked?

Sexton: He asked certain questions about skill and chance in poker as well as a number of other questions. I thought it went really well. He asked, if players were of equal skill, what would be the determining factor then, which was actually a good question.

My answer was, I don't believe you're ever going to find two poker players who are of equal skill. Some do some things better than the other guy and they may be very close, but you're never going to find two players who are exactly equal in skill.

PokerListings: And even if the skill level is closely matched, in any one hand, one player may make a mistake.

Sexton: Correct. Even the best players make mistakes. Poker comes down to a very simple fact. You make enough correct decisions you'll be a winning player; if you make too many poor decisions you'll be a losing player. It's really just that simple.

PokerListings: Did the judge ask you any questions or just the attorneys?

Sexton: No, the judge did not ask any questions. He listened intently. And we had some nice video from the World Poker Tour that we put up there to show examples how cards don't matter. How the skill elements of poker, which [are] betting, calling and folding, show the actions the players are in total control of.

And when we demonstrated the fact that the cards didn't matter, that guys are winning pots with 9-5 when they're up against ace-king, we got our point across that skill is a deciding factor, the predominant factor when it comes to poker. It's not about the cards, it's about the skill elements and how the skill elements are applied.

PokerListings: What examples from the WPT did you show in court?

Sexton: There were a number of hands, some from Seasons 4, 5 and 6. There were a couple episodes involving Daniel Negreanu.

One where he slow-played aces and another where he made a great call in the pot where the guy bluffed with an 8-7 when the board was Q-Q-T-6 and Daniel had ace-king and called him for over a million dollars. Several hands like that demonstrating the skill aspects of poker.

PokerListings: In the Kentucky domain name case, the judge stated that poker was a game of chance because "the best hand at showdown won." What do you think of that claim?

Sexton: That certainly showed his lack of knowledge. As we explained in court today, over 70% of the hands don't go to showdown. The vast majority of hands never get to the river. In truth, if you were just playing showdown poker, where there was no betting, where everybody got two cards and there were five cards in the middle, [...] that's not how poker is played.

The skill elements, which are betting, calling, and folding, take precedence and determine 100% of the pot size and the vast majority of the pot outcomes as to who's going to win the pot - as to who applied those skill elements best in the hand.

That's the case we were trying to prove and obviously the judge quickly ruled that without question skill predominates in poker.

PokerListings: Did the prosecutor introduce any opposite testimony, that poker was a game of luck?

Sexton: I was hoping they [would]. They didn't even try to refute any of our expert testimony as far as poker being a game of skill. I give them credit for that.

PokerListings: How did you become involved in this case?

Sexton: I became involved because the Poker Players Alliance, an organization that fights for the rights of poker players and has over a million members nationwide and over 8,000 members in South Carolina.

They contacted me and asked me if I would be an expert witness and testify to the fact that skill was the predominant factor in poker. As a poker guy, I have a passion for the game and a passion for people who play in home games across the country and don't feel they should be arrested or criminalized for having a common interest with their friends in the game of poker.

I was honored to be here and was glad I could do it.


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Those following the trial were all atwitter - literally - today as the Poker Players Alliance, who had filed an amicus brief supporting the South Carolina defendants, provided updates on the proceedings on Twitter.

According to one post concerning Sexton's testimony, "They should have charged admission to hear Sexton testify ... he is giving a great poker clinic." Another called Sexton a rock star.

With his well-received testimony Friday, it is likely that this will not be the last time Sexton is called on as an expert witness. But whether it was enough to help acquit the defendants in this case remains to be seen.

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