Petitioners, state play their hands during court poker hearing

Poker Tournament to begin in Tel Aviv on Sunday, despite lack of written permission.

It looks like the Israel Poker Federation will have to take a chance and hold its 2009 championship tournament without written authorization from the police, according to comments made by some of the justices during a High Court hearing on Monday. The tournament is scheduled to begin on Sunday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. The head of the panel, Justice Edmond Levy, said the ruling would be handed down within a few days. The federation, represented by attorneys Ra'anan Bar-On and Vered Cohen, petitioned the High Court to instruct police to declare in writing that the federation would be allowed to hold a "Texas Hold'em" poker tournament. The police has refused to do so. According to Bar-On, the police has always given the green light for the tournament in the past. He told The Jerusalem Post that this year the police called in the organizers and told them they would not be allowed to hold the tournament on the grounds that poker was a "prohibited game." According to the Penal Law, a "prohibited game" is one in which "a person may win money, valuable consideration or a benefit according to the results of the game, those results depending more on chance than on understanding or ability." The federation denies that poker is primarily a game of luck and filed, along with the petition, an opinion by Prof. Ehud Lehrer, head of the statistics department at Tel Aviv University, who supported that contention. According to Bar-On and Cohen, "the game is substantially different from gambling games such as bingo, whose results are determined solely by luck. In Texas Hold'em as played by Israel Poker Federation rules, the player who demonstrates expertise, knowledge, understanding, skill, integration, timing and strategic thinking will win." They also explained that the tournament did not involve gambling. Anyone wishing to participate would have to pay an entrance fee of NIS 1,350. Seventy-five percent of the fee is to be set aside for prize money. No other money would change hands during the tournament and the players would not bet. They would play in a round-robin tournament, with the player winning the most games coming in first. He would receive 20% of the prize money and the next 59 players would share the rest according to their placing. The police did not agree that this did not constitute a "forbidden game." In a letter to the lawyers, the police cited a ruling by Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court Judge Rachel Greenberg, who determined that the outcome of Texas Hold'em depended more on luck than understanding or skill. However, while refusing to authorize the tournament, the police did not say the organizers could not hold it. According to the Penal Law, there is an "exception" article which allows betting, lottery and "forbidden games" to be played on condition that they meet three criteria included in Article 230. These criteria are that the game be restricted to a specific circle of people, that it not go beyond amusement or entertainment, and that it not be held in venue where forbidden games were played. As long as the federation stuck to these rules, the prohibitions of the law against betting, lotteries and forbidden games would not apply. But the state's representative, Gilad Shirman, pointed out that the law also authorized the police to close down a place if it "concludes that its continued existence may adversely affect public welfare or the well-being of the area's inhabitants, or that it may lead to criminal behavior, including the conduct of a prohibited game." In other words, a game does not have to be "forbidden" for the police to shut it down under circumstances described by the law. The justices indicated that there was nothing stopping the federation from holding the tournament as long as it stuck to the law, and that it did not need a police permit to do so.