By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge for the first time has given legal backing to something card sharks have known for ages: Poker is a game of skill, not chance.
In a 120-page ruling that advocates of legalized online poker say could further their cause, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn threw out the conviction of a New Jersey man for hosting a high-stakes poker game at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse.
Lawrence DiCristina's twice-a-week games of "Texas Hold'em" do not qualify as "gambling" under a 1970 federal gambling law, Weinstein ruled on Tuesday. The law bans games of chance such as dice throwing and roulette but does not explicitly outlaw poker.
"The government must demonstrate that it is more probable than not that poker is predominated by chance rather than skill," Weinstein wrote. "It has failed to do so."
"Expert poker players draw on an array of talents, including facility with numbers, knowledge of human psychology, and powers of observation and deception," he wrote. "Players can use these skills to win, even if chance has not dealt them the better hand."
Weinstein said DiCristina could have been prosecuted under New York law, which defines poker as falling under the common-law definition of illegal games of chance. But DiCristina was not charged by local prosecutors under state law.
DiCristina had tried to prevent his case from going to trial, offering testimony from experts who said poker players could significantly increase their odds of winning with skills such as "reading" opponents and playing certain hands.
But the judge allowed the case to proceed, and a jury convicted him in July. His lawyer moved to set aside the verdict, prompting Weinstein to revisit DiCristina's earlier arguments.
A lawyer for DiCristina said his client was "very excited and happy" with the judge's ruling. DiCristina faced a combined maximum of 10 years in prison.
John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, a national nonprofit advocacy group that filed a brief on DiCristina's behalf, hailed the ruling as "a major victory for the game of poker and the millions of Americans who enjoy playing it."
"Judge Weinstein gave the government an opportunity to prove that poker was a game of predominant chance, but even federal prosecutors could not provide an expert of any kind that could conclude that chance predominates over skill in poker," Pappas said.
The U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn is reviewing Weinstein's decision, a spokesman said.
Pappas said the ruling would play into the hands of advocates for legalizing online poker.
"Certainly this decision is something we're going to leverage with lawmakers," he said. "It's a momentum-building decision. We're hopeful that it will loosen some of the restrictions about the ability of people to play poker, whether in a live setting or online."
The U.S. Justice Department decided last year that the Wire Act, one of the key laws used in prosecuting gambling operations, should not apply to state-approved games -- opening a door to the legalization of online poker.
Delaware recently joined Nevada in legalizing online poker for state residents. California and several other states are considering similar measures as they seek new tax revenue and technology jobs.
(Editing by Daniel Burns and Douglas Royalty)