House debates legal 'mind sports' in N.H.

Last modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012
A bill that would legalize poker parlors and betting on other 'mind sports' in New Hampshire had its hearing in the House yesterday.

Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, proposed House Bill 1348 to provide an exception for wagering on games he says are primarily based on skill and not luck. Under current law, gambling is defined as risking 'something of value upon a future contingent event not under one's control or influence.'

McGuire said that makes it a crime to play games like bridge, backgammon and poker for money with friends at home. McGuire's game is bridge - he's a former state champion and past president of the New Hampshire Bridge Association - and he said there should be a distinction between 'mind sports' and casino games that consist of 'a throw of the dice, a spin of the wheel, random chance.'

'A number of these games include in them specific events that are not under your control even though your overall long-term ability to win at certain games is under your control,' he said.

McGuire gave the example of backgammon, in which the result of a dice roll is not under the player's control but how the player responds to each roll and builds their overall strategy in the game is a product of skill.

McGuire said he suspects his bill would not be controversial - there were only a handful of attendees at yesterday's hearing - if not for the impact it could have on poker. Poker is a highly skilled game, he said.

'Poker, even though it's commonly played in a casino, is not a game similar to other casino games. It's not a game like roulette, blackjack, craps, all those kind of games which are very random and essentially have no skill in them,' he said.

When McGuire was done, Commerce Committee Chairman John Hunt, a Republican from Rindge, asked, 'What is the problem we're fixing here?'

'No one could open up a poker parlor or a rubber bridge parlor or a backgammon parlor in New Hampshire and have that been considered commerce,' McGuire said. If he and the other representatives had begun playing poker for money in the hearing room, they would have been arrested, he said.

McGuire said his bill would allow businesses to facilitate high-stakes poker games without being licensed by the state. Currently, small-stakes games are permitted as charitable gaming at licensed facilities in New Hampshire.

'You're right, poker is a touchy issue,' Hunt said, but he was struggling to see the distinction between poker and a game like blackjack, which McGuire does not consider a 'mind sport' and is not covered by the bill.

'Blackjack is not a skill game at all in the way that poker is,' McGuire explained. 'Blackjack is a mechanical sort of game. The only level of skill involved is memorization. Poker is a very complex, multi-level game.'

McGuire said 'mind sport' is a recognized term, promoted by an international organization and an annual olympiad. Hunt asked about situations in which someone might only play poker for a hand or two instead of playing with a long-term strategy.

'The definition is based on what game you're playing, not the fact that you sat there for an hour,' McGuire said.

The committee did not vote on the bill yesterday. A vote on whether to recommend the bill will be taken before it heads to the House floor.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)