The poker home game is as American as apple pie and baseball. A home game is poker played at a private residence, usually among friends and acquaintances without a formal dealer or bank, and without players being charged (by host or otherwise) to play. Home games are typically where newcomers first learn poker basics since there is a high comfort level and the environment is relatively safe and casual.
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The legality of home games depends entirely on the state or locality where the kitchen table sits as some jurisdictions allow it, others have outlawed it, and in many places where it is a crime, the police never enforce it. A poker home game that takes place in Los Angeles County, California shows the complexities of the law on this matter.
Los Angeles 2005 County Code §13.20.030 states that “a player shall not deal, play, carry on, or conduct any game where players bet or wager money, checks, credits, or other things of value against each other.”11 This law seems to banish all wagering games in the county, however, California’s Penal Code §377j(e)(2)(d) states that games played with cards in private homes or residences where no person makes money for operating the game is legal. Without getting into the legal complexities of preemption, the state law trumps the county law and a home game of poker would be lawful in Los Angeles. Overall, when it comes to most home games, gaming legal expert I. Nelson Rose put it best, “you have a better chance of winning the World Series of Poker than being arrested [for playing in a home game].”
Just because an attorney says a home game is legal in a specific jurisdiction doesn’t mean the poker players are necessarily safe because cheating flourishes in poker home games due to the lack of organization and often amateur skill level. Home games generally lack a full time poker dealer, official banker, and rule enforcer to keep the poker game rolling fair and furthermore, friendly poker games tend to get casual and sloppy and often involve alcohol and distractions. In this environment, someone (even a friend or colleague) with a good understanding of the game and a dishonest demeanor can take advantage of other players using a few different cheating strategies.
Poker Cheating Examples
The most common method of poker home game cheating involves the rotating deck of cards which can be fixed and dealt to give a poker player an unfair advantage. The cheater does not have to be a gifted dealer or magician to fix the deck, rather they need to keep a steady eye on the cards and when an opportunity comes along, slip an ace to the bottom of the deck to be later dealt for a benefit.
A skilled poker cheater can give the impression of shuffling the cards when in actuality they are manipulating cards in the deck to profit their play. Player collusion is another cheating method often used in poker home games and involves two or more players acting in concert to cheat the rest of the table by sharing cards, raising pots, and trick dealing. Two players looking to collude will create a series of symbols, words, or gestures to indicate hand strength which can either be used to allow accomplices to fold a hand or raise the pot to induce more action.
Collusion can also be used with trick dealing by having the colluder falsely cut the deck or the cheat dealer stack cards to distribute to partners in crime. Finally, a common way for the game host (or card provider) to cheat is by using marked poker cards. Since the host usually provides the cards to be used in the poker game, they have an opportunity to make minute marks on certain key cards to allow them to ascertain what players are holding.
When caught, the typical home game cheater usually loses friendships and all future poker invites, however, depending on what jurisdiction the cheating occurred in, there can also be legal consequences.
When an honest poker player discovers they lost money to a cheater, they can bring a civil action to attempt to remedy the situation. This action, however, will often fail if the jurisdiction has outlawed home poker games since when money or property is lost in an illegal activity, all parties are considered in pari delicto, or at equal fault, and therefore all can be barred from recovery.
On the other hand, in a jurisdiction that permits poker home games, a cheated player has a strong case for fraudulent misrepresentation against the cheater. The Second Restatement of Torts §531 states that one who makes a fraudulent misrepresentation is subject to liability to the persons or class of persons whom has acted in reliance of the misrepresentation, to the pecuniary loss suffered by them through their justifiable reliance in the transaction. While a poker game is not an ordinary everyday transaction, it is one where people rely on other players to follow the honest rules and principals of the poker game. A cheater who has fraudulently misrepresented cards in order to take money from other players is likely liable for the monetary loss suffered by the cheated players.
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