By Clay Barbour
© March 1, 2013
Card sharks hoping game rooms would soon become commonplace received bad news Thursday when the Supreme Court failed to deliver a ruling on the legality of playing poker for money in Virginia.
The justices did, however, leave the door open for future challenges, which means at least one Hampton Roads man will face felony gambling charges in Circuit Court.
Former poker hall operator Charles Daniels sued Portsmouth Commonwealth's Attorney Earle C. Mobley in 2010, challenging a state law regarding the legality of Texas Hold 'em, a popular form of poker.
Daniels argued that poker is predominantly a game of skill, not chance, and therefore legal. He lost in Circuit Court in 2011. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the appeal in 2012.
On Thursday, justices said the lower court did not have the right to rule on the law itself, leaving undecided the issue of whether poker is illegal.
This means a felony gambling case against Virginia Beach restaurateur George Pitsilides will go forward, his attorney, James Broccoletti, said. Pitsilides' trial, stemming from three 2011 poker tournaments, has been on hold pending the Supreme Court's ruling, he said.
"They punted," Broccoletti said of Thursday's decision. "It means that we'll be on the docket in the near future."
A grand jury in April 2012 indicted Pitsilides - owner of four Captain George's Seafood Restaurants - after a series of raids by police at his home, an office and several other properties.
Broccoletti has said those games "between friends, family and long-standing members of the community" were legal. He also argued poker is a game of skill and has filed motions questioning the constitutionality of the law.
If the case does go to trial, a conviction on all three counts would mean a minimum sentence of three years in prison and as much as 30 years and a $60,000 fine.
Daniels ran The Poker Palace, one of a half-dozen card halls in Portsmouth that were flourishing at one time.
For years Mobley had allowed the halls to operate. He maintained that the existing law against gambling made an exception for games of skill and that lawmakers should amend it to fix that flaw.
But in July 2010, Mobley changed course and announced that he would view poker games as illegal, saying he didn't want Portsmouth "to become a gambling center." The poker halls closed.
The court essentially ruled that Daniels, who had not been charged with the crime, did not have standing to challenge the law.
Neither Daniels nor his attorneys were available for comment Thursday. Bill Prince, Mobley's spokesman, said he is pleased the court ruled he cannot be sued for enforcing the law, but still is bothered by the law itself.
"This is what we have said for years," Prince said. "The legislature needs to make this law more clear."