Oh, but you can turn a dance into an ace

by Brian Clarey

You can’t play poker in the state of North Carolina. Not for money, anyway, and if you’re not playing for money, then it’s not really poker.

That’s according to a ruling made by a state Court of Appeals panel last week. Three judges ruled unanimously that poker was essentially a game of luck, therefore it’s illegal under state gambling prohibitions.

Bingo, last time we checked, was still cool.

It goes like this: Howard Fierman, of Cary, wanted to open a poker room. Nothing outlandish, just a few tables in an old house in Durham. This was back in 2004, after Chris Moneymaker, a Midwest accountant, lucked his way into a World Series of Poker Main Event bracelet and subsequently every stooge who’d ever caught a flush on the river thought he could win the big one.

So Fierman wanted to open this little poker room. A parlor, I think he called it.

And of course, he couldn’t. Gambling falls under Chapter 19 in the North Carolina Criminal Code: Offenses Against Public Morals. It’s lumped together with bootlegging, drugs, “lewd matter” and “assignation” which, as it turns out, is having sex anywhere but in your house. I had to look it up.

And right about here I’d like to say that these judges simply didn’t understand the nuances of poker, its subtle alchemy of skill and luck, to be sure, but also the exercise in body control and testicular fortitude, with soaring elations and humiliating lows. If you’re playing for money.

But maybe they do get it.

“No amount of skill can change a deuce into an ace,” wrote Judge Ann Marie Calabria in her ruling, revealing enough knowledge of the game to make me think that surely she’s sat through at least a couple hands.

And it is so true, Ms. Calabria. So true. Poker is like that, or so I’ve heard.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re sitting on jack-ace in the pocket, off-suit. You bet pretty good and chase everybody out except one guy. Flop comes down jack-ace-nine. The other guy puts you all in and you call real quick. You got two pair, right? He turns over two tens. No big deal. But the turn comes down another ten! He’s got trips and you got two lousy pair. You’re done. But then the river falls. Dammit! It’s a Jack. A freakin’ jack and you’ve got a full boat to double up.

Isn’t that amazing? If it were to happen, I mean.

In the statute, the word “gambling” is never clearly defined, though “lewd” is named in part as something “which the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, when considered as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,” and couldn’t we deconstruct that one all day?

Moving on….

I can understand the reluctance to define such a word as “gambling,” particularly in the state of North Carolina back in 1913, which was when the public decency laws in Chapter 19 first made it to the books. To put things in perspective, that same year the state Court of Appeals was considering whether women should be allowed to be notaries public.

But the gambling thing… even back in 1913, especially back in 1913 when there was no television or internet, and I believe one of the highlights of the year, entertainment-wise, was the arrival of the Sears catalog… people played a lot of cards back then, in between trips to the outhouse. And not all of it was hearts, and not all of it was for matchsticks.

Not to mention various other wagering endeavors which surely must have occurred throughout the history of the Old North State. The early days of NASCAR come to mind, and I’m reasonably sure that the NCAA Final Four bracket was invented somewhere in North Carolina.

And we can delve as deeply into the realm of the philosophical as we like here. Starting a business is a gamble. Refurbishing a downtown area. Trying out a new restaurant. Crossing High Point Road on foot.

And, of course, Bingo.

Talk about luck: Bingo is almost completely random. The only element of skill is the ability to scan Bingo cards quickly – if you’re fast enough you might be able to handle three, maybe even five cards, increasing your chances of hitting Bingo.

And the lottery – let’s not forget that other perfectly legal form of gambling in our state. Let’s also not forget that the odds of picking all five numbers in any given week is one in 575,757. As far as skill, there are only so many ways to blacken in a circle or scratch off a card.

But in poker there are so many variables, particularly in No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, the poker player’s poker game. There’s position and betting, card sense, a bit of method acting, some advanced math and a whole lot of psychology.

Use these tools right, maybe you can turn a deuce into an ace, or at least convince everyone else at the table that you’re holding a couple bullets.

For questions or comments e-mail Brian Clarey at