On the “Keeping Up with the Khardashians” episode titled “The Cougar Jenner” the Khardashian family then gets together at the Jenner household for their weekly game of poker (click here to view the history, rules, and variations of the game of poker). Kim wins the game and because of her success decides to throw a poker party at her house the next day. Click here to see footage from the poker game.

At Kim’s house, Kourtney complains Kim is simply all talk. Kourtney gets angry with Kim, and the two sisters decide to wage a bet. Kourtney is satisfied when she later wins the game. Kim, being the loser, is subsequently forced to be at Kourtney’s beck and call the next day. 

This episode of “Keeping Up with the Khardashians” raises an interesting legal issue – whether the Kardashians could be criminally convicted for illegal gambling. Generally, each state controls its gaming law. Usually, each state has different laws unless the federal government has specifically taken over. For example,  Lectlaw tells us Title 18, U.S.C. Sec. 1955 makes it a federal crime for anyone to conduct an “illegal gambling business” which is defined to be a gambling business which: 1) is a violation of the law of the state in which it is conducted; and (2) involves five or more persons who conduct, finance, manage, supervise, direct or own all or part of such business; and (3) has been or remains in substantially continuous operation for a period in excess of thirty days, or has a gross revenue of $2,000 in any single day. Another example of federally regulated gaming activity is internet gambling (click here for an overview of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006).

“Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is filmed in California. Therefore, the Kardashians would be subject to California gaming laws. The Gambling Control Act states: “[g]ambling can become addictive and is not an activity to be promoted of legitimized as entertainment for children and families.”  All gambling must be pre-approved by the state of California through government licensing. However, the Act states “gambling” means to “deal, operate, carry on, conduct, maintain, or expose for play any controlled game.” Therefore, we must look to the definition of “controlled game”. Under the Act, a “controlled game” is “any game defined by Subdivision (e) Section 337j of the Penal Code.”

Subdivision (e) Section 337j of the Penal Code states:

(1) As used in this section, “controlled game” means any game of chance, including any gambling device, played for currency, check, credit, or any other thing of value that is not prohibited and made unlawful by statute or local ordinance.

(2) As used in this section, “controlled game” does not include any of the following:

    (A) The game of bingo conducted pursuant to Section 326.5.
    (B) Parimutuel racing on horse races regulated by the California Horse Racing Board.
    (C) Any lottery game conducted by the California State Lottery.
    (D) Games played with cards in private homes or residences, in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player.

Because the Kardashians played the two poker games with cards in their private residences and no person made money for the operation of the game, it seems under California law they couldn’t be criminally convicted for illegal gambling. Furthermore, because there is no specific state or federal law which prohibits social games of poker it is also seems clear they could not be criminally convicted for illegal gambling.

In fact, according to Gambling Law U.S. “social gambling” (playing for money in a purely social context where no player, host of the game, or other person like a bookie makes or earns money for conducting the game itself) is only illegal in the following states:  Michigan, Maryland, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Other states’ laws concerning “social gambling” may be unclear, have monetary restrictions, and special exceptions. For a list of those states, click here.

Despite the variation among state law, each state deals with its fair share of illegal gambling. According to CNBC.com, illegal gambling is a multi-billon dollar business and millions of Americans are in on the action. It also appears problems with illegal gambling are not only confined to the United States. The News Today, tells us the chief of the Philippine National Police has asked his community to come together as a whole to fight against all forms of illegal gambling. CNBC also notes  “illegal gambling is moving out of the basement and onto the Internet where it’s more difficult for law enforcement to stop.”  CNBC further states: “[t]echnology has made illegal gambling much more accessible and the same computer used for work or to connect with family and friends can also be used to wager outside the law.”

However, there are people on the other side of the fight. One group in particular, the Poker Player’s Alliance, believes “several states and localities are making changes to laws that encroach on poker players’ abilities to play online, at home, in bars or taverns, and even at charity events across the country.” This group, over 1,000,000 members strong,  has made it their mission to establish favorable laws, to promote poker, and to protect the right to play poker in all of its forms. The Poker Player’s Alliance has began to advocate poker as a game of “skill” not “chance” in hopes of avoiding state laws which specifically outlaw games of “chance”.

Some courts have bought the argument that poker is a game of “skill”. The Poker Player’s Alliance states other key victories for poker players have been won in:  Kentucky, Colorado, and Pennsylvania (here is a link to the news release). In 2008, in the state of South Carolina, five individuals were convicted for illegal gambling for playing Texas Hold ‘Em (a type of poker game) in a private residence.

The trial court of South Carolina found poker to be a game of “skill” and therefore not illegal under their state law which characterized illegal gambling as a game of “chance” . The trial court stated there was “overwhelming” evidence that the “skill” of poker dominates chance. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of South Carolina and oral arguments from both parties were heard on October 19, 2010. The ruling has not yet been handed down. For more information click here.

It is also interesting to note how gambling legislation can affect our state leaders. Businessweek reports, on October 11, 2010 four Alabama state senators were accused of swapping cash for votes on gambling legislation. For more information concerning illegal gambling, click here.