Idaho Coeur d’Alene Tribe Banned from Poker Offerings

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Coeur d'Alene tribal casino
An Idaho Coeur d’Alene tribal casino has been ordered to cease offering Texas Hold’em poker tournaments with immediate effect. (Image:

An Idaho Coeur d’Alene tribal casino must cease and desist from offering poker, as Texas Hold’em poker tournaments are against the law in Idaho, a federal judge ruled this week. In a case that could have ramifications for the California-based Santa Ysabel tribe and its ambitions to the launch online poker room as well, the judgment came after the Coeur d’Alene tribal casino decided to chance its own luck and test the law, and began offering poker tournaments to enthusiastic customers back in March.

The state almost immediately initiated a federal lawsuit against the casino, as the Idaho Constitution specifically prohibits all forms of gambling, with the exception of the state lottery, parimutuel betting, and certain bingo and raffle games.

A Question of Class

The tribe attempted to argue that poker should be classified as Class II gambling, which would mean that it would fall under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), as opposed to Class III gambling, which requires state regulation. However, the court argued that, in order to be considered Class II, a game must not be explicitly deemed illegal by state law, as poker is. The Constitution is specific on this, stating that none of the exceptions to its gambling prohibition may include any kind of casino gambling, including poker.

“Poker tournaments violate Idaho gambling law,” said federal US District Judge Lynn Winmill. “The upshot is that unless an injunction issues, the state will be left without any effective remedy.”

The tribe also attempted to argue that poker is a game of skill. “Even if the game of poker is prohibited,” it asserted, “that prohibition does not apply if the game can be shown to be a ‘contest of skill.’ ”

Still Playing the Odds

Refuting this, the court read from the state definition of gambling which states that it constitutes “risking any money, credit, deposit or other thing of value for gain contingent in whole or in part upon lot, chance…” It also cited previous cases in which poker, Texas Hold’em specifically, had been ruled to be a game of chance. “A player may be skilled at playing the odds but he is still playing the odds,” it quoted from one such case.

The court also dismissed the claim that it lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the case, which, the tribe had said, should fall under the jurisdiction of the National Indian Gaming Commission. Primary jurisdiction lies with the court, ruled the judge. Coeur d’Alene was ordered to cease offering poker tournaments with immediate effect.

Decision Spurs Debate

Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter welcomed the judge’s decision. “The Legislature and the people of Idaho have made it clear what kind of gambling they will accept. That does not include poker,” he said. “And no matter how much the Tribe insists otherwise, Texas Hold ’em is poker.”

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed in Judge Winmill’s decision,” said Chief Allan, tribal chairman. “Poker is so widely played across the state by so many different people and organizations that it sounds ridiculous to say that everyone playing poker in the State of Idaho is breaking the law, but that is what this decision says.”

The Coeur d’Alene Casino immediately launched an appeal.

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