Idaho isn’t usually a battleground over gambling issues, and it isn’t known as a hotbed of poker talent, either. But for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, a fight over whether their rights outweigh the state’s ban on the game is a critical question as they attempt to get a poker room up and running at their Worley casino.
That dispute will now be headed to arbitration. That’s the apparent path after a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who said that a May 2 lawsuit from the state was not the proper way for Idaho to try to put a stop to the tribe’s poker aspirations. Instead, he said, the state should follow the dispute resolution process that has been outlined in the gaming compact between Idaho and the tribe.
Those rules state that either side is allowed to formally assert that the other is in violation of the compact through a written notice. State officials did take this path, issuing such a warning to the tribe about the poker room on May 1.
But under the compact, that notice should trigger a 60-day window that allows either party to request binding arbitration. Just as importantly, lawsuits are not to be filed during this window, which is exactly what the state did the very next day.
State officials expressed disappointment over the ruling, and vowed to enforce their laws.
“The state of Idaho remains committed to enforcing the rule of law that limits gambling in tribal casinos to clearly approved games — and poker isn’t one of them,” Governor Butch Otter wrote in a statement.
The Coeur d’Alene, on the other hand, reasserted their belief that they’ve done nothing wrong in offering poker to its customers.
“We believe we have a legal right to offer poker,” tribal attorney Eric Van Orden said in a statement. “The state jumped the gun and violated the provisions of our agreement when it raced to the courthouse with this unnecessary lawsuit.”
The Coeur d’Alene Casino began spreading six poker tables on May 2 after marketing studies showed they were losing significant business to tribes and commercial card rooms in Washington, all of which can offer poker legally.
In a fight seen time and time again in the world of poker, much of the tribe’s argument rests on the fact that they consider poker a game of skill, rather than a form of illegal gambling. They also pointed out that the casino doesn’t bank any funds, as the players are competing against each other rather than the house.
This led the tribe to respond to the state’s lawsuit by comparing poker to golf, pool, and other competitive endeavors. In both cases, they said, players can pay fees to test their skills against each other, winning prizes based on how well they do in an event. They also pointed out that the state does allow Texas Hold’em tournaments at charity events, leading to confusion over whether the game is actually banned or not.
The state replied that saying that poker was different from those other events, as in a poker tournament “chance is an essential element of the game.” They also pointed out that even if some groups violated the ban on poker events frequently, that didn’t mean the law ceased to exist.
“Were the contrary true, speed limits would become legal fictions,” the state said in a legal filing.