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Wisconsin Poker Ban Upheld as Judge Cites 1964 Case in Ruling

A judge confirmed this week that Wisconsin poker remains illegal for private residents and commercial establishments, but is open for business at Native American tribal gaming venues like the Ho-Chunk Black River Falls casino in Baraboo. (Image:

Wisconsin poker will have to wait another day to finally be permitted to exit the Native American tribal casinos and enter recreational centers and taverns in the Badger State.

This after Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled this week that he cannot overturn longstanding law, even though he may have wanted to.

A group of poker players, including Mark Kroon, owner of the Players Sports Bar in Madison and 43rd place finisher at this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event, and Poker Players Alliance (PPA) Wisconsin chapter president Steve Verrett, raised $10,000 along with several other poker fanatics to fund a legal defense of the game, but the plaintiffs simply didn’t have the law on their side.

“My hands are tied,” Niess said in his ruling. Though he compared poker to being “as much a part of the American fabric as baseball and apple pie,” he concluded that he “can’t ignore the law.”

Law Refresher

Niess specifically referenced a 1964 Wisconsin Supreme Court case titled State v. Morrissy, a verdict that convicted a tavern owner for running casual poker games in his establishment. Using 51-year-old litigation as evidence for his decision caused disdain among those in favor of bringing poker out of tribal-run casinos.

“Disappointing poker decision in Wisconsin on relying on old cases and zero data,” the PPA tweeted. “Would be nice if a judge ruled on current facts, not earlier law.”

Stan Davis, the attorney hired with the $10,000 to represent the plaintiffs, was also unhappy with the ruling. “The sad part is that someone could get arrested over this because of a 50-year-old case,” Davis noted.

Kroon was worried about just that, being arrested, and quickly ceased the poker games at his bar after the Department of Justice notified him the activity was illegal. “Once they said we couldn’t do it, we stopped and we decided just to fight it.”

That fight will need to continue, whether through an appeal or effort to encourage state lawmakers to legalize poker on a statewide level in Wisconsin. Considering much has changed since 1964, bringing legislation to Madison to refresh the outdated poker law might be an attractive endeavor to many politicians.

Badgering Badgers

Wisconsin is a place where many casual poker players have no real clear understanding of where the current law stands, and for good reason considering the recent rulings.

Poker, which is specifically outlawed in the state constitution along with blackjack, roulette, and many other popular table games for the general and commercial population, is legal for the nearly two-dozen casinos in tribal reservations.

As private citizens fight for the right to play, they’re receiving mixed messages from those in charge. In April, a federal court overturned Western District of Wisconsin Judge Barbara Crabb’s ruling that had outlawed video poker at the Ho-Chunk casino in Madison. To non-legal minds, the decision-making process involved in these ponderings can be confusing and muddy, at best.

“Wisconsin cannot have it both ways,” the United States Court of Appeals commented in April. “The state must entirely prohibit poker within its borders if it wants to prevent the Nation or any other Indian tribe from offering poker.”

That decision seems to contradict the venerable 1964 interpretation, indicating that this badger fight won’t be burrowing anytime soon.