LINCOLN — The long-running debate over whether those stacks of chips piled in front of television poker tournament champs appear by chance or because of skill played out Monday in the Nebraska Legislature.

Several proponents of a bill that would legalize poker in Nebraska told state lawmakers Monday that their game involves more skill than luck. The distinction is crucial, because the Nebraska Constitution’s broad prohibition on new forms of gambling applies to games of chance.

Legislative Bill 619 would define poker as a game of skill so the state could sell poker permits to bars and nonprofit groups wanting to host tournaments and cash games. Introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, the legislation would direct revenue from poker permit sales and taxes on tournament proceeds to help reduce property taxes.

Sweetening the pot, however, failed to sway gambling opponents, such as Dave Wimmer of West Point.

“You can dress it up and tax it and give some of that money to mom and apple pie, but poker definitely involves a lot of betting, and to me, that’s gambling,” Wimmer said.

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimated that if 25 percent of the state’s liquor license holders obtained poker permits, nearly $1.2 million would be generated in license revenue alone. The Liquor Control Commission estimated the cost of regulating the games at about $200,000 annually.

Under the bill, sponsors of poker games would have to pay the state 10 percent of tournament revenue or 5 percent of the pot for cash games. Half of those revenues, in turn, would go to property tax relief with most of the remainder divided by local governments. One percent would be directed to the fund for compulsive gamblers assistance.

Proponents of the bill argued that reading opponents’ expressions, and deciding when to raise, bluff or fold all involve skill gained through experience.

William Maltas of Lincoln, the Nebraska representative of a national group called the Poker Players Alliance, pointed to a 2011 return on investment study that investigated the role of skill versus luck in the game. The study reviewed the performances of 750 poker players in the 2010 World Series of Poker and found that those identified as highly skilled produced a return of 35 percent while all other players lost 15 percent.

Pat Loontjer, director of the Omaha anti-gambling group Gambling With the Good Life, urged committee members to kill the bill so the full Legislature can concentrate on more important issues.

She said poker cards are dealt by chance. The game would involve primarily skill only if every player started with the same hand, Loontjer said.

The committee took no action on the bill Monday.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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