By Steve Beauregard
While each jurisdiction is different, the short answer for most of the country is “Yes,” it’s OK to play poker online for real money in the USA. There exist no federal rules or statues that criminalize playing poker on the internet.
The two major exceptions where playing online poker is an illegal activity are in the states of Washington (where playing is a felony) and Utah, (where it’s a class B misdemeanor).
On the opposite side of the coin are three states that fully embraced the legality on online poker: Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey. These three states have fully licensed, sanctioned, and regulated legal online poker sites offering games to their respective residents.
Believe it or not, in the history of the United States, no one has ever been charged with playing internet poker – not the online whiz kids who have made millions – nor the middle aged amateur playing 10 cent limit hold’em games (guilty).
What IS illegal is for a person to accept or process wagers or financial transactions for an unlawful internet gambling site.
In 2011, of course, headlines were made when the United States Justice Department went after famous poker players like Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Howard Lederer. The charges, however, centered on their ownership of an illegal gambling site, (FullTiltPoker.com), as opposed to their well-document history of playing online poker games.
So if playing poker online is not against the law in the United States, why aren’t there sites and games available to residents of all 50 states?
An acronym for the Unlawful Internet Enforcement Gambling Act, the bill was an attachment to an anti-terrorism bill (the SAFE Ports Act), snuck in at the last minute and signed into law in 2006.
While it mentioned nothing about making the playing of internet poker illegal, UIEGA did make it illegal for “businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the Internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law.”
In other words, you could play on an online poker site, you just couldn’t own one. It also carved out exemptions for horse racing, fantasy sports, and intra-state approved online gambling, which is why individual states like Nevada are allowed to establish fully legalized poker sites within its boundaries. It bears repeating that nowhere in the UIEGA bill does it state that playing poker online is a crime.
In fact, two United States Senators asked the Department of Justice for clarification as to whether or not internet poker was illegal, specifically with regards to a 1961 piece of gambling legislation called “The Wire Act.” The DOJ responded in an opinion letter that stated the Wire Act covered only sports bets. The DOJ’s opinion thus opened the door for each state to act on its own with regards to the legality of playing poker on the internet. (By the way, I’m not a lawyer – just a U.S. citizen with an opinion and internet connection).
Nevada launched the new era of online legal poker in the USA, when Ultimate Poker opened to real live money play for Nevada residents on April 30th, 2013. A subsidiary of Caesars Entertainment, WSOP.com, opened a few months later.
Delaware and New Jersey opened their doors to online poker in the fall of 2013, and numerous other state legislatures are considering poker legislation that would clear up some of the cloudy legal issues surrounding the game.
So why it’s a common misconception, playing poker online does not violate any federal law. Reputable online poker sites are not readily available and to the vast majority of Americans currently, however the societal trend is clearly moving (albeit slowly) towards a mainstream, regulated nationwide online poker environment. What Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey started, most of the rest of the states will soon to follow.
Currently, there are several offshore online poker rooms that accept both deposits and players from the United States. These sites are operating outside of United States law and are theoretically subject to prosecution and fines, similar to what happened on poker’s “Black Friday,” when the Department of Justice seized the domains of the five most popular poker sites and indicted many of the owners and payment processors. However, since these foreign websites do not end in “.com,” the sites are out of the reach of United States government’s intrusion.
Throughout the US’s government’s prosecution of the poker sites’ various owners, not one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who played online poker were ever charged, or even pursued for that matter.
The government’s lack of interest (or lack of legal standing), in going after players themselves indicated an admission from the DOJ that playing poker online is not against federal law. The matter has been left up to the states, and thus far, only Washington state and Utah have made the game against the law. (Although no one has ever been charged in either state).
So, in conclusion: is playing poker on the internet legal? I’m not a lawyer, and this should not be considered legal advice, but unless you live in Utah or Washington state, the answer appears to be “Yes.”