US Legal Online Poker
The US Legal online poker market has been a confusing one in recent times. The confliction of federal laws and state laws has resulted in the legalization in some places, whereas in others, it’s still against the law. So far, only a handful of states (New Jersey, Nevada, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia) have legalized real money online poker. However, a few more are on the right track.
If you’re still in the dark since Black Friday and don’t know your Wire Acts from your State Legislation, then don’t worry; we’re here to break it down for you. We’ll be covering the state of online poker in the US, which US laws affect your ability to play online poker, the places where you can play legal US online poker, and the groups advocating for its legality.
The State of Online Poker in the US
One of the major questions that everyone has difficulty answering is, “is online poker legal in the US?” You may think that should be an easy question to answer, but the real answer is, “it depends.” There are currently six US states that have legalized online poker, and those are:
- New Jersey
- West Virginia
A pitiful 12% of US states. However, three other states have made strides towards legalizing online poker, and we hope we can add those names to the list in the near future. Those states are:
The US Online Poker Laws
But how did it get like this? Even if these three states join the party, it’s still less than 20% of the country that’s able to play legal US online poker! While the climate around legalizing online poker in the US seems to be softening, there is a lot of work to do to repair the damage done by Black Friday over ten years ago.
While April 15th, 2011, stands out in most poker players’ minds as the day that changed the landscape of legal US online gambling forever, it actually started a lot earlier than that. Two key pieces of legislation were cited in the lawsuits that took place on that day, and there is still a lot of misinformation about what actually happened.
UIGEA and The Wire Act
The Interstate Wire Act (sometimes known as the Federal Wire Act) is a US law that was implemented in 1961, which prohibited certain types of gambling businesses within the US. The aim of this legislation was to make interstate gambling illegal, though the language of the Act is somewhat vague when looked at through a modern lens. Here is the beginning of the text, which outlines what it sets out to do.
“Whoever being engaged in the business of betting or wagering knowingly uses a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest, or for the transmission of a wire communication which entitles the recipient to receive money or credit as a result of bets or wagers, or for information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
Despite this piece of legislation being over 50 years old at the time it was cited, it was one of the two pillars that propped up the lawsuits brought against online poker sites in the US. The other one was the UIGEA.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed in 2006. It was made to prohibit gambling companies from knowingly accepting payments for wagers or bets violating an existing federal or state law. Like the government equivalent of Captain Planet, their powers combined to create an interpretation of the law that banned online gambling.
While the Wire Act doesn’t explicitly mention poker, the line “placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest” left it open for interpretation, as it was unclear what “contest” referred to.
However, it wasn’t the Wire Act that brought the online poker giants to their knees in 2011; it was the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and a misdemeanor. In the state of New York, it’s a Class A misdemeanor to run a game of chance where bets are placed in the state. Despite none of the major online poker sites operating out of New York, Preet Bharara was able to file a lawsuit against these companies on this charge, as it represented a violation of the UIGEA.
Bharara obtained a felony indictment for UIGEA violations and also charged the defendants with violating the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1955. This led to the arrest and conviction of several major gambling site operators, with the Godfather of online poker himself, Isai Schienberg, surrendering to authorities in 2020, where he posted a $1 million bond and was sentenced to pay a $30,000 fine.
Upon the unsealing of the indictments on April 15th, 2011, Full Tilt and Pokerstars withdrew from the US market, and the DOJ seized the .com addresses. Players who logged on that day to play poker found that their usual login screen had been replaced with two big FBI and DOJ logos and text stating that the FBI had seized the domain. People lost thousands of dollars overnight, as many players kept sizable bankrolls on these sites, and the online poker community as a whole lost a huge chunk of its market.
State by State Legislation
While the laws in the US prohibited interstate gambling, states are allowed by federal law to enact their own legislation when it comes to online gambling, which allows US players to play on legal, US-operated poker sites. However, very few states have brought forward legislation that would allow online poker, only the handful of states we mentioned earlier.
Part of the problem is that due to the flip-flopping interpretation of the Wire Act by the DOJ (more on that late), states need to be in a position where they rely on customers within their own state. For some local governments, the rewards aren’t worth the hassle of pushing through this legislation.
On the positive side, we are seeing more states look into the possibility of legalizing online poker, with some states forming “compacts” that legally allow interstate gaming. Currently, three of the six states where online poker is legal have joined the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, which shares the player pools of New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware. Recently, Michigan has been approved to join the agreement, and we hope that as these states prove what a success it can be, more will follow suit.
DOJ Wire Act Flip-Flopping
Five months after indictments were opened and domains were seized, the Department of Justice released a statement on the scope of the Wire Act. It read, “interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a ‘sporting event or contest’ fall outside the reach of the Wire Act.” Which, in layman’s terms, means that poker does not fall under the authority of the Wire Act. Unfortunately for the online poker community, it was a case of too little too late!
However, in 2018, a new Department of Justice opinion was released, which states, “not uniformly limited to gambling on sporting events or contests.” This statement reverted the interpretation of the Wire Act to its original version, where it could be interpreted that any interstate gambling activity could be punishable.
Understandably, this angered a lot of people in the industry, particularly International Game Technology (IGT), who, in November 2021, filed a lawsuit against the DOJ, stating the statement released by the DOJ had forced the company into spending resources on potential lawsuits filed by the government. The lawsuit aimed to make the 2018 opinion unlawful and revert back to the September 2011 interpretation.
The States To Play Legal US Poker Online
If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the few states that allow legal US online poker, then you should take advantage of it. Let’s take a look at the states’ state of online poker.
New Jersey was one of the first states in the US to offer its residents regulated online poker. Governor Chris Christie signed bill 2578, which legalized online gambling within the state. Since then, it has grown to be one of the biggest US jurisdictions for online poker and was the site of Pokerstars’ relaunch into the US market.
Despite the big marketing push from Pokerstars, the biggest site is 888Poker, which shares a player pool with WSOP.com. The site also shares a player pool with 888Poker Nevada and 888 Poker Delaware, as New Jersey entered into the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement in October 2017 – a major step in reuniting the US poker market.
Anyone who wishes to play online poker in New Jersey must be 21 or older, be within the borders of New Jersey, and verify their identity with the poker operator.
Nevada & Delaware
These states are often talked about together as they share a history of legal US online poker. They were the first two states to legalize online poker in 2013, shortly followed by New Jersey, and they were the first two members of the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, which joined their player pools.
As in New Jersey, 888Poker and WSOP.com agreed to merge player pools, ensuring that the two sites are at the top of the pecking order in Nevada and Delaware. Having a large player pool is key to attracting a large user base, and the joint work by 888Poker and WSOP.com, as well as the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, is helping to create that player pool.
Anyone who wishes to play online poker in Nevada or Delaware must be 21 or older and be within the borders of either state.
The fourth state to legalize online poker in the US, Pennsylvania initially passed its bill in 2017, but after significant legal maneuvering, the first site only launched in 2019. Thanks to its 13 million residents, Pennsylvania is quickly becoming one of the largest markets in the US. However, Pokerstars is the only major site that has launched in Pennsylvania, so there isn’t much choice for its residents.
This monopoly has made it difficult for Pennslyvania to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, as Pokerstars doesn’t operate in Nevada and Delaware. However, there’s a chance that it could enter into an agreement with New Jersey, something that would benefit both states.
Anyone who wishes to play online poker in Pennsylvania must be 21 or older and be within its borders.
The state of Michigan had been pushing for the legalization of online gambling for several years before it was passed in 2021. While the bill was signed into law in 2019, it’s taken two years for the legislation to be enacted.
Pokerstars were the first major operator to provide games to the people of Michigan and is currently the biggest site in the market. WSOP.com and BetMGM also have sites operating within the state, and there are rumors that 888Poker and Party Poker will be throwing their hats into the ring soon.
Michigan has recently been approved to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, which will help further increase the size of the player pools and hopefully motivate other states to do the same.
Anyone who wishes to play online poker in Michigan must be 21 or older, be within the state’s borders, and verify their identity with the poker operator.
The latest state to legalize poker is West Virginia. While it technically legalized online gambling in 2019, operators were given the go-ahead to set up shop as of July 1st, 2021.
They currently have three of the world’s largest operators offering games within their borders, as Pokerstars, WSOP.com, and Party Poker all have a site within state borders. This gives players plenty of choices and creates healthy competition between the sites, which can only be good for the players.
There currently aren’t any plans for West Virginia to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement.
Anyone who wishes to play online poker in West Virginia must be 21 or older, be within the state’s borders, and verify their identity with the poker operator.
The States Close to Legalizing US Poker Online
While some states haven’t even considered the possibility of legalizing online poker, there are a couple of states that look close to pushing that legislation through.
The state closest to legalizing online poker is Connecticut. Governor Ned Lamont signed the HB 6451 bill back in May 2021, which regulated online gambling, but as of yet, no online poker operators are licensed within the state. We’ve seen with other states that it usually takes a year or two for operators to become licensed, so hopefully, within the next year, we can see this happen so we can add a seventh name to the list of states with legal US online poker.
The gambling market in Massachusetts is relatively new, having only legalized land-based gambling in 2011, but there has still been a big push to regulate online gambling. It looked like they were getting close in 2019 and 2020, but they were unable to push the legislation through, and the pandemic pushed back talks even further.
While talks have been going on to bring Illinois into the fold, there haven’t been any recent updates as to its status. The state did pass a gambling expansion bill in 2019, which allowed casino games and sports betting at existing gambling venues, but so far, there has been no move in online gambling regulation.
Groups Advocating for Online Poker
There are two major groups who have been lobbying for the legalization of online poker in the US.
Poker Players Alliance
The main group behind this lobbying effort is the Poker Players Alliance. Originally set up in 2005 to project player interests, this non-profit organization’s main objective is to help make the game legal in the US again.
Since Black Friday, the PPA has been heavily involved in legal matters and has supported several bills that have passed through Congress seeking to amend the UIGEA. They have also shifted their stance to accommodate the needs of the industry, which involves being more vocal about online gambling in general, and not just focusing on poker.
The group sees this as the best way of bringing online poker back to the US, as the addition of casino games makes poker a more viable option for all involved.
iDevelopment and Economic Association
A new face on the scene, the iDEA’s sole focus is on bringing online gaming back to the US market. Its mission is to grow interactive online entertainment while growing business development and employment through education and advocacy, with online poker at the forefront of this mission.
The group also supports positive legislation that increases the scope for legal and regulated online gaming in the US and has acted on regulatory developments to ensure that states have the information they need to make informed decisions on online gambling.