Internet Poker Legality in the United States

USA PokerThe most current poker debate in the USA is over the legality of online poker. The debate is centered around one question: "Is Online Poker Legal?"

Unfortunately, the question is more easily asked than answered. This article represents the most current research on the issue, but doesn't constitute absolute legal advice. Take what you learn from this assessment and seek further counsel from a qualified professional.

Why Are We Having this Conversation?

We need to discuss online gambling legality because the United States government has long sought to regulate forms of gambling, hoping to corral crime and abuses by underage players. Throughout the country's history, street games like craps and poker made their way among average people with striking popularity.

When gambling "went formal" with the advent of Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos (as well as the more recent Native American and Reservation-Area casinos), there were always careful laws protecting who could play poker in brick and mortar settings.

When poker breached the Internet sector, the laws became more confusing due to the lack of global or national Internet regulations. The rest of this article will look at current legislation in the USA that *may* have some relevancy to online poker legality.

The Wire Act (1961)

The Wire Act of 1961 has been the reigning gambling law on the books in the USA for almost fifty years. Specifically designed to prevent illegal sports betting, the Wire Act targets any wagers made over "wired communication means."

The goal was to target individuals or organized crime families who were actually taking wagers - not specifically the people placing the wagers. Horse betting was very popular in the 1960s so the Wire Act had a provision that excluded horse betting from its jurisdiction. For a more thorough discussion, check out Chuck Humphrey's analysis of the Wire Act.

Recently, prosecutors have attempted to use the Wire Act to target Internet poker. In the late 1990s and early 2000s several state and federal cases such as United States vs. Cohen, the U.S. vs. Antigua, and US District court decisions by Judge Duval in New Orleans (Learn more by reading Steve Badger's discussion) have encountered mixed results when trying to apply the Wire Act to Internet poker.

Overall, the Wire Act has not been an effective means for controlling Internet poker. Because of this, legislators decided to go with a new approach in 2006: the UIGEA.

Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (2006)

Due to increasing terrorism concerns in early 2006, Congress wrote up an act designed to increase the safety at major ports in the United States. This act was title the SAFE Port Act, and was deemed as "necessary-to-pass" legislation.

The SAFE Port Act came up for vote just before Congress broke for its Summer recess, and since there was such widespread support for the act, all of the Congresspeople knew it was going to pass almost unanimously.

A sneaky Congressman by the name of Bill Frist decided to take advantage of this knowledge by attaching his personal anti-gambling act to the SAFE Port Act at the last second, which left Congress no time to review the new act or even discuss it.

This act was titled the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, or UIGEA for short. As expected, the SAFE Port Act went through with no problems (in July 2006), and thus, the UIGEA was also approved.

The UIGEA's Goals, Impact, and Future Outlook

The UIGEA was designed to ban all money transfers from U.S. financial institutions to any "illegal" Internet site, most specifically those designated as online gambling sites. The creators of the act determined that it would be easier to stop the cashflow of online gambling sites than to outright ban online gambling, so that was their approach.

Many international eWallets like Neteller and international poker rooms like Party Poker immediately dropped access to U.S. players when the legislation was passed. This reduced U.S. poker players' access to the game to only a handful of independently run, privately-owned sites such as Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars.

UIGEA opponents instantly began working to overturn the legislation, which is a process still in motion today. The debate is well-divided among U.S. leaders, many of whom firmly assert that tax revenue from legal online poker could help solve the country's dire financial woes.

The full terms of the UIGEA were to go into effect on December 1, 2009, but pro-poker lobbyists and organizations, along with the help of U.S. lawmakers like Barney Frank, succeeded in delaying the full implementation of the law until June 1, 2010. Advocates plan to use the six-month delay to come up with better alternatives to the UIGEA.

So, Is Playing Online Poker Legal In the USA?

The answer depends on where you live. Although the Federal standpoint is a gray area at best, some states have made the matter more cut and dry by explicity banning Internet poker with state legislation. The other states have no stance on the matter.

Here are the states that have explicitly banned Internet poker:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • South Dakota
  • Washington
  • Wisconson

If you live in one of the nine states listed above, then Internet poker is illegal.

If you live in any of the other states in the USA, then (as far as we can tell) you can legally play Internet poker. None of the Federal laws target individuals - they are all focused on stopping the groups who accept bets over the Internet.

If you need further assurance, take relief in the fact that a poker player (not located in the nine states above) has never been prosecuted for playing online poker.

Of course, for a more precise and confident answer, please talk to a lawyer. To move on to the next portion of our Beginner's Guide, click the link below. Or, scroll down to see our list of USA online poker resources.

Next Article » "Is Internet Poker Safe, Fair, and Random?"

Further Reading on US Poker Legality:

If you would like to check out some other resources about online poker legality in the USA, hit up the sites listed below. We referenced may of these websites, and consider all of them to be top notch resources for gambling law information:

  • The Poker Players' Alliance is a US-based advocacy group for online poker legality. Their news feed includes articles following the most up-to-date action in various states and federal courts working on legislation for online poker. Read the current news at
  • Gambling and the Law is Professor I. Nelson Rose's assessment of online gambling issues. While Professor Rose has some of the most detailed outlines of gambling history and cases, unfortunately the largest body of his work was done in 1999 and the early 2000s. This site pre-dates current legislation, but still offers useful info.
  • Poker guides such as offer recommendations of the best online poker sites for USA players.