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Is Online Poker Legal in the USA? | Legislation Update

Is Online Poker Legal in the USA? | Legislation Update

usa online poker sites legal update

What does the future look like for legal online poker in the United States?

It’s been nearly a decade since the shutdown of PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet, and U.S. players are still waiting and hoping that the online game returns to the glory days of the 2000s at some point.

Is online poker legal in the USA? Let’s take a look at where the U.S. online poker economy is at as of 2019.

Table of contents:

If you’re located in Nevada, New Jersey or Delaware, you’re in luck – online poker is legal on the regulated poker sites that operate in those states.

Pennsylvania became the fourth U.S. state to legalize online poker/sports betting/gambling in October 2017. The state’s regulated poker sites are expected to launch in July 2019. West Virginia became the fifth U.S. state to legalize online poker in March 2019, with the timeline for the launch of that state’s sites to be determined.

For now, let’s take at look at the options for legal online poker in the U.S. You have to be located within the borders of these states to play:

Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware (Merged Player Pool)

The WSOP/888 Poker network offers shared liquidity among the three states, so if you play on any of the sites from this network, you’re playing against a merged player pool from all three states. The sites on the network include:

  • WSOP New Jersey
  • 888Poker New Jersey
  • WSOP Nevada
  • 888Poker Delaware (this includes the Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway skins).

As long as you’re playing from within one of these states, you have access to the same player pool from any of these sites.

As an added bonus, you can play in the World Series of Poker’s online bracelet events from any of these sites. During the 2018 WSOP we saw a player win a bracelet for the first time while playing outside of Nevada, as Matthew ‘MattEMenz’ Mendez took down the $565 Pot-Limit Omaha event while playing from New Jersey.

New Jersey Only

  • PokerStars New Jersey
  • Partypoker New Jersey (includes the partypoker NJ, Borgata and playMGM skins)
  • Pala Poker

These sites are not to be confused with the main PokerStars and partypoker platforms that are available throughout many countries around the world. These are New Jersey-only online poker sites, operated by PokerStars and partypoker from within the U.S., and limited to a New Jersey-only player pool.

Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan and the Future for Online Poker

Pennsylvania has already passed legislature to legalize online gambling, and we’re expecting to see the Keystone State’s online poker rooms go live in July 2019. These Pennsylvania poker sites will be state-only for now, and will not immediately join any merged U.S. player networks.

WSOP/888Poker, PokerStars, and partypoker are among the operators that have already been approved for online poker in the state, and we could still eventually see merged player pools operated by these brands.

West Virginia passed legislation to legalize online gambling in March 2019, and we could see the state’s regulated online poker rooms launch in late 2019 or sometime in 2020.

Many other states are considering the legalization of online gambling. In January, however, the momentum for the continued resurgence of legal online poker in the U.S. hit a possible snag.

On January 14, 2019, the DOJ announced that it had reversed its opinion on the Wire Act. The original 1961 Wire Act stated that the following was illegal:

“(T)he 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.”

The original Wire Act essentially made all forms of online gambling illegal, however, in 2011, the DOJ issued an opinion that this language only applied to sports betting, and therefore all other forms of online gambling were legal in a regulated environment.

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The January 14 opinion reversal from the DOJ states that the language from the original Wire Act applies to all forms of online gambling, not just limited to sports betting. This would include the legal, regulated online poker sites operating in the U.S.

What are the ramifications of this recent reversal of opinion from the DOJ? It’s too early to tell so far; the WSOP/888Poker merged U.S. network is still alive and well for now.

Michigan appeared to be the next state in line to legalize online poker, with state legislature approving a “Lawful Internet Gaming Act” bill in December 2018 that would have legalized online gambling in the state. Just days after the bill passed, however, outgoing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder vetoed the bill as one of his last acts before his gubernatorial term ran out.

Legalization in Michigan, with its 10-million population, would be a huge victory for supporters of online poker. Snyder’s veto puts things on hold in Michigan for now.

If online poker finally does become legal in Michigan, as it already has in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, operators in those states could eventually sign into the shared liquidity agreements with the other states offering legal poker.

If enough states legalize online poker, a merged player pool among the states could create a legal online poker network that somewhat resembles the pre-Black Friday online poker scene in the U.S.

Looking into the future, PokerStars (already operating in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) has entered into an agreement with US casino operator Eldorado Resorts, Inc., with intentions of operating online poker in 11 other states (Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia).

Of those 11 states, only Nevada and West Virginia have legalized online poker, so the other nine states would have to go through the process of legalization before a hypothetical PokerStars USA network could come to fruition.

Is It Legal To Play On Pokerstars from the U.S?

PokerStars in the us

You cannot legally play on the main PokerStars platform from the U.S.

PokerStars New Jersey is a different, U.S.-regulated poker site that’s legal to play within the state borders of New Jersey. Its player pool is not connected to the main PokerStars player pool, which operates in many countries and is the world’s largest online poker site.

The “poker boom” of the early 2000s ushered in an era of unprecedented options for online poker within the U.S., but those glory days were numbered after the U.S. government passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

Partypoker, one of the world’s largest online poker operators, quickly shut off access for U.S. players after the UIGEA passed, while PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet continued operating in the country throughout the remainder of the 2000s and became the three largest U.S.-facing poker sites.

On April 15, 2011 (known as Black Friday in the poker community), the U.S. Government seized the domain names of PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker, and U.S. players have had significantly fewer options for online poker ever since.

PokerStars has still thrived in spite of not being able to allow accept U.S. players and is home to the largest online poker player pool in the world. If you live in the U.S., you have to physically relocate to a jurisdiction where PokerStars can legally allow you to play, in order to have access to the site.

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Online Poker Sites Operating in a Grey Area

If you’re playing online poker in the U.S. in 2019, chances are you’ve played on the Winning Poker Network, Ignition Casino or Global Poker at some point.

These poker sites, and any other online poker site outside of the legal, regulated sites from Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, are not technically legally able to offer online poker to U.S. players, but they exist nonetheless.

The Winning Poker Network is a collection of skins that include America’s Cardroom, Black Chip Poker, and True Poker, among others. WPN has been operating since the early 2000s and has continued to be available to U.S. players, even after the passage of the UIGEA and Black Friday shutdown of major U.S. sites in 2011.

Ignition Casino has operated under many names since its inception in 2004, most notably as Bodog and Bovada, before settling in on its current branding. This site offers the largest player pool available to U.S. players.

Global Poker arrived in 2017 with a business model that has players using “Gold Coins” (play money) and “Sweeps Cash” (real money). Players can purchase Gold Coins with real money, and also receive an equivalent amount of Sweeps Cash. It’s basically a loophole that allows them to take deposits.

Playing on any of these grey area sites is a risk. If you decide to do so, make sure you proceed with caution and don’t keep more money on the site than you’re comfortable losing.

Final Thoughts

U.S. poker players want options to play online, and we all would love to see the return of the glory days of the 2000s. It’s important to remember though – the “grey area” poker sites listed above can get shut down by the U.S. government at any time, just as PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker did on Black Friday.

Let’s hope that the recent DOJ reversal of opinion on the Wire Act is just a hiccup on the way to the rise of a new era for online poker in the U.S. If more states follow the lead of Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia we could one day have access to a shared player pool that makes the U.S. a great place to play online poker once again.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Fisk

Freelance writer and poker player based in San Diego, California.
Upswing Poker

2017lab

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