The United States is the largest and most potentially lucrative poker market. It’s also one of the most complex due to a myriad of state and federal gaming laws that make it a tough place for businesses to open shop and offer their wares to customers. Despite a confusing and contradictory legal landscape, the USA is home to millions of players who play online every day.
Contrary to what you may read in poorly written media pieces, it is not illegal to play poker in the USA*. The passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006 led many to assume that online poker had been outlawed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The UIGEA did have a significant impact on the state of online poker, but it did nothing to criminalize the mere act of visiting poker sites and playing for real money. There are still numerous poker sites that accept Americans and host real money games around the clock.
The real danger to players is not one of breaking the law; it’s the risk of doing business with unqualified operators. In the current legal environment, there are no protections for players. This is why it is extremely important that you only play at the best US poker sites.
Without any sort of licensing system in place, the only way to determine which sites are safe is to watch how they perform over time. Sites that have withstood the test of time and proven to the world that they are here to stay are the only places anyone from the USA should visit.
Having said that, there are some legal implications to consider. Federal law is one thing, but there are also individual state laws that affect players. It’s a big, tangled mess but I’m going to help you make sense of it all here.
* = Washington State does have a law on the books that makes it a felony to be caught playing online poker. This law has been in effect since 2006 and to date, not a single person has ever been charged under this law. A proposal to reverse the law failed in 2015, but it shows at least some state officials consider the law onerous and pointless.
How are poker sites able to serve the US market?
The UIGEA may criminalize poker sites that accept Americans, but that hasn’t stopped some enterprising entrepreneurs from serving the market anyways. The answer to the question is simple: sites that accept Americans are headquartered in countries that are friendly to online poker.
Just because something is illegal in one country doesn’t mean it is illegal in another. Poker operators hosted overseas argue that US law is meaningless to them. What they do is legal where they are headquartered and it’s not their problem if the USA has a different take on the issue. How can anyone expect every country to follow every other country’s laws?
The USA counters that these sites are subject to US law because they interact with US citizens. It’s a debate that has been going back and forth for years, but the United States is simply unable to enforce domestic laws across the entire planet.
Banking, Deposits and Withdrawals
The UIGEA shapes online banking’s current relationship with online poker. There’s a lot written on the subject elsewhere, but the short of it is that the UIGEA told banking institutions in the United States that they are now prohibited from processing payments to or from known poker sites.
For example, all credit card payments are coded with numbers that specify the purpose of the transaction. If a transaction is marked as related to online gaming or poker, the card issuer automatically declines it. This is why you may have had trouble in the past depositing with your credit or debit card.
Poker sites that serve the US market have come up with inventive ways to get around these restrictions. One thing they do is outsource credit card payments to third-party payment processors that code transactions differently. This is most definitely illegal according to US law, but that’s something the poker sites and payment processors have to worry about. There are no federal laws that make it a crime for you to make a deposit or receive a cashout from a poker site. If there were, there would be about 15 million poker players sitting in prison right now.
Today, credit cards and debit cards account for the majority of deposits made to internet poker rooms. Cash transfer services such as Western Union and MoneyGram are also accepted forms of payment at most US-facing poker websites.
The UIGEA (full text here) has been a thorn in the side of American poker players since 2006. The law is irritating not only in what it does, but how it was passed. You see, the UIGEA wasn’t passed as a standalone law that members of Congress read, debated and passed in the light of day. No, it was passed by political trickery at the last minute the day before Congress adjourned for the 2006 elections.
It was attached as a rider to an unrelated piece of “must pass” anti-terrorism legislation called the SAFE Port Act. To vote against the UIGEA would have required members of Congress vote against the SAFE Port Act, which would have opened them to accusations of not caring about American security. Best of all, the UIGEA was added at the last minute before a late vote which gave members of Congress no chance to even read what they were voting on.
If you look hard enough, it’s possible to see a positive side to just about anything. We did get lucky in some ways with the UIGEA, considering how it was passed with no debate. The UIGEA did not criminalize online poker. All provisions found in the UIGEA apply only to financial institutions and poker sites. Players were left alone.
Second: the UIGEA did not instruct internet service providers to block access to poker websites. Some countries have taken this route so we’re lucky the UIGEA didn’t implement web censorship. It could have been worse.
The most profound negative impact the UIGEA was that it scared many of our favorite poker sites out of the US market. In the pre-2006 days, we had access to all the world’s largest poker sites. We could play at Party Poker, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars with millions of other players. All the big names eventually left the US market (some not until 2011).
What we’re left with now are sites that specifically target the USA. Some of these sites are great places to play while others are of questionable quality at best. The biggest sites no longer accept Americans, but we do still have some options.
We’re also starting to see glimmers of hope in the possibility of legalization. Three states in the USA have already legalized online poker and now allow residents to visit licensed poker sites hosted on US soil. It will probably be a long time before we ever see legalization on the national level, but it looks like the tide of public opinion is ever so slowly turning in favor of online poker.
Legal USA Poker Sites
The UIGEA does nothing to prevent individual states from legalizing and regulating online poker. However, there was one other obstacle up until 2011: the federal Wire Act of 1961. The Wire Act was long interpreted as applying to online poker, sports betting and casino gambling. Not only did it prevent people from placing bets over “wire” communications networks, but it also prevented states from legalizing any such activity.
This all changed in 2011 after the Illinois and New York State governors wrote the DOJ and asked for clarification of how the Wire Act is interpreted. Specifically, the governors wanted to know if their states could sell lottery tickets over the internet.
The Justice Department responded to these inquiries with a legal opinion (full text here) that covered more than just online lotteries. The opinion explained that the Wire Act applies specifically to online sports betting and no other form of gambling or poker. Here’s how the opinion summed up the issue:
In sum, the text of the Wire Act and the relevant legislative materials support our conclusion that the Act’s prohibitions relate solely to sports-related gambling activities in interstate and foreign commerce.
Long story short: states now have the authority to legalize and regulate online poker within their borders. Three states to date have taken the opportunity to do exactly that. New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware are now home to a number of licensed and regulated poker sites headquartered on US soil. If you live in one of those states, you can play real money poker online at legal poker sites.
Online poker became a reality for the Garden State in 2013. There are now several poker sites in operation. New Jersey legislation requires all operators to have an existing brick-and-mortar casino in the state and allows each operator to team up with one software provider to serve state residents.
Here’s a list of the biggest poker sites in New Jersey:
- WSOP Poker: wsop.com
- 888 Poker NJ: us.888poker.com
- Party Poker: nj.partypoker.com
- Borgata Poker: poker.theborgata.com
Nevada legalized online poker in 2013 and the first site went live later that year. Originally, there were two providers of internet poker in the state: Ultimate Gaming and WSOP. Ultimate Gaming closed in 2014 but WSOP.com remains viable to this date. If you would like to play online poker in Nevada, here’s your best option:
- WSOP Poker: wsop.com
Online poker went live in Delaware in 2013. This is the state with the smallest population and as such, the state’s three poker sites have had a hard time generating much action. In 2015, Delaware and Nevada reached an agreement to share player pools across state lines. The hope is that this pact helps boost numbers in both states.
Here’s a list of legal Delaware poker sites: