Editor’s Note: Please note the legal landscape has changed slightly since we wrote this in March of 2015, but much (unfortunately) remains the same:

The venerable American tradition of poker playing exists under an unfortunate, looming shadow of legal ambiguity when it comes to playing online in most U.S. states. It stands in stark contrast to the regulated UK market where poker sites operate with full legal certainly and are now targeting, together with the big UK casino operators the fledgling US gaming market.

Ever since Black Friday, when U.S. authorities effectively shut down online poker nationwide, players have wondered the same thing: Are we headed for the next poker boom, or will a new nationwide ban spell poker doom for the online gaming industry in America?

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We’re Not Drawing Dead, but We’re Not Ahead Either

Though tens of thousands of players are able to legally enjoy the game in hundreds of brick and mortar card rooms across the U.S., as of this writing only three states have officially declared online poker legal, with a regulatory framework to match.

We’re not lawyers here at Red Chip, but we obviously follow the industry very closely. There is no clear-cut timetable for the legalization of online poker. In fact, there isn’t even any assurance that poker will remain legal in the three states it’s currently legal in. Believe it or not, very powerful political forces are making big gains toward outlawing poker… again!

Rather than break it down state-by-state and make spurious predictions, we are going to give you ten important facts that will help you come to your own conclusions. Poker legalization is like poker itself — a game of incomplete information, with lots of colorful characters fighting hyper-aggressively to take down a massive pot. And the sad truth is that the non-conducive legal and political climate is means poker legalization is a dog right now, drawing to fewer outs than any poker fan would be comfortable with.

1. The fight against online poker in the U.S. is heating up

The 10th richest person in the world hates online poker, will “spend whatever it takes” to outlaw poker across the entire U.S., and is winning the fight.

Congress will soon hold a hearing (postponed due to bad weather in March) on the Restore America’s Wire Act bill, which would ban all U.S. states from authorizing online poker. As you can imagine, poker players and online poker industry reps are fighting this hard, and you should join in, because Villain in this scenario is Sheldon Adelson, who has a stack of $36.4 billion to shove against online poker. This 0.000001 percenter has vowed to “spend whatever it takes” to corrupt and manipulate the political and legal landscape in his favor. Why? Though couched in moral rhetoric, the motive seems to many to be simple profit: he owns some of the largest brick and mortar casinos.

Adelson has stacked the deck in his favor for the upcoming hearing, so we’ll be watching closely for any harbingers of doom that could spell the end of online poker in the U.S., at least for the time being. Poker scholar Nolan Dalla has the best summary of why online poker could get outlawed.

2. In the states where it’s legal and regulated, online poker has had an underwhelming debut

The only three U.S. states where poker is currently legal are Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey. In each of those states, legalization was fought for and won largely based on promises of extraordinary additional revenue being generated. In Jersey alone, Gov. Christie promised $1 billion in revenue for Atlantic City casinos, while only a fraction of that has actually materialized.

By all accounts, legal online poker is getting off to a slow start in the three states that are currently running games. But a little perspective is necessary: for one, the promises of huge revenues were deliberately exaggerated by lawmakers to push legalization through.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that as of this writing, states cannot share player pools between them — although we expect that to change in the coming weeks as Nevada and Delaware being sharing their player pools. This is a godsend for Delaware in particular, with under 1 million residents in total. The state’s measly $27,695 in online poker revenue in January 2015 will give you a sense of how badly the industry needs to combine its player pools. Some poker sites in Delaware average less than one full ring game at any given time!

3. Current efforts to legalize poker in U.S. states keep getting delayed

In Washington state, playing online poker is currently a felony despite the state having 74 brick-and-mortar poker rooms. Perhaps because of this insanity, there has been recent interest in legalizing online poker, but it is still years away by all estimates.

California was primed to legalize poker this year, but 2019 is the new prediction from one well-placed industry representative. The state is seen by many as a “tipping point” for online poker, a prerequisite for getting a discussion going at the Federal level.

The main problem is that #1 and #2 on this list are putting up huge barriers for other states to get in on the legal poker action.

What Are Our Outs to Poker Legalization?

The facts being what they are, the ultimate question is, what needs to happen for online poker to become legal? It all hinges on the outcome of the three situations listed above.

If Adelson’s well-funded fight to restore the Wire Act doesn’t get off the ground after the congressional hearing, that may signal the industry to move full steam ahead. It may also embolden Adelson to fight harder. It’s hard to see either side giving up anytime soon, there is too much money at stake. And with the brick-and-mortar and online poker industries often working cross-purposes, progress will likely remain slow.

We certainly expect the shared player pool between Nevada and Delaware to reinvigorate action in those states, but with legalization in limbo, the marketing and promotion of the now-legal sites will need to be stepped up to increase the size and diversity of the player pool ASAP. It’s incumbent upon the stateside poker industry to find more fish for the tank to set new peaks in user traffic, or risk action drying up completely.

Finally, we’ll need to see more state lawmakers introducing bills to get enough of a critical mass to discuss legalization on the national level. Key states like California or New York can be a tipping point. We’re going to need a lot of skill — and a little luck — to win this one.

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Showing 22 comments
  • bob

    Before Black Friday, Pokerstars was a great place to pay at for American players. You had this huge global pool of players you could play against, and it created a lot of action. It was a veritable UN of poker.

    With state-by-state segregated pools, there is much less action. If states legalize it, they should open it up to a global pool and just take a certain percentage of the rake from US-based players.

    That would lead to much more action and more revenue for them.

    • Red Chip Poker

      So true. Fragmenting the market stifles growth (like we’ve seen with various Euro counties such as France)

      • Kahntrutahn

        One company, aka PokerStars, having 60%+ marketshare world-wide also stifles growth as they have no competitors. What we see evolving now is Amaya dictating new terms to players and changing up the player experience in a huge way. This isn’t surprising considering that they are now publicly owned and concerned about shareholders instead of players.

        Examples? Well, they are pushing sports and casino down everyone’s throat. They are heavily reducing rewards in order to boost their own profits and push “pros” out of the game. They are redefining poker games with elements of gamblilng in them (spin and gos) and blurring the lines between skill games like poker and pure gambling like slots.

        I think that ultimately we would all be better off if there were 3 sites with 20% marketshare than one site with 60%. Then we would see some real competition (well at least until they all decided to collude together, which is pretty much inevitable in a world run by humans.

  • Speros

    I don’t ever expect it to be like it was. Such a shame.

    • Red Chip Poker

      It really would be a shame if it never reclaimed its previous glory =(

      • Out of Control

        Is it fair that an alcoholic have a liquor store in his own house? Is it fair for a drug addict to live with a drug dealer? So then why is it fair to allow online casinos in a problem gamblers house? You should be safe in your own house, right?

        • James "SplitSuit" Sweeney

          By that logic we should outlaw online shopping since some people are addicted to that? Why is it better to restrict activities than teach a person how to be responsible and enjoy things in moderation?

          • Bob

            Yes, we should be free from fascism in our own home.

          • Tanya Weaver

            I agree!

        • Kevin

          Most ignorant comment ever…

        • Horsie

          It would in fact be unfair if one were forced to download the software and use it. People have choices. Some make poor ones. Not my fault and not my problem

  • Korol' Lev23

    The link “you should join in” does not work or didn’t work for me anyway. I would gladly get involved in the fight to legalize online poker if I knew how or where to go to add my voice to the chorus. If any one knows how to go about joining in please tell me. I would greatly appreciate it. The only thing that comes to mind at the moment is finding Mr. Adelson and making a reservation at the Federal Pen. Which would be a super —-EV play. Unless….I get a room at a Nevada prison and am allowed to have a computer and internet access. LOL

    • Red Chip Poker

      It should be working now…thanks for pointing that out =) And certainly don’t take the -EV route!

  • Raymond

    Went to Vegas last year, and was excited because I could play online poker again – when i wasn’t at the casino! Well, the rooms were all dead, and couldn’t find a good table at all at any point online, it was pointless. The government should have stayed out of this. Online poker was so much fun. Ding dongs ruined it.

    • Red Chip Poker

      Cheers to that Raymond!

  • Constant_Growth100x

    The games will never be the same, maybe there could be resorts open to american travelers that could have suites and hotel rooms that could host Poker Travelers with awesome setups in every room to play online poker. Open to all suggestions.

  • Dan Beard

    With this being illegal, how are several sites still in operation?

    • Zac

      There are several sites that accept deposits via Bitcoin, and with other financial methods there are always ways for American players to make deposits to online sites. The issue with legality is around financial transactions with poker sites. So sites like America’s Card Room have grown with American players circumventing those financial limitations.

  • Ruth Gange

    I have been fighting cancer for two years now. Playing online poker was something I could do when I didn’t have the energy or umph to do anything outside the home. It was entertaining and worked wonders to take my mind off of all that was going on. My husband played after he got off work as a way of relaxing. Such a shame for one greedy, already rich person to ruin it for so very many who aren’t prone to run to casinos all the time. I doubt that things will ever be restored the way it was in my life time but hope it will be turned around for all else who enjoyed it as much as I. Thanks for listening.

  • Scott Weems

    Ruth, I’m in the same boat as you. I have level 4 glioblastoma And would love to be able to play but I no longer have the ability to drive much less a hundred miles away to the casino. If anyone has any suggestions I am wide open to hearing about them.

  • horsie

    This is just one more example of government attempting to protect us from ourselves. I welcome government protecting me form others who would harm me but I’ll take care of myself thank you. Anyways that is the reason they state. WE all know the real reason; protecting casinos.

  • Jolie

    I too avoided B&M casinos. The nearest one is 1 hr and 20 minutes away. There are many others that live nowhere near a casino and have no desire to drive a couple of hours for some miserable payouts that don’t even cover gas costs. We weren’t taking business from B&M because we were never going there to begin with.
    Also, online poker offers players the opportunity to win bigger prizes for a smaller buy-in because the tournaments can host a couple thousand players instead of 30-table tournaments at B&M. Online offers players what B&M isn’t capable of and most players aren’t dying to give up a couple of hundred for every buy-in, nor can they afford to. That was part of the allure of online poker. A lot of fun for a little bit of money.
    Sheldon is a greedy f**k who is scared his net worth will drop from $36 billion to only $30 billion. Think of the sacrifices he would have to make if he only had $30 billion to live off of!

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