Playing poker online for real money has been a bugaboo for the federal government in the US for most of the past decade, but that’s begun to change. Currently, the states of Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada have all made online poker explicitly legal and regulated. Although many other states are looking into some form of legalization and regulation as well, at present for those residents of US states other than the three mentioned, playing online poker comes with some restrictions.
If I Play Poker Online for Real Money, Am I Breaking the Law?
The short answer is no, in the sense that no single player has ever been prosecuted for playing online poker for real money in the US. However, there are laws in place that limit online casinos’ ability to handle your transactions. In 2006, the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act allowed the US Justice Department to go after international casinos and financial institutions that process online wagers from US players. This is why many well-established online casino operators don’t allow US players to register on their sites.
For those online casinos that allow US players, they have limited deposit and withdrawal options, which can make depositing and withdrawing funds at an online casino difficult for US players, albeit not impossible. This is to protect those online casinos from possible prosecution by the Justice Department.
While online poker players in the US are unlikely to face prosecution for playing poker online, there are other factors to consider. Perhaps the biggest concern is being able to freely access your money and withdraw winnings in a timely fashion. What complicates this is the event that occurred on April 15, 2011, known throughout the poker world as Black Friday.
Black Friday Myths and Facts
On that day, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment against online poker rooms that included Poker Stars, Full Tilt, and Cereus. The government also froze the assets of these companies, which included money in players’ accounts.
• Myth: The individuals named in the United States v Scheinberg case were engaged in no wrongdoing.
• Fact: The government accused the individuals of engaging in bank fraud, money laundering, and embezzlement. The lawyers for the individuals and companies indicted argued that the law specifically prohibits wagers defined as gambling when the outcome is related to chance. The lawyers maintained that poker is a game of skill rather than luck.
The case against these companies was settled without any prosecution against the companies nor with any admission of guilt on their part. If this were the end of it, than myth number one could tentatively be argued to be fact. However, one reason that these companies could not pay back their players was that individuals in the companies also embezzled funds, namely the winnings of various players on those sites. Although the litigation against the poker companies named in the Black Friday indictments have been resolved without prosecution, criminal charges remain against those accused of embezzlement.
• Myth: Black Friday made it illegal to play poker online in the US
• Fact: Many international casinos quit providing access to US players as a result of Black Friday, but many had already been doing so. However none of the actions taken on Black Friday were aimed at individual poker players. The legality of playing poker online in the US is a murky area that relies on the interpretation of individual states’ laws, particularly when referring to poker as a game of chance.
• Myth: Poker is entirely a game of luck and chance.
• Fact: Poker involves several skill sets that allow players to minimize the role that chance plays in the game. For example, the same skill-set that allows law enforcement interrogators to access information from a suspect is also at play in poker. Being able to read a player’s body language and track that according to other observations about the player’s character and personality is an important skill in piecing out the information a player needs in a hand.
Another skill, mathematics and the knowledge of probability, is also useful to a poker player. However this skill does involve navigating the vagaries of chance. If you look at poker at the level of an individual hand, then it’s easy to see where luck and chance dominate. Skilled players don’t play the hand so much as their opponents. Being able to piece together betting behavior and reconstruct the hand possibilities an opponent may have is less akin to chance then to the similar piecing together from incomplete information that scientists, physicians, and archaeologists engage in in their disciplines, yet no one would declare their results entirely reliant upon chance.
Nevertheless, it would be equally incorrect to state that chance plays no part in poker. The skilled players know how to avoid bad situations and capitalize on good ones, but even they can be stung by the flip of a card and locked in in such a way that they can’t get out of a hand without losing everything. The development of sound poker play strives to mitigate this reality. As a consequence, it really depends on how a state law is worded for playing poker to qualify as an illegal activity, and UIGEA relies entirely upon the designation “illegal” for its enforcement.
Are There Safe and Reputable Sites to Play Poker Online for US Players?
Many sites do offer online poker for US residents. In many cases they are safe in the sense that they aren’t looking to rip off their customers. Most casinos rely upon brisk business to make their profits. If a casino earned the reputation of being dirty, it would lose the business it relies upon. Still, some online poker rooms are better than others. Here are two legitimate poker websites that accept US customers:
• Bet Online: For US players, this is one of the best sites you will find. You can make deposits with a Visa or a Mastercard, as well as numerous other options. The minimum deposit is $50, but this site offers a 200% matching bonus on your first deposit. In addition this site offers play money games where you don’t have to risk anything if you want to see what the game play is like.
• Bovada: Another great poker site for US players, Bovada is well known for attracting fish, players who lack skills and/or experience. The deposit methods here are a bit more limited in that it does not accept Mastercard, only Visa. In addition, many banks will block this transaction so you would need a prepaid Visa card to deposit money. There are other deposit methods as well, but these options are less common. The minimum deposit is $20, and the sign up bonus is100%, up to $1000. The graphics at this site are slightly better than the simplicity you find at Bet Online, however, Bovada lacks some of the perks you find at Bet Online, where a computer automatically keeps betting and play statistics for you. Bovada does offer many free play options that don’t have nearly the wait times you find at Bet Online.
Many other online casinos now accept US players and even the US Congress is holding hearings about whether poker is indeed a game of skill. Considering the market for online casinos, the legitimacy of online poker is gaining prominence. It may be quite soon where it is completely legal and regulated across the US.