Washington D.C Online Gambling Laws

An Overview Of The Gambling Laws In The District Of Columbia

Despite their recent attempts to legislate online gambling, the District of Columbia is not gambling-friendly as things stand. There are no casinos, no horse or dog racing tracks, no poker rooms and only limited charity gambling and a lottery are freely available. With many people crossing into neighboring States, there is some movement towards adding more gambling – though these have not yet resulted in any real improvements. This article covers the Washington DC gambling laws in-depth.

First up below you will find a quick-fire history covering DC’s gambling past – much of the ‘action’ was within the last few years. After that there is a game-by-game summary, giving you the current legal Status of each type of gambling. Next comes a little more detail, with an excerpt from the statutes and legal timeline. At the end of this page you will find a summary, and a look at potential future plans.

Washington DC Gambling – A Brief History

Before the last few years, there really was not much going on for fans of gambling games of any type. Horse racing had its heyday many years ago, and while in theory pari-mutuel on-track betting is still legal – there is a major problem with this. No racetracks are currently open to allow residents to bet. Fortunately there is plenty of racing action in surrounding States for those who wish to enjoy a day at the races and a wager alongside.

The story is the same for casinos, with many people making the 3 to 4 hour drive to Atlantic City – or hitting closer venues in Maryland. Washington DC has no casinos at all, including tribal casinos. The only game that comes close is a charity ‘casino night’ which is a fundraising event. Charities can also run bingo games, raffles and Texas Holdem tournaments to collect money for their good causes.

Washington DC does have a lottery, which was first created in 1982. This includes instant games (scratch-off cards) and an electronic terminal game where you choose numbers for instant wins. You can also partake in multi-State games including the Mega Millions and PowerBall.

Poker fans only really have the charity tournaments. While attending a home game in a social context would not break the law, hosting the game (or even telling anyone about it) would seem to do so. As in many other States with unclear laws on social games, there is no real history of enforcement for small stakes social poker.

The biggest splash in the History of gambling in Washington DC came in the last few years. This involved an attempt to get legal online gaming through into law in the small print of some budget amendments which were designed to close a $200 million hole in the accounts.

First proposed my Council Member Michael A Brown in 2010, the changes which actually included a state controlled online casino and up to 30 gambling ‘hotspots’ made it through the legislative process. When work started on the casino, many people started getting cold feet – claiming they did not realize what they had voted for. The idea was quashed (repealed) in 2012. At the time this would have been pioneering, and it does give people hope that the DC government will be open to online gambling or poker regulation when this concept starts to mature.

What Forms Of Gambling Are Currently Legal?

Casino Gambling: No, there are no licensed casinos within the District Of Columbia, for casino gaming residents can travel to nearby Maryland, West Virginia – or make the slightly longer trip to the gambling hotspot of Atlantic City.

Online Casinos: No, there are no laws banning online gambling, and in fact many interpretations of the statutes could argue that this is not illegal at all. The assumption among the law enforcement agencies is that online gambling is definitely covered by the existing statutes.

Live Poker: No, only very limited charity Texas Holdem tournaments can be found, and these need to be individually licensed. Playing in a home game would not be covered by the current laws, though organizing a home-game could be.

Online Poker: No, there have already been attempts to regulate this, which ended in acrimony.

Sports Betting: No, like Wisconsin, pari-mutuel betting at racetracks is within the law – only there are no longer any racetracks to bet at.

Lottery Betting: Yes, there is a lottery in DC, which has a number of scratch-off and electronic games in addition to the multi-State draws.

Bingo Games: Yes, charity gambling carve-outs mean you can enjoy bingo, raffles, pull-tabs and ‘casino nights’ type promotions in aid of good causes.

Washington DC Gambling – Statutes And Legal Timeline

The statutes of Washington DC make confusing reading, there is a patchwork of definitions which all seem to skirt around the issue of illegal gambling, or wagering, or games of chance. A few things are certain from within this, any kind of gambling device – ranging from a table to a house – is covered and not legal to use. What is more gambling losses above $25 are recoverable by suing the person you lost to, and promoting a gambling game is a crime (though playing in one is not).

For such a patchwork of definitions, the government of the District of Columbia seems awfully certain that all gambling games not specifically exempted are illegal.

Here is the key phrasing for ‘Gaming’:

“Whoever shall in the District set up or keep any gaming table, or any house, vessel, or place, on land or water, for the purpose of gaming, or gambling device commonly called A B C, faro bank, E O, roulette, equality, keno, thimbles, or little joker, or any kind of gaming table or gambling device adapted, devised, and designed for the purpose of playing any game of chance for money or property, or shall induce, entice, and permit any person to bet or play at or upon any such gaming table or gambling device, or on the side of or against the keeper thereof, “ (from 22-1704)

Below is the timeline of the (limited) changes to the laws regarding gambling:

1981: Current charity gaming guidelines become law, these allow bingo and raffles, and casino events plus Texas Holdem poker tournaments. Licenses must be obtained through the lottery and charitable games control board.

1982: DC Lottery begins, with good causes benefiting from the profits.

2010: Michael A Brown puts forward a proposal to including online gambling in a raft of measures to plug a huge hole in the DC Budget. This was expended on to include up to 30 hotspots for online gambling in 2011, it passed though committee and work on a State online casino began.

2011: Lottery almost becomes the first to offer internet gambling, until the project is stopped at the last moment.

2012: Finance and revenue committee votes to repeal the program, staying it was hidden in the small print and that the districts were not clearly informed what they were voting on.

Washington DC Gambling – Summary And Next Steps

The only silver lining for gambling fans in this ‘dry’ district is that there are plenty of options in nearby States, with Atlantic City not too far away and the racecourses of West Virginia and casinos of Maryland even closer. With only charity gaming and a lottery available in DC, it is no wonder so many people travel to these States regularly.

Online gambling was already tried once, and this does give some optimism that regulated poker might not be too far away. With such a small population, it would be necessary for DC to join with one or more States to create the liquidity needed for successful games though.

Useful Resources

Online Gambling Legalization Attempt Overview

Charity Gambling Rules

Gambling Laws Summary


Control Board Website