Wisconsin Gambling & Online Poker Laws

An Overview Of The Gambling Laws In The State Of Wisconsin

If it were not for the Tribal casinos and the wide ranging compacts with the State allowing the full range of casino games – Wisconsin would be a barren place for gamblers. There are some curious laws here, with pari-mutuel betting legal on-track, except there are no tracks to bet at. You can enjoy lottery and charity bingo games though, and poker players are well looked after on the Indian reservations too. This article gives you a detailed overview of the Wisconsin Gambling laws.

First of all below you’ll find a history and status of gambling in Wisconsin in quick-fire format. Next I have gone through the different forms of gambling and outlined the legal status of each one. After that some more detail is provided, with excerpts from the Wisconsin statutes, plus a legal timeline. At the end of this page you will find summary and a look at possible future scenarios for gambling in this State.


Wisconsin Gambling Laws – A Brief History

When the Wisconsin statutes were created in 1848, the standard stance at the time was anti-gambling. This is the reason we have a blanket ban on all forms of gambling on the books, with only gradual carve-outs for individual types of gambling occurring over the years.

First to be legalized was limited charity gambling, with bingo and raffle type games allowed under these rules. These games are controlled in terms of their frequency and the maximum prizes offered, and require individual licenses. Wisconsin also has an active lottery, which includes inter-State games – though does not offer video lottery terminal games.

Pari-Mutuel betting was late to Wisconsin, not starting until 1987, while many States were enjoying the extra revenue which came from this to build up their horse racing industries since the 1930’s. There were both horse and greyhound racing tracks in this State for many years, however these went into decline, and the last one was closed in 2009. The law now allows betting only at racetracks, only there are no racetracks to bet at any more. There have been attempts to turn the disused racetracks into casinos by some of the native tribes – these have been rejected by the State.

Tribal casinos make up the bulk of the opportunities to legally gamble in Wisconsin. There are 11 tribes, and following the Federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act of 1998, they entered into negotiations with the State. Compacts were signed in 1991 and 1992. These included class 3 games (table games like blackjack and also poker rooms) which allowed the tribes to find investment and build some lavish casino complexes around the State. There have been legal disputes on and off since then, however the compacts remain in place and Indian gaming continues to thrive.

Poker players can enjoy card rooms with up to 50 tables in Wisconsin. Outside of these rooms there are zero legal opportunities to play. Charitable gambling does not include poker, and home-games are not carved out under the statutes – making these illegal, even if nobody is profiting from running the games. While there is regular enforcement activity against illegal gambling, small stakes social home games are definitely not the target.


What Types Of Gambling Are Currently Legal?

Casino Games: Yes, there are 11 tribal casinos in the State of Wisconsin where you can enjoy the full range (class 3) of casino games. There are no commercial (non-tribal) casinos.

Online Casinos: No, as is the norm, the statutes pre-date the internet, though are considered to have broad enough definitions of gambling to cover online casino gambling.

Live Poker: Yes, you can play live poker at the Indian casinos, including tournaments. Home-games are not exempted under Wisconsin laws like they are in other States. While technically speaking your small stakes social game is illegal – enforcement of this kind of game appears very rare.

Online Poker: No, there are no public discussions about the regulation of poker at this time, and this is assumed to be covered by the core statutes at the moment.

Sports Betting: Yes, you can bet on horse races and greyhound races on track – except there are no horse or greyhound races to bet on in this State – a catch-22.

Lottery Betting: Yes, there is a lottery, the games on offer were limited after legal changes in 1992.

Bingo Games: Yes, charity gambling laws cover low-stakes bingo and raffle games.


Wisconsin Gambling Laws – Statutes And Legal Timeline

Though the tribal casinos give residents a lot of gambling opportunities in Wisconsin, without these the place would be pretty quiet for gamblers. The core definition of the Statute, created at a time when gambling was seen as immoral and something to be blanket banned, focuses on the ‘bet’. In addition there are laws against allowing gambling to take place on your property and even entering a gambling location with the intent to make a bet.

Here is the key passage concerning betting:

A bet is a bargain in which the parties agree that, dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose something of value specified in the agreement. (From 945.01)

Note that the chance / skill debate is pre-empted by this quote, making it harder to argue that poker should be exempt. It is possible to make the skill game case, however there will always be an element of chance.

Here is the unusual part of the Wisconsin statutes, entering a venue with the intention of gambling:

Enters or remains in a gambling place with intent to make a bet, to participate in a lottery, or to play a gambling machine;

Below are some of the key milestones from the legal history of Wisconsin:

1973: Charitable gambling made legal, this includes bingo and raffle type games.

1987: Pari-mutuel betting made legal on horse and greyhound racing. While on-track betting remains legal (including live simulcast betting) there are no longer any racetracks to bet at, with the last one (Dairyland Greyhound Park) closing its doors in 2009.

1988: First lottery tickets sold, after this was signed into law a year earlier. In 1992, the lottery was restricted to pull-tab and scratch-off games and a numbers drawing game which takes place online, limiting the scope for VLTs. 2009 saw Wisconsin join the PowerBall and Mega Millions.

1991 / 1992: Compacts were signed with the 11 tribes wishing to host casinos on their land, these allowed class 3 gaming, which covers all the casino table games as well as slots.

2007: Last known attempt to legislate casino gaming on non-tribal land was vetoed by Governor Kim Doyle.


Wisconsin Gambling Laws – Summary And Key Statutes

There are sporadic attempts to introduce State legislated gambling in Wisconsin, though none of them make it as far as a vote. The status-quo of letting the tribes handle the gambling has been in effect since the 1990’s – and shows no sign of changing any time soon.

I can see no specific reason why Wisconsin would not legislate for intra-State poker should this be a success elsewhere. At the same time it is difficult to see where the drive to do this could come from, despite Indian tribes showing some interest.


Useful Resources:

Nice Summary / History

State Laws Summary

Statutes In Detail

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