Legal US Gambling Laws

An Overview of Gambling Laws in Various US States

Gambling laws vary dramatically across the States – so much that it is safe to say that no two States are the same in their approach to gambling. While the extremes of complete bans and complete availability make the headlines, many States have a patchwork of rules treating the various forms of gambling differently. This situation is further complicated by the rights of Indian Tribes, and their relationships with State governments via individually negotiated compacts. This page and the articles on individual States linked from it will give you an up to date overview of how the gambling laws affect your choices – wherever in the US you live.

First of all below you will find a summary of how the laws on gambling are structured. This includes a historical perspective and key differences in the approach to making different games illegal. Next I have gone through the different categories of games that gamblers enjoy – and highlighted the range of options available across the country for each. After that you will find some words on the most liberal states and the most restrictive ones.

State Law Reviews

State Gambling Laws – History and Approaches

When the States were writing their initial constitutions and statutes there were two key factors which influenced their overall approach to games of chance. First were the excesses and vices of early settlers, which range from the ‘lottery madness’ of the early 1800’s through to the smoky gambling dens of the gold rush era. Second was the general movement towards a conservative and religious way of life – which would hit its peak in the prohibition era of the early 20th century.

Combined, these two factors led to the majority of States to blanket ban gambling in their initial statutes – or in the early 1900’s. What you’ll find today is different places at different stages of creating carve-outs and new laws which allow certain forms of gambling to occur.

There are differences in how the initial prohibition was approached in different States. The main ways are to outlaw the making of bets, or to outlaw ‘playing in games of chance’. In addition you will find laws against using gambling devices, hosting games, promoting the games or even being a professional gambler. Some States target the organizers and operators of the games – while others also criminalize the players.

In 1988, a game-changing act was passed at the Federal level, which gave Indian Tribes the right to build casinos on their own lands. This led to negotiations with many States, about the terms and conditions that their casinos would operate under. Known as ‘compacts’ these deals allowed the tribes to host any game legal under State law. Some areas now have a huge tribal casino presence – even while their own laws are restrictive.

Once you understand the complexity in the approaches taken across the country, you will see why it is important to reference the statutes of the individual State you wish to play in before you start to gamble.

State Gambling Laws – Different Games and How They Are Treated

Not all games are treated equally when it comes to legality across the US. This section gives you an overview of the legal differences focused on the different gambling formats.

Legal Casino Games

While there are some nuances, for example some States outlaw Roulette, on the whole this is a question of either Tribal casinos, commercial ones – or both. Many States have helped their ailing horse-racing industry to prosper by allowing casino games at their tracks, becoming ‘racinos’. Creative ways to get around State bans on these games include cruise-ships which sail into international waters.

Legal Online Casinos and Poker

This is the latest wave of legislation, and does polarize the States. Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey now have their own State-regulated poker sites. Meanwhile places like Florida, Washington and Oregon have explicitly made internet casinos and poker games illegal. It is early days for regulated online gambling, and many places are watching to see whether the pioneers are successful before initiating their own legislation in this area.

Playing Live Poker Games Legally

Another polarized area, though with enough creative solutions to allow games in most States. Casinos with poker rooms (including tribal casinos) are the top tier here. Places such as California and Washington have separate poker card-rooms in addition to these. Many States have ‘bar league’ type games (with or without entry fees) including New Mexico and even restrictive Utah. In addition there are a lot of different laws covering home-games or ‘social poker’. These range from ‘no-go’ (South Carolina) through small-stakes and only with real social relationships involved, through to no restrictions as long as nobody is making a profit from hosting the games. In general, despite the protestations of players, poker is not treated as a skill game.

Sports Betting Legally in the United States

Nevada is the only State to offer a full range of sports betting action on pro sports as well as horse racing. They were ‘grandfathered’ out of the Federal ban in 1992 (along with Oregon, Delaware and Montana), however none of the other States currently allows this. New Jersey has been locked in a legal battle with the sports-leagues to allow betting from Atlantic City casinos in recent years.

Many States allow betting on horse races and greyhounds. This is done via pari-mutuel (pooled) betting systems and can be either on-track or remote (via ‘Simulcasts’ of live races). Some states have moved forward with betting terminals, either allowing betting on historic races, or simulcast events. There are some States who make horse race betting legal, though have no races to bet at – examples here include the District of Columbia and Wisconsin.

Legal Lottery Betting

Most places enjoy lottery betting, though the scope of what is included here is wide. This ranges from the drawing games (both including the multi-jurisdictional draws), though scratch-cards to VLTs – video lottery terminals. These machines have instant win type games and have been used to replace video poker machines in bars, or to offer entertainment at racetracks. You can now buy lottery tickets online in many States, including Massachusetts and Illinois.

Legal Charity Gambling And Bingo

Charity gambling includes bingo games, raffles and sometimes ‘casino nights’ type promotions where people compete for (often donated) prizes. This is one of the most common carve-outs from general anti-gambling laws, even restrictive places like South Carolina and Texas have allowances for charity games. Interestingly, these charity bingo laws made it possible for Indian tribes to host high-stakes bingo halls on their land, which were the precursors to full casinos for many native groups.

Bingo is sometimes allowed outside of charity rules, with seniors groups of low stakes ‘beach bingo’ games the main types.

State Gambling Laws – Restrictive States

Hawaii, Tennessee, Vermont and Utah are among the most restrictive States when it comes to enjoying gambling games. What strikes me with many of these is how creatively people manage to find gaming. Utah residents travel 2 hours west to the Nevada town of Westover in droves, and Vermont residents go south to Connecticut. It is often the ease with which gambling dollars cross borders which triggers governments to look into the legalization of their own casinos. A great example is the Ontario, Canada casino across the river from Detroit leading to the licensing of commercial casinos in Michigan.

Cruises to nowhere are also a popular solution, allowing people in Alaska, Georgia and (in the past) Texas to enjoy casino gaming. Even States which have licensed casinos often offer these cruises, for example Florida and Washington.

State Gambling Laws – Liberal States

Many online poker players would immediately identify Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey as progressive in their gambling laws. There are actually many more States who are progressive in their approach to live gambling, though do not allow online games at all. These include Pennsylvania, which liberalized its laws recently, California – with a huge choice of tribal casinos and many other options and Louisiana, which has a long standing gambling tradition. There are many other places which enjoy a lot of tribal gambling, for example Oklahoma and Arizona.

State Gambling Laws – Looking To the Future

More than 100 years after most States had blanket bans on gambling, the current direction is definitely towards the liberalization of these laws nowadays. The latest move towards regulating online poker and casino games goes alongside the gradual move towards commercial casino and expanded racetrack offerings. Though out history, it has been shown that banning gambling does not stop this activity – it simply pushes it underground. Regulations and controls, in addition to protecting problem gamblers, are a great way for States to enjoy the tax revenues that gambling brings, while offering their residents the freedom to enjoy this kind of entertainment.