Massachusetts Poker & Gambling Laws

Is Online Gambling Legal In The State Of Massachusetts?

Gambling in Massachusetts was quiet and sedate for more than 300 years, with just a little pari-mutuel horse racing and a lottery to keep residents amused. Then, in 2011, things changed up a gear – with a new law signed to bring 3 casinos and a slots parlor to the State. With Massachusetts residents crossing over into neighboring Connecticut to enjoy the huge Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun for many years, I can only ask what took them so long! This article looks into the gambling laws in Massachusetts in depth.

First of all, there is a fast-paced history of gambling in Massachusetts below. After that you’ll find a run-through of different types of gambling, with a note on the current status of each. Next up there are some excerpts from the Massachusetts statutes – where gambling is very broadly defined. Finally I’ll sum up all the relevant pieces in a couple of sentences and have a peer into the possible future steps for this New England State.

Massachusetts Gambling Laws – A Brief History

Native Tribes claim they were gambling long before the first settlers, though the history after the settlers arrived is very puritanical compared to other States. It took the economic devastation of the great depression to even kick of pooled betting on horse racing here.

Massachusetts was a reasonably early adopter of lottery draws, with the first State-wide games kicking off in 1972. This has expanded and there are now a number of inter-State draws and gambling games you can play on the terminals too. Unlike in many other States you can’t buy tickets on the internet.

Recent activity has been very lively compared to the historical gambling drought. This reminds me of a similar story in Maryland, where after years of quiet – casinos were suddenly regulated and licensed. Until now residents had the choice of crossing into Connecticut to enjoy the mega-resorts there, or getting on the ‘Horizons Edge’ casino boat and sailing into international waters for a quick gamble there.

After failed attempts in 2008 and 2009, a new law allowing for 3 licensed casinos and one slots parlor was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in 2011. This immediately kicked off a tendering process, and in 2013 the first licenses were awarded to the Hard Rock Casinos group and MGM international who will open casinos from 2015. With at least one Tribal casino not far behind, it does look like this State will come from nowhere to having a great choice of venues within a few short years.

More recently, Steven Crosby, chairman of the Gaming Commission has called for the regulation of internet gaming. Arguing that if the State does not do this – then the casinos will. After such a bloody political fight to get the land-based casinos regulated, it is not known if there is currently the will to fight for online gaming too.

What Types Of Gambling Are Currently Legal?

Casino Games: Yes, though not yet available. A 2011 law allowing for 3 casinos passed and the first licenses have been awarded in 2013. It is expected that the first casinos (Hard Rock and MGM International) will open in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Before then next door Connecticut has some amazing resort casinos in the form of Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun.

Online Casinos: No, there is nothing explicitly written in the statutes banning this, though legal opinion appears to be that the generalized ‘gaming’ laws and prohibition on the use of the telephone for such gaming are sufficient to cover this.

Live Poker: There are bar poker tournaments with no buy-ins, though these are not strictly speaking permitted under Massachusetts law. Social gaming is permitted with the usual caveats that nobody makes a profit hosting the game – this law is very much targeted at home-games.

Online Poker: There seems to be some political support for this, and the Gaming Commission recently came out in support of regulation. After the political strife of getting the land-based casinos licensed, it remains to be seen how strong the political willpower to push this through actually is.

Sports Betting: Pari-mutuel (pooled) betting on Horses is allowed, though greyhound racing was banned back in 2009.

Lottery Betting: Yes, Massachusetts has enjoyed a lottery since 1973.

Bingo Games: Yes, there are carve-outs for charitable gaming, particularly for seniors. Bingo type games are known under the quirky name of ‘Beano’ in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Gambling Laws – Timeline And Key Statutes

There are some unique terms in the Legislation, though the intended effect to broadly ban gambling unless specifically regulated is achieved. They refer to gambling as ‘gaming’ and make wagering the key element. There is also little distinction made between the players and the organizers under the law – though there is no history of prosecuting players in smaller stakes games at least. Here are the key excerpts from the current Massachusetts statutes, covering the three elements which come together to make gambling illegal, wagering, gambling houses and gambling devices:

“Chapter 271: Section 1. Gaming or betting; forfeiture; limitations.

Section 1. Whoever, on a prosecution commenced within eighteen months after the commission of the crime, is convicted of winning at one time or sitting, by gaming or betting on the sides or hands of those gaming, money or goods to the value of five dollars or more, and of receiving the same or security therefor, shall forfeit double the value of such money or goods.”

A couple of interesting things to note, that wagering does not exempt skill games (for example poker) and that bets of under $5 are exempt.

Here is the part which covers gambling devices – for many years the job of slot machine repairman could get you imprisoned in this State!

“Whoever manufactures, transports, sells, offers for sale, stores, displays, repairs, reconditions, possesses or uses any gambling device or parts for use therein shall be punished by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars; “

Here is a timeline of major events in the gambling legislative history of Massachusetts:

1934: Pari-mutuel betting on horse racing (on-track) legalized, simulcast (betting live on races from other tracks and States, was added later at approved centers).

1971 / 1972: The current lottery was made legal in 1971, and the first ticket sold in 1972. This does include lottery type games which can be played at terminals where tickets are bought. Today, there is a debate about online purchases of lottery tickets.

2007 / 8: Casino expansion bills introduced, though fail to make it into law – one made it to the desk of Governor Deval Patrick, which he failed to sign under the pretext of not believing the figures for employment and revenue.

2011: Casino bill passes, this allows for 3 casinos and 1 slots parlor. There was a lot of political wrangling over this bill, with anti-gambling groups and tribal interests involved the fight.

2013: First licenses, along with $400,000 non-refundable deposits go to The Hard Rock Casinos group and to MGM Resorts International.

2014: After the federal tribal commission drops objections the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is to begin plans for a casino on their land by finalizing a compact with the State.

2015: First casino expected to open its doors.

Massachusetts Gambling Laws – Summary And A Look To The Future

Things are moving fast in Massachusetts, and the first of their brand new casino resorts should be opened next year. Revenue from these ventures flowing into State coffers often has the effect of muting the anti-gambling lobbies efforts – so who knows what expansion plans could be in the pipeline.

Online gambling, especially for poker is a possibility. Like so many other States the success (or otherwise) of the early adopters of regulated online poker including Nevada and New Jersey will be closely monitored. Let’s hope that this State is in line to join a growing number of States who take the plunge in 2018.

Useful Resources:

News ‘We can’t wait for online betting’

Recent Regulations Timeline

Gambling Laws US

News Covering Tribal Casino Negotiations

Gambling Law Masters Overview


Casino Debate MA