State of Montana’s Gambling Laws

Monatana’s Legal Poker & Betting Framework

Montana’s gambling history follows a familiar pattern shared by the other Western States. The early settlers brought gambling games with them, which exploded in the 1800’s with lottery (raffle) type games. These lead to a crack-down and in 1910 a complete ban on gambling as puritan interests won out. After the great depression, there was a slow rebuild – leading to today’s wide choices. This article looks at the Montana Gambling laws in some detail.

First below you will find an overview of the history of Gambling in Montana in quick-fire format. After that each gambling format is covered one-by-one, along with notes on the legal situation of each. Next details from the Montana Statutes are covered, including a timeline of the key legislation which got us to where we are today. Finally you will find a summary and a look into the possible future scenarios for this State.

Montana Gambling Laws – A Brief History

By the time the Montana constitution was finalized, gambling was already out of control. Lotteries at the time were more like raffles, they were crooked, unregulated and people had already seen enough. The initial laws stopped them, though at the expense of creating a very broad definition which would make future legislation more difficult. At the time leading up to 1910, when every possible form of having fun was being banned this did not seem to be a big problem.

The end of prohibition saw the first green shoots of legalized gambling begin. The ‘Hickey Act’ was progressive at the time – legalizing table games and decentralizing the final decision out to the counties. They were hungry for revenues at the time and gladly accepted, setting up the small casinos which dominate today.

There was a mini-battle over slot machines between 1945 and 1950. Mechanical slots had become common by ’45, and faced with an impossible task in stopping them, the State decided to legalize and tax them instead. These machines were labeled ‘trade simulators’ – and an act was duly passed making them legal. This was challenged immediately, and 5 years later the Supreme Court spoiled the slots party by ruling them unconstitutional.

Montana is one of only 4 States who were grandfathered out of the Federal ban on betting on pro sports in 1991. They do not currently use this right, with only pari-mutuel betting on Horse Racing allowed, recently including Simulcast racing. Only fantasy sports and tab games are allowed – which feels like a waste of a perfectly good exemption to many sports betting fans.

The most recent twist in the Montana gambling legislation story came in 2005, and it is not good news for the proponents of online gambling regulation. Gambling on the internet was made illegal, including poker games. This seems to contradict the progressive nature of gambling laws in this State, and makes it doubtful that they will be early adopters of legalized online poker games.

Montana Gambling Laws – What Gambling Games Are Legal?

Casino Games: Yes, there are an amazing 141 licensed casinos in this State, though most of them are very small and contain just a few tables. In addition there are tribal casinos offering class 2 and 3 gaming.

Online Casinos: No, in 2005, Montana passed legislation which bans gambling over the internet. This is one of the few States to explicitly say ‘no’, most just assume that their 50 year old laws cover all eventualities.

Live Poker: Yes, you can play at a number of casinos, though many are relatively small with just a few tables. Social poker games are also legal as long as the stakes are minimal and nobody is profiting from the games. There is no definition of what ‘minimal’ means, though there is also no history of home-games being busted.

Online Poker: No, the 2005 law covers online poker too. There is currently no discussion on regulation, though some commentators believe that once regulated online poker games are proven elsewhere, Montana would be a natural candidate to join them.

Sports Betting: Yes, Montana is one of only 4 states which were grandfathered exemptions to the 1991 Federal act banning betting on pro sports. The others are Oregon, Delaware and Nevada. This right is not used, with only pari-mutuel horse racing bets possible.

Lottery Betting: Yes, there is a State lottery which also covers the major inter-State games.

Bingo Games: Yes, charity gambling including Bingo and raffles is licensed and accepted.

Montana Gambling Laws – Timeline And Key Statutes

There are three catch-all clauses in the Montana statutes which gambling fans need to be aware of. These are the general definition, which is a general ‘betting on any game with a chance element’ definition, designed to catch everything in one go. If this was not enough on its own, there is a long list of gambling devices that you should not possess, along with a ban on keeping illegal gambling records. Finally, the latest provisions from 2005, which ban gambling over the internet.

Here is the Montana Statue wording defining gambling:

“Gambling” or “gambling activity” means risking any money, credit, deposit, check, property, or other thing of value for a gain that is contingent in whole or in part upon lot, chance, or the operation of a gambling device or gambling enterprise.  (23-5-112)

This part covers internet gambling:

“Internet gambling”, by whatever name known, includes but is not limited to the conduct of any legal or illegal gambling enterprise through the use of communications technology that allows a person using money, paper checks, electronic checks, electronic transfers of money, credit cards, debit cards, or any other instrumentality to transmit to a computer information to assist in the placing of a bet or wager and corresponding information related to the display of the game, game outcomes, or other similar information.

Here is a timeline of events and legal rulings for Montana:

1889: Initial constitution is very anti-gambling, partly in reaction to the crazy amount of ‘lottery’ scams around at the time.

1937: The ‘Hickey Act’ legalizes table-games, the final decision on legalization for these can be decided by individual counties.

1945: Slots are legalized, using the term ‘Trade Simulators’, these were rife at the time anyway, and this act was a way of taxing them. It would last until 1950, when the Supreme Court rules these games illegal.

1973: Bingo games and raffles for charitable purposes are made legal.

1980: Video poker machines are declared illegal under the existing anti slot machine laws.

1985: Video Poker Machine Act passed, allowing up to 5 machines per bar (raised to 20 in 1991), along with unlimited amount of video keno machines.

2005: Amendment to the statutes passed to clearly make internet gambling illegal.

Montana Gambling Laws – Summary And A Look To The Future

Montanans do not have the mega casinos resorts of some States, though to make up for it they have the biggest choice of licensed casinos of any State. There are opportunities to bet on lottery, charity bingo games and horse-racing – and home poker games are fine as long as they are for the (undefined) ‘minimal stakes’.

It is difficult to see Montana legalizing online poker so soon after going to the trouble of making it illegal. The one possibility is that the revenue generated by other States catches the eye of legislators once regulated poker games have become established in other States. My prediction is that Montana will not be an early adopter, but may join the party eventually.

Useful Resources:


Index For Full Statutes

Key Laws On One Page

Tribal Compacts