An Overview Of Gambling Laws In The State Of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has come from nowhere to become the most successful State in terms of gambling revenues (per head of population at least). Things were quiet in this State, with only a lottery, charity games and horse-racing, until 2004, when the casino market was opened up. The initial boom was given a turbo-boost in 2010, when table games and slots were permitted – which has led to huge development, employment and revenues. This page gives you a detailed overview of the Pennsylvania gambling laws and how these affect you.
First of all below, I’ll rewind the clock, giving a rapid-fire overview of the history of gambling in Pennsylvania. After that the specific types of gambling games are covered one-by-one, with a current legal status given for each. Next some detailed information from the Pennsylvania statute books, plus a legal timeline. At the end of this page you’ll find a summary of the information here, plus a speculative look into the future.
In contrast to neighboring States, Pennsylvania was almost a desert as far as gambling is concerned for almost all of its long history. Anyone wanting more than a lottery ticket or pooled bet on a horse race needed to travel to New Jersey or Delaware. Though there were some small signs of progress over the years, including charity gambling laws, things really kicked off here in 2004.
That year saw an act passed which legalized licensed State casinos, allowing them to offer class 2 games. These were electronic bingo and lottery device games, along with hybrid games of chance which were made to feel a little like table games (for example poker themed lottery machines). This kicked off a spate of casino construction which included big industry names like Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) and the Indian Tribe behind the Pennsylvania Mohegan Sun casino.
It was 2010’s new law allowing category 3 casino games which really cemented the gains from gambling for the State coffers. This top-level of casino games includes all the table games like blackjack and roulette, as well as the video slots and the ability to run a poker card-room. The casinos jumped on the chance and have been able to massively increase attendance and turnover.
Sports Betting has been limited to horse races for many years. More recently the 2004 legislation gave the tracks the ability to run class 2 gaming machines – giving a boost to their industry. There is a popular lottery in this State, which has raised a lot of money for Senior’s organizations.
One quirk of the laws in Pennsylvania is that they target the operators and profit-takers from gambling activities almost exclusively. There is no mention of merely being a player as illegal at all. This could be thought of as making poker home games legal (since everyone is just a player in a social game). The person hosting the game might well fall foul of the regulations though.
Casino Gaming: Yes, there are several fully licensed casinos in this State offering the top class of casino games (table games + slots). There is one casino run by an Indian tribe (the Mohegan Sun) however this is run under commercial rules and not a compact with the State.
Online Casinos: No, there is nothing specific in the Pennsylvania Statutes which outlaws online gambling. In fact there is a general carve out for players in such games. While the central assumption is that this activity is covered by existing State laws, it is good to know that merely playing online casino games is not considered illegal.
Live Poker: Yes, you can play live poker at a number of poker rooms within the licensed casinos. Unlike in several neighboring States, there is no carve-out for social (home) poker games here. However, in an interesting twist the ‘mere player’ defense could count for all the participants in this State. Hosting the game, even for no personal profit would probably fall foul of the law, though like in many other jurisdictions, there is no history of small-stakes home-games being busted
Online Poker: No, again the player defense might count here. There was one bill to regulate online poker introduced and killed in the 2013 / 2014 session.
Sports Betting: Yes, pari-mutuel betting on horse races is allowed, this includes betting from remote locations (the casinos) as well as on-track. Slots games at the racetracks have turned these venues into ‘racinos’.
Lottery Betting: Yes, there is a lottery, which has traditionally supported the elderly.
Bingo Games: Yes, this game (along with raffles and pull-tab cards) is legal under the Pennsylvania charitable gambling laws.
Key to the legal status of gambling in Pennsyvania is the broad definition of illegal gambling counting as ‘anything not specifically exempted’. What really stands out from reading the laws of this State is that they are keen to criminalize anyone promoting gambling, offering a device or venue for gambling games or profiting from this. Players are simply ignored, though this does not mean that the State would not be able to find some technicality to charge someone under if they wished.
Here is the key passage from the statutes:
(a) Offense defined.–A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree if he:
(1) intentionally or knowingly makes, assembles, sets up, maintains, sells, lends, leases, gives away, or offers for sale, loan, lease or gift, any punch board, drawing card, slot machine or any device to be used for gambling purposes, except playing cards;
(2) allows persons to collect and assemble for the purpose of unlawful gambling at any place under his control;
(3) solicits or invites any person to visit any unlawful gambling place for the purpose of gambling; or
(4) being the owner, tenant, lessee or occupant of any premises, knowingly permits or suffers the same, or any part thereof, to be used for the purpose of unlawful gambling.
Below is a timeline of key legal events in this State’s history:
1820: Betting on horse racing made illegal for the first time.
1967: Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission created to oversee pari-mutuel betting and racing activities across the State.
1971: Act 91 makes a State lottery legal for the first time, the first draw was held 1 year later – with revenues targeted towards the elderly.
1991: Chapter 901 of the State laws updated, this is titled ‘Local Options Small Games Of Chance’ and allows charity bingo, raffles and limited pull-tab type games. These have strict limits on prizes, and the profits must go to good causes.
2004: This was the biggest single milestone year in Pennsylvania gambling law, State casinos were licensed for the first time (initially with class 2 machines) and the laws on sports betting were updated too. This gave rise to the building and investment boom which sees the 11 major casinos and the racino complexes which run today.
2008 / 9: Increases to the minimum payouts (both daily and weekly) approved for charity bingo and raffles.
2010: Senate Bill 711 allows table games (class 3 gaming) at the State’s licensed casinos. This cemented the gains already made and led to record breaking revenues from the casinos 3 years later.
2013: Bill proposing the legalization of online poker games was put forward by Representative Tina Davis. This did not make it through committee, based on concerns about the effect on the brick and mortar casinos, and will not go forward during the 2014 legislative session.
Pennsylvania is booming as a gambling destination, and now has 11 fully licensed casinos in addition to racinos and bingo halls featuring charitable gaming. From a legal perspective, the players of gambling games seem to be overlooked – with the penalties and statutes targeting operators of those games instead.
One attempt has already been made to regulate online poker via a bill in 2013. While this did not make it to the floor, I am sure that the progressive politicians are watching Delaware and New Jersey closely to see how online poker regulation works out. If this is a success in those States, there is no reason why Pennsylvania should not be part of a second wave of States to join.
State Laws Summary
PA Gambling Control Board
Timeline / History Links