Online poker has had a presence in the United States for decades, with the first sites appearing all the way back in the late 1990s.
Following Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 victory at the World Series of Poker and the subsequent “poker boom” that followed, the unregulated online market thrived. However, setbacks were bound to happen. In response to the proliferation of unregulated online poker, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006, forcing a number of sites out of the U.S. market. Several big guns, including PokerStars, chose to roll the dice, remaining accessible to U.S. players. It bought them a few years, but ultimately online poker in the United States was due for another reckoning.
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On April 15, 2011, now known as Black Friday, the FBI, as part of an ongoing investigation, shut down the largest U.S.-facing poker sites and blocked their access to American players. The companies were forced to cease operation in the country and players here struggled to get their accounts refunded.
After a few years, legal, regulated online poker finally arrived in the U.S. in 2013. This version 2.0 of the industry saw individual states regulating online poker sites within their own virtual ring-fenced borders. To date, the vast majority of the country still has no access to legal online poker, but the outlook is improving.
Whether you are in a current poker market or one for the future, we will keep you up to date with major news, legislative progress, and general information on the world of online poker.
Which states in the U.S. have access to legal online poker?
After an initial flurry that saw three states (New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware) legalize online poker within their borders in 2013, it’s been slow going for the industry.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that a fourth state, Pennsylvania, chose to regulate the game. Further, it took until November 2019 for the first hands to be dealt in the Keystone State. The newest state to join the legalized online poker “game” is Michigan. Legal, regulated online poker went live in the Wolverine state on January 29, 2021. West Virginia passed legislation authorizing online poker but virtual hands have yet to be dealt in the state.
So whose next in line? Now that online gambling (particularly sports betting) is becoming more widely accepted, it’s possible that more states will move towards regulated online poker. However, as we’ve seen, it isn’t always a quick process.
To find out whether online poker is legal and regulated in your state, waiting in the wings, or being debated by legislators, check out our map below:vir
Key benefits of legal online poker
For a long time after Black Friday the only online poker available in the U.S. was on unregulated, unsafe offshore sites. These black market poker rooms have plenty of drawbacks, and lack general protections for players. Licensed, regulated sites have your back and offer an overall superior experience. Prime benefits include:
Safety of funds
Legitimate online poker sites in the U.S. are operated under strict oversight by the state’s appointed gambling authority. Thus, every poker room must first prove they have secure systems to hold your funds, and are required to process payments in a timely manner. Licenses are tied to an active brick-and-mortar casino or lottery program, which further assures that transactions will be properly honored.
On black market sites there have been significant issues with providers failing to pay in a reasonable timeframe, or in some cases at all, and when this happens there’s little recourse or accountability.
Everything on a legal site is legitimate. You have to confirm your identity before you can play, as do your opponents. Before you can fund your account and play, the site needs to know who you are. In addition, online poker rooms use casino-level security to protect this private info.
If your personal data is compromised with an offshore site… tough luck.
Responsible gaming protocols and game fairness
The rules and protocols on legal sites are carefully monitored and enforced, with serious consequences for the operator if there were ever a transgression. An unregulated site would have the freedom to manipulate their policies, bonus offers, even potentially the outcome of the game itself.
There is no authority that can enforce fairness on the part of black market poker sites, so when a player is mistreated, there’s little that can be done.
The Multi State Internet Gaming Association
In February 25, 2014, Nevada and Delaware entered into a compact to share online poker liquidity between the two states.
After years of negotiations and working out technical details, New Jersey was able to join the other states, signing onto the compact in October 2017. Full liquidity sharing between the three markets went live on May 1, 2018.
While the Nevada/Delaware pact briefly boosted poker activity, it did not significantly improve Nevada’s long term traffic numbers. It was, on the other hand, extremely useful for players in Delaware. As a significantly smaller market with only about a million people, access to out-of-state competition was essential to the efficacy of online poker in the state.
The addition of New Jersey was a major development. So far only WSOP/888 powered sites have been able to take advantage of the agreement, but it quickly propelled the network up the NJ charts, rivaling PokerStars NJ. It also enabled the network to start supporting some truly massive tournament guarantees — not quite as large or as frequent as they were prior to Black Friday, but a forward step nonetheless.
Pennsylvania joining the liquidity sharing compact is extremely important to PokerStars. Since the operator kept its international site accessible to U.S. player post-UIGEA, it was delayed in launching a site in New Jersey until March of 2016 and is still barred from operating Nevada. Thus, being able to link its Pennsylvania and New Jersey sites together will likely significantly increase U.S. revenues.
Pala Poker is also expected to benefit majorly from a Pennsylvania union. Currently its New Jersey site is a distant last place in the market with many believing it was only launched so the Pala brand could get a head start in other states.
In July 2020 the multi-state functionality was put on full display as players in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey were all able to compete with one another for real World Series of Poker bracelets through official WSOP.com online tournaments. Events like the 2020 online WSOP provide a glimpse into the future of what a unified, country-wide online poker market could look like.
Generally speaking it’s the players who benefit most from shared liquidity. The potential addition of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan to the Multi-State Internet Gaming Association could tip the scales away from the black market for good.
Online poker FAQ
The UIGEA, which was a provision of the SAFE Port Act of 2006, makes any internet gambling unlawful if it is not legal in the state from which the bet is made.
On Black Friday (April 15, 2011) the FBI ordered the shutdown of the last major poker sites operating in the U.S. after indictments were unsealed in the court case of U.S. v. Scheinberg.
Online real-money poker play is legal within the borders of states that have specifically legislated it. Online bets between legal states also seem to be valid, as the Department of Justice guidance implies that poker is exempt from the Wire Act of 1961.
Currently the only legal markets are in Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan. Online poker went live in Michigan on January 29, 2021. West Virginia has passed legislation authorizing online poker but no sites are live there yet.
Game selection varies, but generally speaking most online poker in the U.S. is usually No-Limit Texas Hold’em or Pot-Limit Omaha.
Many other games, like Stud, are available, but traffic may be wanting. Other varieties of Hold’em and Omaha are sometimes featured in scheduled events of major tournament series, as well as the occasional Mixed Game tournament.
Formats include cash games, tournaments, sit & go’s, lottery-style sit & go’s, and satellites.
Online deposits and withdrawals are generally made through either ACH bank transfers, VISA or MasterCard credit/debit cards, or an online eWallet such as PayPal or Skrill.
Cash deposits can be made at 7Eleven, Family Dollar, and CVS stores using PayNearMe, and cash can be deposited and withdrawn in person by visiting the cashier’s cage at the brick-and-mortar casino affiliated with the poker operator.
As part of strict state-wide regulations, online poker rooms in the U.S. are required to carefully verify your identity before they can authorize you to participate in real-money betting. This is for your protection and theirs. It’s like showing your ID when you enter a retail casino – they have to confirm you’re eligible to play.