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 thanks to a lack of specific legislation preventing them.
For years, the unregulated market thrived, with operators only suffering a major setback when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was passed. Several big guns, including PokerStars, chose to roll the dice, remaining accessible to U.S. players. But their moment in the sun would be short lived as on April 15, 2011 (Black Friday), the largest U.S. sites were shut down for continuing to operate in violation of the UIGEA.
In 2013 a new form of online poker arose: legal. This version 2.0 of the industry saw individual states regulating online poker sites within their own ring-fenced borders. To date, the vast majority of the country still has no access to legal online poker, but the outlook is becoming more and more positive.
Whether you are in a current poker market or a potential future one, we can 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, opted to regulate the activity. So far in 2019 only one additional state, West Virginia, has been added to the list (though no sites have yet announced development).
Will the rest of the year show more promise? Now that online gambling (particularly sports betting) is becoming more widely accepted, it’s certainly possible. To find out whether online poker is legal and regulated in your state, waiting in the wings, or being debated by legislators, see our map below:
Key benefits of legal online poker
Since Black Friday the only access to online poker in the U.S. was in unregulated and unsafe offshore sites. These black market poker rooms presented numerous drawbacks, generally related to a lack of legitimacy allowing the operators to skimp on basic protections for the player.
Safety of funds
Legitimate online poker sites in the U.S. are operated under strict oversight by the state gambling authorities in those markets. Thus to run the poker room they must first prove they have secure systems to hold your funds, and are required to process payments in a timely manner. Licenses are also tied to an active legal brick-and-mortar casino or lottery program, which further assures that transactions will be properly honored.
On black market sites there has been significant issues with accounts failing to payout in a reasonable timeframe, or at all, with little assurance that these issues won’t persist going forward.
On legal sites, in order to use your online poker account to transfer money to and from your payment source your identity needs to be thoroughly verified. The same is true of the individuals you are playing against.
This means that not only can you feel confident that your account and money are secure, you also have protection for your personal sensitive identifying information.
There can be little or no legal recourse if your identity were compromised by an unregulated offshore site.
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 any 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 any fairness on the part of black market sites, so when the player is mistreated it is just their tough luck
The Multi State Internet Gaming Association
In February 25, 2014 Nevada and Delaware were able to enter 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 others, signing onto the compact in October of 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 liquidity in the long term. It was, on the other hand, extremely useful for players in Delaware, which as a much smaller market needed to rely on Nevada to survive.
However, better results have been seen since New Jersey was able to enter the liquidity share. So far only WSOP/888 powered sites have been able to take advantage of the agreement, but this has propelled their network to the lead in the NJ market, where they had been neck-and-neck with PokerStars NJ prior to the compact. It also enabled the network to start supporting some truly massive tournament guarantees — not quite as large or as frequent as prior to Black Friday, but a decidedly 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 NJ until March of 2016 and are still barred from opening a site in Nevada. Thus opening a site in Pennsylvania and joining its network to the NJ room would significantly increase its U.S. revenues.
Pala Poker is also expected to benefit majorly from Pennsylvania liquidity. Currently its NJ 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 advantage in other states.
Unfortunately, there are some concerns that additional states joining the compact may be delayed by the the recent reversal by the Department of Justice in their interpretation of the Federal Wire Act. No direct results from this new opinion have yet been felt, but it is unclear what exactly the DOJ intends.
While it seems unlikely that the Wire Act will be employed to end the liquidity share, the very possibility of federal action may be an impediment to the compact growing larger.
Of course it’s the players who benefit most from shared liquidity, with the general consensus being that the addition of PA and WV to the Multi State Internet Gaming Association will tip the scales enough so that even black market site holdouts will be coerced to the legal market, at least in the states where online poker is legal.
Online poker FAQ
What is online poker’s current legal status in the United States?
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 Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Pennsylvania and West Virginia have yet to host any active poker sites or negotiate the possibility of sharing liquidity with sites in the other states.
Who are the key players in U.S. online poker?
- The Stars Group
- The World Series of Poker
- 888 Holdings
- Pala Interactive
What is the minimum age to play legal online poker in the U.S.?
No players under the age of 21 are allowed in any U.S. online market.
What online poker games are available?
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 are available, but liquidity is sparse enough that active tables are extremely rare. Other varieties of Hold’em and Omaha are sometimes featured in scheduled events of major tournament series, as well as occasionally Stud and Mixed Game tournaments.
Formats include cash games, tournaments, sit & go’s, lottery-style sit & go’s, and satellites.
Is mobile online poker available?
At this time every major U.S. online poker room has a mobile app option.
What are some of the most common ways to get money online?
Online deposits and withdrawals are generally made through either ACH bank transfers, VISA/Mastercard, or an online eWallet such as NETELLER or Skrill.
WSOP/888 sites as well as Pala Poker allow banking through PayPal, though PokerStars and PartyPoker do not (yet).
Cash deposits can be made at 7/11 stores (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.
Why do legal online poker sites want my SSN?
As part of strict state regulations online poker rooms in the U.S. are required to carefully verify your identity to authorize you to participate in real-money betting. This is for your protection and theirs.