Poker Laws in Washington
Important WA Notes
- WA residents are accepted at offshore sites legally (Federal)
- It’s a felony to gamble online in Washington State
- However, the law has never been enforced
- Land-based gambling is legal throughout the state
- Live poker in Washington is extremely popular
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“Reviewed by Chuck Humphrey – 50 year Gaming Law Practitioner”
The state of Washington has some of the toughest laws in the United States pertaining to online gambling and poker websites, but that could easily change in the near future. State laws explicitly prohibit the act of making a bet over the internet, with stiff penalties, for anyone caught contravening the laws. Players can be charged for anything from gross misdemeanors to even Class C Felonies for playing online poker in Washington (neither of which have ever happened or been pursued). There are plans being worked on to establish a regulatory authority to introduce online poker to Washington in the near future. Poker players in Washington play online at licensed offshore websites legally as a player at the Federal level.
Future of Online Poker in Washington: Estimated date of legalization: 2020-2021
The following graph tracks our expected legislation of online poker in Washington on a state law level. It is currently already legal on a Federal level. This graph monitors the current rise or fall of expected legalization.
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The future of online poker in Washington looks fairly promising and the state could feel the need to introduce regulation in order to compete with other states over the next several years.
Washington is one of the only states to explicitly prohibit all types of online gambling, poker included, having passed an amendment to its criminal code [A] in 2006 to include any type of placing or receiving bets over the internet. As such, the amendment to Section 9.46.240 expressly states under ‘Gambling information, transmitting or receiving’: Whoever knowingly transmits or receives gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphore, the internet, a telecommunications transmission system, or similar means, or knowingly installs or maintains equipment for the transmission or receipt of gambling information shall be guilty of a class C felony subject to the penalty set forth in RCW 9A.20.021.
Over the years, efforts have been made to question the constitutionality of the law, with the most famous case even reaching the Washington Supreme Court when lawyer and poker player Lee Russo, backed by the one-million-member grassroots group, the Poker Players Alliance, brought their case to the upper courts. In 2010, the Supreme Court upheld state law that makes it a Class C Felony to play poker and gamble online, although the court did not essentially endorse the law, but rather endorsed the right of the legislature to pass the law. At the time of the ruling, the then Chairman of the Poker Players Alliance, former US Senator Alfonse d’Amato said: “That underscores what we’ve heard time and time again – that this law is ridiculous.”
Ridiculous or not, the Supreme Court decision led top names in the industry accepting USA players at the time, such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker, to block players from Washington [B] from playing at their sites.
Over the years, several attempts have been made to introduce new laws that would at least ease the fate of online poker websites in Washington; all of them have been unsuccessful.
- House Bill 1824 [C] was read in February 2013, calling for the reduction of penalties for those who play poker, “for recreational purposes only” and no longer making it a Classy C felony to play online (bringing it down to a class 3 civil infraction with a maximum $50 penalty). However, after a 50 minute hearing, the bill failed to advance. At the time, the PPA vowed to push the bill again.
- A pair of pro-online poker voter initiatives were given final language approval initiatives from the state and were put out as petitions to try and gather support.
I-582 [D] called for the Washington authorities to license and regulate intrastate internet poker, requiring operators to have a physical presence in the state.
I-583 [E] called for the removal of penalties of players participating in online poker games, stating that if the I-582 was passed the measure would be moot.
In January 2015, HB 1114 was introduced, a bill to legalize poker online in Washington, by state Representative Sherry Appleton. The following month the state announced the bill would not be getting a hearing this session due to a lack of support. The same bill was introduced again on January 15, 2016 by state Representatives Sherry Appleton and Vincent Buys. Unfortunately, the bill did not advance once again. However, the future does look bright for passing poker over the internet as well as potentially casino games.
History of Gambling in Washington
Land Based Poker in Washington
Laws governing poker in the state of Washington are covered by Section 9.46.0237 [H] which defines gambling as, “staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under the person’s control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”
Poker falls under the definition of “contest of chance” (Section 9.46.0225 [I]) which, “means any contest, game, gaming scheme, or gaming device in which the outcome depends in a material degree upon an element of chance, notwithstanding that skill of the contestants may also be a factor therein.”
Having said that, real money poker opportunities are available in Washington in a number of casinos and card clubs as long as players stick to the conditions set out under WAC 230-15-135 [J] which spells out very specific wagering limits for non house banked card games. For example, there are not allowed to be more than five betting rounds in one game and there may not be more than four wagers in any betting round.
In addition, the maximum amount of a single wager is not allowed to exceed $40, although Class F and house banked card game licensees are allowed to offer a single wager that should not exceed $100 on Texas Hold ’em games.
When it comes to the ante, no more than the maximum wager is allowed for the first betting round of any game (except Panguingue). In Pan, the maximum value of a chip is not allowed to exceed $10 and doubling of conditions is not allowed.
Washington law is rather vague about poker games played at home, although it is generally felt that they are legal as long as they adhere to conditions spelled out by general gambling laws.
Gambling Laws in Washington
As noted, the relevant laws that govern gambling in Washington are state code 9.46.010 et seq; 67.16.010 [K] where the definitions of gambling and games of chance are clearly spelled out. Washington considers any game a game of chance if the concept of chance plays a role in the outcome of the game, even if substantial skill is also involved (read: poker).
Besides defining what gambling means, the official state codes also spell out what types of gambling are allowed or banned. Licensed horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering is allowed, while betting greyhound races is specifically prohibited. Tribal gaming is allowed as long as the casinos adhere to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and maintain the correct gambling devices.
Specifically banned by law are bucket shops, bunco steering, bookmaking and professional gambling. On the other hand, bingo, raffles and amusement games that are sponsored by charitable organizations are allowed, as are sports pools, fishing derbies, golfing and bowling sweepstakes, social card games, turkey shoots and promotional contests.
Laws state that a gambler needs to be 18 years of age or older in order to take part in legal gambling.
Casinos in the state of Washington are run by Native American tribes, and there are several dozen in operation. These include the 7 Cedars Casino run by the Jamestown S’Klallam, the Clearwater Casino Resort run by the Suqamish and Emerald’s Down racetrack run by the Puyallup. The state essentially has 32 Indian casinos owned by 23 tribes, with each tribe federally recognized to sign a compact with the state. This means that the tribe shares gambling revenues with the state’s government and abides to the restrictions on the types and numbers of casino games allowed to be offered.
Indian Gaming Class III authorized games (ie. games played against the house) are defined as blackjack, baccarat, Big 6, Chuck a Luck, craps, keno, off track betting,, Pai gow poker, poker (class III), red dog, roulette, sic bo and tribal lotteries.
Indian Gaming Class II authorized games (games played against other players) are defined as bingo, flashcash bingo machines, Mega Mania bingo machines, pull tabs, progressive pull tabs, poker (class II), rocket bingo machines, tab force pull tab readers and wildfire pull tab machines.
Washington state gambling laws dictate that players have to be 18 years of age or older to play in casinos.
Wagering on horse racing is overseen by the Washington Horse Racing Commission [L]. Advance deposit wagering is allowed (under state RCW 67.16.260 [M]). The five racing tracks in Washington State are Dayton, Emerald Downs in Auburn, Sun Downs in Kennewick, Waitsburg and Walla Walla Fair Grounds. There are also over 10 licensed off track betting locations.
With the passing of the 1973 Gambling Act, 100 square sports pool boards were authorized by authorities, and this remains the only type of sports betting allowed today by the state. Fantasy sports, office sports pools and bracket pools are not allowed. Needless to say that online sports betting is not legal in Washington, with online gambling residents having no legal way to claim their winnings. Bookmaking is also not legal in Washington as it is defined as professional gambling (which is also outlawed). Statutes range from first degree (class B felony) to third degree (gross misdemeanor).
Washington’s Lottery [N] was created in 1982 to provide revenues for the State General Fund which supports human services programs, schools and government programs. The state agency employs around 150 people and is overseen by a five person Lottery Commission. Tickets can only be purchased at locations throughout the state such as grocery stores, gas stations and bars, and, for now, the purchase of lottery tickets over the internet is not permitted.
Washington State seems to be lenient in its outlook when it comes to charity games. A number of games such as charity poker games and Vegas nights require a license from the relevant authorities, although many such as raffles do not require licenses. The Washington State Gambling Commission provides more details about which games require a license and which do not here: https://www.wsgc.wa.gov/forms/detail/np-add-activity-packet.aspx [O]
Another area where Washington regulators seem to have let go of the iron grip (in relation to other types of gambling such as online gambling) is the area of social gambling where the player in this instance is defined under RCW 9.46.0265 as, “a natural person who engages, on equal terms with the other participants, and solely as a contestant or bettor, in any form of gambling in which no person may receive or become entitled to receive any profit there from other than personal gambling winnings, and without otherwise rendering any material assistance to the establishment, conduct or operation of a particular gambling activity. A natural person who gambles at a social game of chance on equal terms with the other participants shall not be considered as rendering material assistance to the establishment, conduct or operation of the social game merely by performing, without fee or remuneration, acts directed toward the arrangement or facilitation of the game, such as inviting persons to play, permitting the use of premises for the game, or supplying cards or other equipment to be used in the games.”
In a nutshell, this means that if nobody rakes in a profit and nobody pays a fee, social games of chance (including poker) are not illegal under Washington law.
Author: Joseph Falchetti (twitter)
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