- US Online Poker
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The US online gambling industry is dynamic and rapidly expanding.
At the moment, new laws come up for consideration several times a year. Some pass, some fail, and others stall in one year but reappear in the following legislative session.
Last updated: April 29, 2021
Part of the reason the industry is changing so quickly is that legal online gambling in the US is a very new concept. Prior to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, the US was essentially a gray market. Afterwards, five years of black market activity followed (mostly from online poker sites), prior to the 2011 crackdown known as Black Friday.
It was only at that point that efforts to legalize online gambling began, with New Jersey the first to launch a full-featured online gambling market. Nevada and Delaware followed suit in more limited fashion. However, it wasn’t until the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Act (PASPA) in 2018 that the effort gained steam in other states. The list now includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan as well.
This state-by-state process is the other reason for the complexity of the US market. Aside from partial prohibitions like the UIGEA, PASPA and the Wire Act, the federal government has little to say about gambling, leaving it to the states to decide. The result is that the picture is very different in one part of the country or another. Even states which offer the same array of products have their own policies and quirks, different tax rates and licensing structures, etc.
The decision by a state to legalize or not is therefore not just a yes or no question. Rather, it entails a lengthy discussion about how gambling will be conducted in the state, and who will have access to the market and on what terms.
This page is to help you keep track of all these developments at the national scale. Here’s what you’ll find:
Last year was a quiet one in terms of new online gambling legislation. Both Michigan and West Virginia launched their new markets after passing bills the year before. However, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed most legislative efforts as lawmakers sought to deal with the more pressing issue.
2021 stands to be a big year for related reasons. First of all, those same efforts that stalled in 2020 could be back for a do-over. More importantly, though, the pandemic demonstrated one way in which online gambling is important.
Live casinos shut down across the country, and sales of lottery tickets plummeted in many states. Those without any form of online gambling available saw their tax revenue from gaming drop to near zero in the second quarter of the year. Conversely, iGaming in general and online casinos in particular skyrocketed. New Jersey, the poster child for legal online gambling, saw only a modest decline in overall gaming revenue, and stands to emerge stronger than ever in 2021.
That fact has begun to sway some fence-sitters and light a fire under states that have been dragging their heels. Illinois and Connecticut have emerged as frontrunners to pass some kind of iGaming bill this year, and may be joined by others in coming months. Conversely, Kentucky, which has been flirting with the idea for several years, is dead in the water already and will have to wait until 2022 to try again.
Indiana and North Dakota are in the mix as well, but there also several promising states that seem more likely to wait until 2022.
States with active bills are shown here. Mouse over a state for more info on the current status of the legislation.
As expected, 2021 is shaping up to be a busy year. Many states are focused on sports betting for the time being, but already some iGaming bills have appeared. Most cover both online casinos and poker, but it’s possible we could see a state legalize only one but not the other.
We’ve given every state here a momentum rating. These represent our mostly-subjective assessment of the state’s chances to pass the current bills under consideration, or something substantially similar, within the current legislative session. The ratings are as follows:
Connecticut has to date been something of a quagmire state. Connecticut gambling expansion efforts have been thwarted by a three-way turf war between the state’s tribal gaming organizations, its lottery and offtrack betting parlors, and MGM Resorts International, which would like to build a commercial casino in the state.
The tribes hold a lot of power, but until this year Gov. Ned Lamont was unwilling to do things on their terms. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of online gambling, so the government now seems more willing to bend on the issue.
In fact, Gov. Lamont reached an agreement with one of the two tribes – the Mohegan – in early March, while negotiations with the other – the Mashantucket Pequot – took a week longer. The delay was due to negotiations over the tax rate, but that issue was settled by agreeing to 18%, which the tribe wanted, for 5 years, followed by a rise to 20%, which the state had initially proposed. The agreement explicitly covers CT mobile sportsbooks and online casinos. Connecticut online poker could be possible as well, but lumped in under casino gaming. The agreement would also allow for a limited Connecticut online lottery.
There were originally competing bills in the House and Senate. With that agreement signed, however, all bills have been brought into alignment with its terms. The only remaining difference is that the Senate still wants to build a casino in Bridgeport. Assuming that question gets resolved, there would seem to be almost nothing stopping Connecticut’s effort from succeeding.
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Current Bills: HB 3142
Momentum Rating: B+
Illinois looks like an early favorite to legalize online casinos this year. It could have done so previously, when it passed its sports betting bill in 2019. However, the desire of local casino companies to keep online-only operators out of their market thwarted that effort.
As of late last year, it was already looking like the casino operators were coming around on the idea. What’s more, the text of HB 3142, aka the Internet Gaming Act, makes it look as is the state is prepared to get iGaming off the ground very quickly. If passed, it would instruct the state regulator to enact emergency rules within 90 days, and issue temporary licenses within 30 days of application to any entity currently holding a sports betting license.
It’s still very early in the legislative process. However, the inclusion of such rush provisions suggests that Reps. Robert Rita and Jonathan Carroll, who drafted the bill, expect substantial support. Some of that support was heard at the House Executive Committee hearing on Apr. 28, and surprisingly little opposition, which bodes well for the bill’s chances.
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Current Bills: S 417
Momentum Rating: C
Indiana’s effort for online gambling is fairly straightforward, and still in the very early stages. Sen. Jon Ford revealed a draft bill late last year, then formally introduced S 417 in the first weeks of 2021.
There was one significant change from the draft to the bill’s first official version, which is the addition of online poker. Ford has said that he originally worried this would hurt the bill’s chances, but after talking to his colleagues, found them largely indifferent to its inclusion.
Indiana, as a highly conservative state, would ordinarily be considered an underdog to pass a gambling expansion bill. However, its sports betting industry has been setting a shining example for other states considering whether and how to go about establishing their own legal markets. That success could well translate into support for even more legal gambling options, but any such predictions are pure speculation at the moment.
Current Bills: HB 241
Momentum Rating: D
Kentucky has tried twice in two years to pass a bill covering both sports betting and online poker (but not online casinos). The second effort looked more promising than the first for a variety of reasons, but still failed to make it out of the House.
Although Rep. Adam Koenig is trying a third time this year, the odds are now in fact worse than ever. For one thing, Kentucky’s laws are such that there’s a shorter legislative session and more votes required to pass such a bill in non-budget (odd-numbered) years than in budget (even-numbered) years.
Moreover, a couple of decisions by Kentucky courts make the situation more complicated. First, there’s a battle over the state’s historical horse racing machines that will distract from any other gambling-related topic. Second, the state’s Supreme Court reversed its Court of Appeals and reinstated a massive $870 million judgment against PokerStars, which sends a hostile message to the industry and make chill any lobbying efforts. In all likelihood, 2021 will be another dud of a year for the Bluegrass State, though Koenig will probably try again in 2022 with somewhat better prospects.
Current Bills:HB 1364
Momentum Rating: C–
Online casino gambling was never part of the discussion in Missouri until very recently. Sports betting, on the other hand, looked fairly promising coming into 2021, with three competing bills emerging in the Senate almost immediately.
On March 1, a fourth bill appeared, this one in the House, and which includes online casino and poker. Its terms for sports betting are similar to those of the most industry-friendly of the three Senate bills.
It would be uncharitable to give a state a D rating before anything has actually happened, but the smart money is probably not on Missouri passing an iGaming bill right away. The fact that it hasn’t come up in discussion before is a bad sign. Another is that it is coming from the House, when most of the effort is taking place in the other branch of the legislature. Furthermore, the bill currently has only a single sponsor, Rep. Dan Houx.
North Dakota is the very definition of a dark horse when it comes to gambling expansion. On paper, it’s the last place you’d expect to do it: Far from other iGaming states, tiny in population, extremely conservative, and without even a retail casino industry.
However, it was the first state to talk seriously about legalizing online poker, back in 2005, before the federal government had really begun its campaign against it. Then, as now, there were significant obstacles: It would require a constitutional amendment, for starters, which means a referendum. This is why the current effort consists of a resolution and a companion bill: the former calls for a ballot question, the latter lays out (in bare bones terms) what the proposed market would look like.
The 2005 effort wasn’t particularly organized, and neither is this one. The plan mostly seems to be to test the waters with the voting public and go from there. That doesn’t bode very well for the bill’s chances. On the plus side, even some who aren’t necessarily in favor of online poker would like to see the question put to the ballot, simply to put it to rest one way or another. Even it it does pass, however, there will be a long road ahead to actually implementing it.
Not every state with an active bill is likely to see it pass. Nor is every state without one a lost cause. Here we look at some states that aren’t currently considering legislation, but are nonetheless a part of the overall conversation.
Naturally, the longer a legislative session runs without a bill appearing, the less likely it becomes that the state will pass one in the current year. However, we’ve seen “buzzer beater” efforts in the past, such as Michigan’s midnight hour push in 2019. There are also times when the political will is there to pass a bill, but circumstances don’t allow it in the current year.
Conversely, there are states that come up often in the conversation not because they’re likely to pass a bill in the near future, but because it would be big news if they did. California and New York are the main examples, due to their population and wealth.
Here, too, we assign each state a momentum rating, similar to but more forward-looking than those for the active bills.
Momentum Rating: D
California is the archetypal quagmire state. It’s wealthy, and liberal, and has numerous gambling options already. Almost everyone wants to see gambling expansion happen, as it would more than double the total population of the US iGaming market. And yet there are simply too many competing interests for it to happen, despite multiple efforts over recent years.
Firstly, there are a great many tribal casinos in the state, and as is the case in other states, they would like to have exclusivity over as many forms of gambling as they can. Competing with them are the state’s racetracks, and its card rooms. The racetracks want in on any potential sports betting, while for the card rooms, poker is the primary issue. When it comes to online casinos, everyone wants a piece of the action if they can get it.
On top of all this, the state’s constitution requires a referendum for any modification to its gambling laws. Thus, a successful proposal would not only have to appease all the competing groups, but be simple enough and appealing enough to win the support of the general public. Thus, while it’s pretty likely that we’ll see further attempts in the near future, their prospects of success will be small unless the situation changes in some significant way.
Momentum Rating: X (2021) / B (2022)
Maryland passed a sports betting bill last year. This required a referendum, which passed by an overwhelming margin, which probably suggests that iGaming would also enjoy public support. A similarly good sign on the legislative front is that lawmakers wanted to repeal the requirement to have additional referendums on future gambling issues.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 proved too much of a distraction and the latter effort was abandoned. With no election this year, that means a online casino bill is a nonstarter in 2021. However, it’s all but certain we’ll see a push for iGaming in 2022, particularly if the state’s sports betting industry gets off to a strong start.
Momentum Rating: X
Like California, New York is high on the industry’s wish list. At the moment, however, the prospects of an iGaming effort are effectively zero.
In some regards, New York is further along than California with gambling expansion. It has commercial casinos, for one thing, and has legalized retail sports betting.
However, the state’s lawmakers and especially Gov. Andrew Cuomo seem resistant to simply following New Jersey’s lead, which makes implementation trickier. As it stands, all the political will the state can muster for gambling expansion is going towards trying to move sports betting online. Even that is proving challenging, and we surely won’t see online casinos or poker added to the mix until that is settled.
Momentum Rating: D (2021) / C (2022)
In some regards, Ohio is a good candidate for passing iGaming legislation. It’d be a significant win for the industry, most of its neighbors have been expanding their gambling options, and it has commercial casinos already.
However, it was also considered a favorite to pass a sports betting bill last year, yet stalled at the last minute for no real reason. It should be back this year, and could theoretically include provisions for other verticals.
The problem is that a state is unlikely to add things to a new gambling expansion bill when the previous one failed. Doing so would make it a bigger lift, when right now everyone just wants sports betting to succeed. A more likely path would be for the state to legalize sportsbooks in 2021, hurry their launch as much as possible, and proceed with iGaming afterwards, perhaps as soon as next year.
The history of US online gambling is too long and complicated to detail in full here. Instead, we have provided a simple timeline of successful legislation and launches of online casinos, online poker, and online instant lotteries.
You can click the link to any particular state’s page to get more info about how exactly the process played out.
The basics are the same in every state. A bill can originate in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. It will get several readings and go through a committee process before a final vote. After that, it proceeds to the other branch of the legislature for a similar process.
If the two branches can’t agree on specifics or there are competing bills from the two branches, a bill might bounce back and forth several times. Once both branches have approved the same draft of the same bill, it goes to the Governor to either sign into law, or veto.
The specifics vary from state to state. This includes the length of the legislative session, the structure of the committees, and potentially even the number of votes a bill needs to pass. There are also various other procedural differences that usually don’t matter, but can occasionally add wrinkles to a bill’s path to becoming law.
In the current US political climate, states’ rights are a hot button topic. It would be unpopular for the federal government to involve itself too heavily in the subject of gambling.
The fact that the federal government has mostly stayed out of the fray is a good thing, as to the extent it has involved itself, it has been an opponent rather than an ally. The best that can be hoped for at this time is that it will back off entirely and allow states to decide for themselves.
There’s considerable variation, but most states have applied a tax rate of between 10% and 20% to most online verticals. Nevada is an outlier at the low end, charging just 6.75% for all gambling, online or retail. At the other extreme, Pennsylvania charges an eye-watering 54% for online slots, though it taxes table games and poker at a more reasonable 17%.
State-level government organizations. For states that have commercial casinos, it will typically be the same regulator overseeing both retail and online gambling. Elsewhere, it is often the state’s lottery commission, or perhaps a horse racing authority.
There are many reasons to legalize and regulate online gambling. The most common arguments in favor of it relate to the existence of illegal offshore sites, and the fact that regulated operators are preferable in comparison. Specifically:
Somewhat surprisingly, the answer is no. The idea that it does is often trotted out as an argument against legalization. However, evidence to date shows that the opposite is true, and that legal online and retail gambling industries support one another.
The most important thing to do to help the cause is to raise awareness of the dangers of the black market, the fact that prohibition is a failed policy, and that a regulated alternative is the best solution.
The main ways you can do that are to share articles promoting regulated markets, and most of all to write to your state-level representatives. Misconceptions about online gambling abound, and its moral adversaries can be disproportionately loud in their objections. Being equally vocal – but better informed – in your support is the most helpful thing you can do to counteract these obstacles.