Let’s be honest; we’ve all played poker at someone’s house.
And you may have wondered “are home poker games legal?” When it comes to this topic, the laws are confusing, vary by jurisdiction, and have dramatically different punishments.
So, in this post we’ll cover two main questions:
- Is it illegal to play poker for money outside of a casino?
- And WHY is underground poker illegal?
(With Canada and the US states as examples.)
Come on, we all know it’s stupid to regulate what some friends are doing around a poker table in a garage drinking from a pony keg but let’s review some of the legal issues surrounding a home game.
Ultimately, I want you to walk away thinking, “Screw that! I have the right to play a game I love with friends for a $20 buy-in.”
Table of Contents
Is It Legal to Play Poker at Home?
Technically, it is so long as the host isn’t treating the game as a profit center with a large rake involved. The size of that rake is debatable depending on the jurisdiction and could be as little as no rake in many places.
Why are Home Games Illegal?
Most U.S. states have had laws on the books making all forms of gambling illegal for decades.
Gambling regulation was considered an essential voting issue for religious constituencies, often similar to those that demanded alcohol Prohibition. As was learned from prohibition, morality laws never work.
Poker is an elegant game that mostly requires skill; recent data dumps confirm that. The problem with major anti-poker laws and initiatives is that they have treated the game purely as gambling.
Slot machines, roulette, and blackjack are betting to win over the house; poker is about multiple competitors at a table. The house can be consistent with a small rake, but poker isn’t a profit center.
Around 30% of poker players consistently win. Another 30% win and lose, ultimately breaking even, and the bottom 40% never win. These stats are courtesy of one of the largest gambling data dumps in history and confirm that poker is a game of skill, not chance.
Home game restrictions are enforced from old laws that treat any form of gambling as inherently immoral. They make nuanced references to skill, which is often used to support betting on race tracks in most states.
Ironically, most of these states and territories have a public lottery, but the laws vary tremendously. We will break down the states and Canada.
Canada separates poker out between “poker houses” and informal games. The game is probably legal if the “host” is not interpreted as taking a rake, whether playing poker at home or in another setting. There is no prosecutorial risk if the host(s) are participating in the games.
In the U.S., states reign supreme, and the laws surrounding poker can vary widely. Some states have legalized home games to become acceptable not due to their laws but because state courts proclaimed poker as a game of skill and not pure gambling. Others explicitly ban home games and some explicitly allow them.
In state laws, terminology matters.
Classifications vary between charity games, social games, and private poker games. Some states explicitly allow home poker games, and others expressly ban them.
Additionally, statutes can claim to regulate the advertisement of a game. Some violations can be misdemeanours, and some can be felonies depending on the state.
Simplified Laws for Each State
So here is the law for social games, simplified for each individual state.
- Alabama – Social games are not explicitly spelled out as legal but are a defense against prosecution. Bear wrestling is illegal, though.
- Alaska -The same as Alabama, a defense against prosecution. What else would people do during four months of no sun?
- Arizona – Explicitly permitted and a great way to hide inside when it’s 120 out.
- Arkansas – Not permitted, but fines are only as high as $25. Wife beating is apparently legal in Arkansas, but only once a month.
- California – Go for it. It’s California.
- Colorado – Weed is legal, and so are home games because there is probably 2 feet of snow outside the front door.
- Connecticut – Yes, social games are explicitly permitted, and two of the best east coast casinos are in the state.
- Delaware – The state that lets corporations get away with murder, doesn’t allow home games.
- District of Columbia – No D.C. code permits home games despite the plethora of U.S. politicians taking payoffs.
- Florida – Teachers don’t need degrees, and your home game is explicitly permitted.
- Georgia – Nope. Totally illegal, but a lot of weird things are totally fine.
- Hawaii – Yes, they are a defense against prosecution due to being skill-based. Surfing is also skill-based and easy to suck at doing.
- Idaho – No. That’s Idaho. Nothing truly fun is permitted. It’ll be the very first Handmaid’s Tale state.
- Illinois – No, despite Chicago once being the home of Al Capone.
- Indiana – Oh absolutely not.
- Iowa – Shockingly, it is explicitly permitted and probably encouraged if betting corn cobs.
- Kansas – No. Did you expect anything different from Kansas?
- Louisiana – Yes. It’s implied legally, and Beale Street is a lot of fun.
- Maine – Explicitly permitted, and the fall leaves are stunning.
- Maryland – No, but The Wire is still the greatest show in history.
- Massachusetts – The state that spawned the tea bootleggers that started the revolutionary war says “no.”
- Michigan – That’s an affirmative. Home games are explicitly permitted, and it gets cold.
- Minnesota – Prince’s home state and the best place for American-German accents says “yes.” It is explicitly permitted.
- Mississippi – Absolutely not. However, you can hide out on the bayou, and no one will ever know.
- Missouri – Nope, but the Cardinals are still the best baseball team.
- Montana – This beautiful state implies it’s legal, and the fly fishing is epic.
- Nebraska – No. Get back to your farm.
- Nevada – Well, you’d hope so, and it is a big yes. It is explicitly permitted.
- New Hampshire – No and nobody knows much else about New Hampshire.
- New Jersey – If they played a home game on Jersey Shore, it was not legal.
- New Mexico – While a legendary source of poker games in old westerns, home games are not legal.
- New York – No. Betting is left to Wall Street exclusively.
- North Carolina – That’s a negative.
- North Dakota – Yes, as it should be in the winter when it’s that cold.
- Ohio – Yes. Most other things are a big “no.”
- Oklahoma – No one expected a yes for Oklahoma, and they are all correct.
- Oregon – That’s a yes. You get bonus points if you wear your Nikes and OU gear.
- Pennsylvania – No. Go Steelers!
- Rhode Island – Nope, but is there actually anything going on in Rhode Island?
- South Carolina – It’s not really clear because the law seems to be written before the English language was standardized, but what is clear is how good the BBQ tastes.
- Tennessee – No, but the whiskey is great.
- Texas – Social gambling might be the last legal thing in the state.
- Utah – You already know this one.
- Vermont – Shockingly, no.
- Virginia – Yes. The state of Presidents absolutely allows it.
- Washington – It is explicitly permitted and grunge is still great.
- West Virginia – Despite a West Virginian lottery winner losing his entire $106 million in just a few years, social games are not legal.
- Wisconsin – The land of 1,000 lakes doesn’t really spell it out either way.
- Wyoming – Well, you’d hope so, and yes, it is legal.
Whew! That’s an exhaustive list.
Despite the myriad of states that do not allow social games, it’s typically considered a formality as law enforcement has much better things to do. Home games happen all across the U.S. and Canada, regardless of laws.
One clear thing is hosting underground poker clubs or games for profit is generally considered illegal.
While tolerated during some eras in big cities, underground gaming rooms eventually got broken up in police raids because a mayor needed to please constituents. It always went to how many worse things the police needed to focus on until politics came into the picture.
Charity games? There is no way a charity game would ever be considered illegal or raided unless the police chief wants a career-ending moment.
Underground Poker Clubs: Final Thoughts
I hope we’ve answered the question on whether the home poker games are legal.
However, I’d like to reiterate that this post is in no way advocacy for illegal behavior and run underground gaming rooms for profit.
Still, the reality is that some behaviors are much more detrimental and likely to send someone to jail than a friendly home game. You now know all the laws throughout Canada and the U.S.
Whatever you do, enjoy your game, flop an amazing hand or two, and have fun.