OPEN SEAT: Handicapping States That May Be Next to Legalize Online Poker

Sean Chaffin July 23, 2020
A quick look at some states that might be next to legalize online poker.

The US online poker market has seen momentum in recent months not experienced in years. After the explosion of sports betting across the country, the online poker industry lagged behind.

However, the Coronavirus pandemic brought many players back to the virtual poker felt for legal, regulated poker. Four states currently offer legal online poker. But where is the industry headed?

There have been some gains, offering opportunities at continued growth. Here’s a look at some states that might get on the bandwagon in the coming years.

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Where is online poker currently legal?

After Black Friday, the US online poker market became a state-by-state affair. Movement has been slow to grow the game, but there has been some movement

New Jersey

Nevada

Pennsylvania

In 2019, two more states came on board. Michigan online poker and West Virginia online poker are both now in the licensing and regulatory process. WV may be a struggle to find a market without an interstate compact.

However, with almost 10 million people, Michigan could survive with its own “fenced-in” market. The state has about one million more residents than New Jersey.

Which states might legalize online poker next?

Predicting various state politics and legislative agendas is no easy task. But here are a few states that have at least shown some interest in legalizing online poker in recent years.

New York

After the Coronavirus pandemic, the state’s budget deficit will be difficult to overcome. New York already made legalization efforts in 2016, 2017, and 2019, but online poker bills ultimately stalled.

Similar efforts to legalize mobile sports betting also went nowhere. New York has legalized sports betting at upstate casinos, but that’s all so far

Now facing economic turmoil, sports betting and online gaming could provide some much-needed state revenue. NY’s neighbors New Jersey and Pennsylvania already offer all forms of online gaming, including poker.

The Empire State seems a likely domino to eventually fall. Adding a major state like New York or California could provide a major splash for the industry.

California

With sports betting efforts failing in 2020, legalized online poker in California will be a struggle. It seems a shame as the state has numerous card rooms and casino poker rooms.

That includes major live tournament series at properties like the Gardens, Commerce Casino, and the Bicycle Club. Reaching agreements among the state’s card rooms, tribal casinos, and horse industry has been a struggle.

“Before sports betting became a possibility, legalization of online poker was a hot topic,” OnlinePokerReport.com notes. “Here too, the standoff was largely between the tribes and the cardrooms who all felt they should have the authority to offer the game.”

The good news is that legislators at least keep trying. If sports betting is eventually pushed through, it seems likely online poker iGaming may follow.

Connecticut

During the pandemic, this state’s casinos already have made some noise about offering online gaming. For poker, that might not mean much because of the state’s population of only 3.6 million.

In June, 22 counties located around the state’s two casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, sought an executive order to allow online gaming.

Gov. Ned Lamont (D) nixed that idea, however, and said this was a “significant policy decision.” He believed an effort toward expanded gambling would require the full legislative process.

The casinos already offer free-to-play casino games, however. It’s also believed that Lamont and other state officials favor adding sports betting and legalizing online gaming.

Florida

Online sports betting and gaming still seem a long way away in the Sunshine State. The legislature seemed to be considering online sports betting, but the session ended in March without any agreement.

There are numerous obstacles in the state. Voters also approved Amendment 3 in 2018. That made any expansion of gambling come to a statewide vote.

The Seminole tribe’s exclusive compact with the state would also have to be renegotiated. Recent plans in the legislature called for allowing the tribe to add craps and roulette at its casinos.

The tribe would also have exclusive rights to online sports betting. In turn, the tribe would pay $500 million in the first year of the agreement. That could move to about $700 million in annual payments in subsequent years.

Reports say the Seminoles are also seeking online gaming as part of a deal. Getting any deal done would be difficult, and there’s no certainty poker would be in the mix.

However, legislators aren’t giving up hope.

“Certainly, if something was done that everyone could agree upon, I would not be against a special session, if we could finally get this behind us,” House Speaker José Oliva told the Miami Herald in March. “But if not, there’s a lot of details we can work out for future Legislatures. There’s a lot of work we can do now, for them.”

Related Reading:

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Virginia

This state has made some moves in recent years that might give online poker players hope. Efforts began with legalizing historical horse racing (HHRs) games in 2018.

These slot-like games were meant to help the state’s horse racing industry. In March, the state also approved online lottery sales, adding five casinos, and sports betting (including online).

Online poker and casino gaming hasn’t been included. But as the state’s first casinos are constructed, there could be hope for even more expansion. Virginia seems headed toward more casino gaming and poker might eventually be part of that.

Ohio

The Buckeye State is in a unique situation. Neighbors Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan have all now legalized online gaming, sports betting, and poker. Indiana has also legalized online sports betting

In the spring, the state was moving toward adding online and mobile sports betting. That has stalled with competing bills in the House and Senate. The Coronavirus pandemic has hampered efforts as well.

It remains to be seen if the issue gets resolved this summer. However, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) supports sports betting. That might bode well for an eventual expansion to poker.

Kentucky

Rep. Adam Koenig (R) made efforts to pass bills legalizing sports betting and online poker in 2019. That fizzled however, and he introduced another bill in 2020.

With a pension system facing a $40 billion shortfall in recent years, Gov. and former Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) believes gaming could help.

“The solution is not to cut legally promised benefits, but to create a new and dedicated stream of revenue solely for pensions that does not raise any Kentuckians’ taxes,” Beshear wrote to legislators in November 2018. “The answer is simple – expanded gaming including casino, fantasy sports, and sports gaming, as well as preparing for the eventual legalization of online poker.”

It will be interesting to see if the state gets a bill across the finish line in 2020 or 2021.

Other possibilities

Beyond these there are a few states that might be worth watching. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has been working to renegotiate state tribal gaming compacts.

wsop app new yorkThe issue is sticky and involves a federal complaint by three tribes. Could an agreement include some type of online gaming?

That may be a long way off but who knows what might develop. The state already has a thriving casino industry, including a nice live poker scene.

Louisiana may also be a possibility. Oklahoma casinos have raided many of Louisiana’s Texas customers over the last two decades.

Adding online gaming might offer a way to jump ahead with an option not available in Oklahoma. The state is already making moves to offer live and online sports betting.

Wire Act remains an obstacle to online poker

Even if a couple of these go through with online poker legislation, that would be a win for the industry. Large population states like California, New York, Texas or Florida could be an even bigger momentum builder.

Smaller states, like West Virginia, may require interstate compacts to survive. That remains in doubt however, as the gaming industry and Department of Justice battle it out in federal appeals court.

As of June 2020, the DOJ argued in court that the Wire Act applied to more than just sports betting.

The gaming industry, led by the New Hampshire lottery, won the first round in court, but the DOJ appealed. Expanding interstate compacts remains in a cloud until the issue is resolved.

WSOP.com currently operates the only shared liquidity market between Nevada and New Jersey. 888poker, WSOP software partner, also contributes on its own platform in New Jersey and Delaware.

The site is also expected to launch in Pennsylvania in the coming months. That offers the possibility of even larger player pools for events like the WSOP Online bracelet series that’s currently underway.

In the meantime, many players will be hoping their own states get on board.

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