When one thinks of parts of the United States with a lot of gambling options, Illinois doesn’t often come to mind. But it should. Illinois has more than two dozen casinos, many of them with live poker rooms, as well as horse racing, sports betting, pari-mutuel betting, bingo, video gaming terminals, and daily fantasy sports (DFS) contests.
The one thing that Illinois doesn’t yet allow is state-licensed online gambling for casino games and online poker.
That isn’t to say that the state hasn’t made advances in that direction. The legislature has considered bills, and Governor J.B. Pritzker generally supports the idea. The problem is that i-gaming didn’t make it into the 2019 gambling expansion bill, one that was extensive and took some convincing to get enough lawmakers on board with the plan.
There must be a clear and present reason to legalize i-gaming. Lawmakers will likely try to present another proposal to that effect in 2024.
There was a time when it appeared that the burgeoning online gaming market in the United States was on the rise. Years after New Jersey and Delaware legalized all internet gaming – online slots, table games, and online poker – other states were putting forth bills each year. New York and California had been trying consistently; Pennsylvania and West Virginia were tossing around ideas.
A few Illinois lawmakers wanted in on the action, too.
In fact, efforts to expand gambling on various levels in Illinois have been ongoing for many years. Those efforts mostly focused on more casinos, though, and then sports betting. Online gaming – especially online poker – were side notes.
They still are.
Lawmakers in Illinois had wanted to expand the state’s casino industry beyond riverboats for many years. The notion that an establishment on a boat – or resembling a boat, or on some water, or on a puddle – was any different than a land-based casino was outdated. With limitations and regulation, they wanted to expand casino gambling.
A big year for that effort was 2013, when Illinois State Representative Bob Rita worked on SB.1739 as a Senate bill to authorize a casino in Chicago and several other pre-approved locations around the state. It would help fund a desperately-underfunded education system and keep gamblers in the state rather than on their current trajectory of crossing into Indiana to play.
Problems with the bill, however, spanned the gamut of lawmakers concerned with other issues like energy, weapons, and LGBTQ+ rights. In addition, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted the casino profits to fund the public pension system instead, and Governor Pat Quinn had many reservations. There was no guarantee that the bill could make it all the way to law.
Also in 2013, Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton made an effort to educate members of the legislative body about online gambling. He proposed that the Illinois Lottery oversee igaming as they already did for online lottery tickets.
While that idea faltered and failed, along with the casino expansion proposal, it did make Rep. Rita into a proponent of igaming. Rita took up the topic for years after that point.
After years of discussing how to expand gambling, legislators coordinated and came up with the Illinois Gambling Act, which included the Sports Wagering Act within it. Lawmakers pored over it in the first months of 2019, passed it, and Governor J.B. Pritzker made it official with his signature on June 28, 2019.
It expanded gaming in the following ways:
Since the bill took effect, casino licensing and building is in progress. The biggest change in the years since the new law is the sports betting revenue. Since the first locations and sites launched, Illinois has recorded more than $24 billion in handle and nearly $1.2 billion in revenue through July 2023. Those licensed entities have paid more than $312 million through mid-2023.
Lawmakers had been considering that. Representative Rita was on board to examine the issue many years ago.
When the Poker Players Alliance operated in America, its Executive Director John Pappas testified to Illinois legislative committees regarding igaming. Specifically, in 2017, Cullerton and Rita were two of the legislators who were working proposals into bills, most importantly the Internet Gaming Act. The goal was to include igaming and daily fantasy sports in the planned gambling expansion bill. The bill passed the State Senate by a positive vote of 42-10, but the House Representatives were not convinced. Pappas planned to testify to the House Executive Committee about revenue potential, geolocation and other safety measures, and the technology that allowed states like New Jersey to safely and smoothly operate igaming.
Lawmakers cancelled the hearing one hour before it was scheduled to begin. Pappas was told that some members had issues with igaming and were not ready to talk about it.
State Representative Michael Zalewski took up the banner in 2018 to try for an online gambling bill, and he obtained a slate of bi-partisan cosponsors for the Internet Gaming Act, Sports Wagering Act, and Fantasy Sports Act. Hearings did take place that year, but the bills did not progress.
Finally, when the 2019 expansion effort took shape, sports betting and casinos garnered most of the attention. And with some lawmakers still not understanding how igaming worked, it was too risky to include it into the legislation and derail it all.
(It should be noted that the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) disbanded in 2018 when donations stopped, and the lobbying organization was unable to continue without funding. Poker Central – now PokerGO – bought the membership database, rebranded it to the Poker Alliance, but failed to follow through with any type of mission. The organization died. Illinois was one of the states with online poker potential that was most hurt by the dissolution of the PPA.)
In 2021, Representative Rita introduced a bill – the Internet Gaming Act – to legalize online poker and online casinos, but it did not find any support.
There was another significant movement in 2023, this time led by new igaming supporters. State Senator Cristina Castro proposed SB.1656, and Representative Edgar Gonzalez Jr held the companion bill of HB.2239. Both were, again, named the Internet Gaming Act.
Both bills started in February and moved through their first committees that month. The House bill made the March House Gaming Committee schedule, but before that happened, each version of the Internet Gaming Act reverted back to their initial committees.
There is a very significant chance that the bills will transform into new pieces of legislation to be considered in 2024.
You say you want to play before then? You don’t want to wait for two or three years? In that case, there are some options. One of them is risky, one of them is for play money, and the other is a little unique but gets the job done.
Let’s take a look at offshore poker sites, social poker apps, and sweepstakes-based sites like Global Poker.
Thousands upon thousands of online poker players in Illinois play online. They didn’t see many choices, so they tried what others were doing. They signed up for poker accounts with operators like the Winning Poker Network, which operates ACR Poker, and Ignition/Bovada or BetOnline.
So far, so good.
However, players on these sites have accepted the risks involved with operators that are not licensed by the United States or Illinois. This means that state and federal law enforcement agencies cannot pursue the operators for any illegalities, any suspicious activities. And there are no guarantees that the sites will continue operating in good faith.
Poker apps are some of the most popular downloaded apps in the world. Zynga Poker and the WSOP Poker Texas Hold’em apps have more than 100 million downloads put together.
These types of sites are free to play. There may be in-app purchases available, but the free-play poker is the game at its most basic and fun. It is the most common way that poker players get their start and first take an interest in the game.
These sites are also handy for players who want to try out new strategies or practice things like playing various hands from different positions.
PokerStars-dot-net is also a popular free-play poker site, and it allows players to create group games and play very competitive online poker tournaments. This can be played on an app or in any web browser.
This is the fastest-growing way to play poker online. In fact, Global Poker is one of the fastest growing sites with American players.
Global Poker operates on the sweepstakes poker model. This means it is free to play. The site offers free chips with which to play many games. The kicker is that players transform the site into real-money poker by doing a few basic things.
First, however, players must sign up for a free Global Poker account. They receive Gold Coins for free, and they can use those virtual coins to play Hold’em or Omaha games. Log in every day, and receive more free Gold Coins every day.
It sounds complicated, but it is easy to get accustomed to the process once on the site. And since that part of the process is free, it costs nothing to log on and see how it works.
With more than 250,000 players from the US, including Illinois, setting up accounts, the games have been increasing in size and profitability. The prize pools have grown to allow more tournament series, such as the Goat, the Eagle, and Micro Thunder, as well as promotions involving celebrities like DJ Khaled and Michael Phelps.
Most live poker rooms in Illinois casinos are located in the northern part of the state, though there are a few others. And when new casinos begin opening, there will be more of a variety throughout the state.
Currently, the options near Chicago in an area called Chicagoland West are:
The Grand Victoria Casino is the newest poker room in the area and has been running its own proprietary tournament series. It is also now on the WSOP Circuit schedule, where players can compete in more than a dozen events and win World Series of Poker gold rings.
Interestingly, some casinos call themselves Chicago-based but are, in fact, located in Indiana. Ameristar Casino East Chicago, for example, is located in Hammond, Indiana. Four Winds Casino South Bend is also in Indiana, as is Horseshoe Casino Hammond.
Illinois law permits charity poker games. This means that any cash ring games and tournaments can play as long as a portion of the buy-ins go to a local charity. CICG (Central Illinois Charitable Games) has several locations in the state and offers a variety of games and promotions. And the minimum age to play is just 18.
The promotions available include everything from high hand bonuses to raffles and prize giveaways, freeroll tournaments and special $20 buy-in tournaments.
The Chicagoland Charity Poker venue is another one that offers daily events at the Renaissance Chicago Glenview Suites Hotel in Glenview, Illinois. It has 15 tables and can travel for events.
Most of the newly-approved brick-and-mortar casinos in Illinois have yet to open. Those that have opened are doing so on a limited basis or at a temporary facility as they await the building completions.
None of these facilities currently offer poker rooms. However, as poker players request the games, it is likely that some will offer poker, especially the eventual Bally’s Chicago that will open in 2026.
The Golden Nugget Danville is open, as is Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort, but neither yet opened a poker room. Hard Rock Rockford Casino opened a temporary location as its major facility is still in progress, and it is unclear if there will be a poker room when the full casino opens.