If you are located outside of those state boundaries and considering playing on an unsanctioned poker site, know that you are treading into questionable territory with regards to Federal law.
US Online Poker Laws:
There’s been a lot of confusing legislation and back and forth over the last 10+ years when it comes to US poker rooms online. Meaning there are hundreds of thousands of US poker players online who still can’t play within American borders. If you fall into this category - you’re not alone - and there are a number of factors that affect your right to do so including the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), individual State law and the ins and outs of playing poker on US online poker sites.
We’ll try to break it all down for you below in our guide to playing online poker in the USA.
The Wire Act & UIGEA
The Wire Act is an old federal law from 1961 which prohibits betting operations using wire communications. The aim was to eliminate organized crime through gambling and hence carried over to US poker even decades later.
Then, UIGEA came into effect in late 2006. This law that President George Bush signed made it illegal for banks to process transactions from unlicensed online gambling sites. But it’s important to note one thing. It’s the bank not the player who is liable here for breaking federal law by accepting players’ gambling funds.
However, you as a player may violate your state or tribal laws if you play on an unsanctioned poker site. So ultimately it’s the player’s responsibility to determine the legality of playing internet poker under their location’s law.
Anyway, multiple top online poker sites for US players pulled out of the market due to the unclear legality of online poker in USA. Among the biggest sites to leave after UIGEA was passed in 2006 were 888poker and Partypoker. Notably, most of the companies that left were publicly traded, so it even made sense from a reputational standpoint.
The Black Friday Heartbreak
Post-UIGEA, PokerStars and Full Tilt, which were privately owned at the time and didn’t offer other forms of online gambling, continued to offer USA poker online. This wasn’t going to fly with the authorities. And on April 15, 2011, the day the poker community immortalizes as Black Friday, three major card rooms sites were seized.
PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker were charged with gambling crimes and forced to close. PokerStars actually managed to pay out all its customers in a matter of weeks, but Full Tilt and Absolute Poker could not. It was actually PokerStars that bailed Full Tilt out and paid its players - and later took it over. Since this event, US players went from huge player pools to scarce poker sites for US players. And it remains so until this day.
Returning to Playing Poker in USA Online
Since then the US online poker market has slowly rebounded with state-by-state legislation, which federal law actually allows. Thus, finally allowing US poker players to return to playing on the best poker sites for US players. The Department of Justice confirmed in 2011 that legalization / regulation is exempt from UIGEA and that intrastate gaming is allowed.
More and more progress is made each year. But as of 2020, just four States offer the best online poker sites for US players that are officially licensed and regulated. They’re Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. A fifth – Michigan – has now joined in passing legislation to legalize USA online poker and will join the ranks somewhere in 2020/2021. West Virginia has also now passed the required legislation and will launch shortly after.
So, PokerStars returned to the US poker market with a bang in New Jersey in 2016 and later Pennsylvania in 2019. It reached a full settlement with the US Department of Justice regarding the events of Black Friday. And has entered into agreements in other US states, like California, to offer online poker USA once again when proper state legislation is passed.
If you live in or are visiting the state of New Jersey (and are of legal age) you can create an account at PokerStars PA or NJ and play for cash. But you can also play for play money since Pokerstars offers this as well. However, you may find the most players at 888poker which has a NJ presence as well, combined with WSOP. You can also play on WSOP from Nevada.
In all honesty the US poker online scene is likely to return to the way it was during its heyday. Meaning the poker boom that ensued after Chris Moneymaker won a WSOP through an online satellite in 2003. The growth the industry saw between 2003 and Black Friday was unprecedented and will be hard to reach again - but you never know.
Now that US poker legalization includes six states, it’s more likely that other sites will follow suit. We’ve got our eyes on Kentucky and New York for starters. Plus - the revenue that states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania have experienced since US poker legalization is good enough to set a standard. We believe that as long as more sites connect through multi-states agreements, we may continue to see growth in the best US poker rooms online.
DOJ Wire Act Reversal?
In September 2011, questions arose about the legality of online gambling once again. So the 1961 Wire Act was reinterpreted, with the Department of Justice stating it would only really apply to sports betting. Leaving casino and poker as fair game.
Meanwhile, states interested in legalizing and regulating poker USA, opened up casinos and card rooms. So when the DOJ reversed its legal opinion at the end of 2018 / start of 2019, it brought some controversy. Nothing concrete has happened so far and it is unclear whether any rules will change as of yet.
However there is an ongoing case as of 2020, as it’s currently caught up in the federal system with several legal challenges. Some are fearing that this case may reach the US Supreme Court and our beloved game would be in jeopardy. We believe it’s unlikely that gambling will be banned at a federal level again anyway. But let’s hope this is simply a hiccup on the road to a new era of the best USA online poker.
STATES WITH LEGAL US POKER ONLINE
New Jersey was one of the first US states to offer regulated Poker. It happened in early 2013 - fairly soon after Black Friday in 2011 - when governor Chris Christie signed for legal US poker online. It’s now one of the biggest US jurisdictions for legal, regulated poker in USA online. Because the population is close to 9 million. Hence, many big sites operate here:
As well as casinos which offer casino poker games:
The largest operator is 888poker which shares a player pool with WSOP.com - although they’re two different skins. Also linked to WSOP NV and 888poker in Delaware. And the other two big players in New Jersey are PokerStars NJ and partypoker NJ. PokerStars operates as a standalone platform while Partypoker NJ is on the Borgata network.
In May 2018, New Jersey signed a pact to share player traffic with Nevada and Delaware. Hence a huge step in re-uniting the US poker market.
New Jersey Online Poker Laws
The state of New Jersey imposes several strict regulations, including:
- Age: Must be 21+ to sign up and play
- Location: In NJ - you can be a resident or just visiting
- Tax: Operators have to pay 15% tax on revenue
- Verification: Poker operators must verify each player's identity
Nevada and Delaware
Nevada and Delaware both legalized poker online in 2013 and online card rooms could start operating. WSOP NV was one of them - and is currently Nevada’s sole online card room. It currently enjoys dominance in the state as well as the awesome poker brand image that is WSOP.
But in 2018, WSOP.com and 888 entered an agreement to share player pools with other states that have regulated poker. Currently this includes Nevada, NJ and Delaware - with the hopes that Pennsylvania will follow suit (more on this below).
This was a huge step in moving towards re-uniting the US online poker market. Because, unlike casino games and sports betting where you would bet against the house, poker is a peer-to-peer sorta game. Ergo, there’s no game if there are no peers - and this is where we start talking about liquidity.
Liquidity attracts liquidity - a crowd will attract a bigger crowd. So the bigger the player pool, the more players you can attract to start and join games. Nobody really wants to play on a site with no competitors - where’s the fun in that?
So this shared liquidity agreement stands to benefit all regulated states really - and the poker ecosystem as a whole. Because the more players in the pool, the more game options are available - and the better the games overall.
As with other legalized states, both Delaware and Nevada players must be within state borders and above 21 years old.
WSOP & 888
Have been sharing their player pools
in licensed states since 2018.
Legal PA online poker launched in 2019 - making Pennsylvania the fourth state to legalize the game online. This after much legal maneuvering in the state since the bill passed in 2017. Now, with 13 million residents, Pennsylvania is becoming the largest poker market in the country. Even PokerStars officially launched PA poker in November 2019 - with no other competitors in that state so far.
The pending question is whether Pennsylvania would enter into an “interactive gaming reciprocal agreement” with New Jersey. Currently it still has the option of joining Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware in their state sharing liquidity deal.
PokerStars doesn’t operate in Nevada or Delaware - yet, so potentially Pennsylvania could link up with New Jersey as a start. This would add a potential 13 million eligible players to New Jersey’s 9 million. And maybe get closer to making big tournaments and six-figure payouts possible. However, at the moment it’s unlikely, and it seems that COVID-19 has thrown any such plans off the radar for now.
Regardless, Pokerstars PA numbers have been more solid than its Garden State counterpart in the past year it’s been active. Clearly, New Jersey would have more to gain from any pool sharing agreement. However, it’s not to say Pennsylvania wouldn’t get a boost as well. So we look forward to this promising state growing further and opening up to more big operators.
Note: that neither the PokerStars PA or NJ sites are connected to PokerStars’ main player pool. PokerStars actually stretches out across many countries and is one of the world’s biggest poker sites.
Michigan relentlessly pushed for legalization - and online gambling in general, in 2018 and 2019. And now it seems like this is finally coming into fruition before the end of 2020. The act authorizing online gambling was signed into law at the end of 2019, and the timeline did not indicate anything happening before 2021.
However, as we know, COVID had other plans. Many live casinos were forced to close leading to revenue losses from that sector. Which is bittersweet because it kinda expedited the legalization process. From a population standpoint, it’s quite similar to New Jersey in size.
So Michigan would have added another 10 million of the population into the mix. However, it seems that legalization seems to be moving forward without any player pool sharing agreement.
The entry of Michigan and Pennsylvania into the multi-state agreement would triple the player pool. But like Pennsylvania, it seems that the state is taking the time to stabilize before proceeding with further gambling agreements. It’s also possible that lawmakers are delaying further interstate-agreement talks since there’s still some discussion over the Wire Act. The plus side is that it’s still in the works and we just have to keep our fingers crossed.
West Virginia technically legalized gambling online in 2019, but isn’t expected to go live until the end of 2020 - or even later. This would be the next state to legalize poker - under the West Virginia Lottery Interactive Wagering Act. Unless Michigan beats them to the punch. However, officials still need to regulate it. So, it seems we’ll still need to hold on a little longer - perhaps during or after 2021 - for sites to launch here.
Other US States
California, New York, and Texas
There are some strong considerations to legalize our beloved card game in California and in New York. Both these states are so huge and dense in poker players that their legalization would be a legitimate tipping point. Moreover, legalizing and pooling states like California and Texas would be beneficial because the time difference establishes longer peak hours.
Massachusetts was another state on the verge of becoming legal in 2019 and 2020. There were attempts to regulate online gambling, fantasy sports and sports betting. But alas it did not happen, and talks have been further delayed because of the pandemic.
The market is still relatively new however, with land-based gambling and casinos only having become legal in 2011. And it’s clear that online gaming can supplement land-based revenues in the Bay state. So maybe we’ll just have to wait a bit longer for a full expansion of MA poker.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, legalization has been discussed but we haven’t seen any recent updates regarding this. This state would obviously be a big swinger for online poker in the USA and USA poker sites. Mostly because it’s the sixth most populous area. Bills were passed in 2017 and 2018 for gaming, sports and live casino expansion, but never made it through.
Finally in 2019, we saw a bit of leeway. The state passed a gambling expansion bill to allow casino games at existing gambling venues, plus sports betting. However, for the time being, online gambling is strictly limited to horses and lotteries.
When more US states have officially regulated poker on the web,
you’ll see all sites available to residents and visitors here.
On a nationwide scale, we can hold out hope for it to become regulated across the country. However, at the moment, we’re not expecting big things to happen regarding legalization of online poker in the USA. That said, legislation is progressing and several states have moved closer over the past few years. In fact, there will be several bills to debate in 2020. So if you’re eager to have the same happen in your state, you can keep lobbying for it. Write your local representative to express your interest in fully regulated US online poker!
But if you’re not currently in a legalized state, we have two main options for legal, safe poker. The first is our number one play-money app, Appeak Poker which you can just download and play on your phone. It’s totally free of charge, you don’t have to deposit anything, and it’s also great to practice your poker game. The second is Global Poker - a poker site which uses a sweeps model. So it’s totally legal in the US, but it’s also like playing for free with a small stake. Find out more below.
Global Poker - Anywhere in the US
Besides licensed sites in New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Delaware, the only feasible option for US players is Global Poker. This poker site uses a unique sweepstakes and virtual currency model as its legal justification. As a result, it’s not considered an online gambling site per se - and it’s available all over the US. This is actually a regular poker site disguised as a sweepstakes game. So you can then play for cash prizes which you convert via Mastercard, American Express or Skrill, for example.
In the spirit of transparency, the site also has some downfalls. Like the fact that there are no loyalty rewards, freerolls or rakeback incentives. Or that the buy-ins are low enough to encourage some crazy play from other players. The rake is also on the higher side in comparison to other card rooms.
Thinking about relocating to play legal poker safely? Check out our article below:
Why play at legal US poker sites?
Some players may be tempted to turn to foreign-based platforms, since poker options in the country are limited - unless you live / visit a state that provides legal games. This happens often as players are not actually punished for depositing and playing at these sites. But obviously this also means the USA can’t really monitor or control what goes on there. So you end up playing at a risk.
Without proper licensing and regulation, you can’t be sure the poker room will stick to rules around your private details and banking. One of the biggest advantages to playing on a regulated US site is that all player funds are safe. All player deposits need to be separated from the operational funds of the company. So that payouts can happen at any time, even if the company went under or had to close.
A legal, regulated site would also only offer secure payment methods for players to fund their accounts.
- Visa / MasterCard
- American Express
- Neteller / Skrill
- Discover Card
- PayNearMe (7-Eleven)
- Cash at associated casinos
There are many considerations when finding a poker site to deposit and play at, so check out our guides below:
- Playing Poker for Money
- Our Reviews of the Best Poker Rooms in 2020
- Best Online Poker Bonus Offers
- List of Current Promos & Bonus Codes
MORE ON LEGAL POKER
Support for Poker Players
Poker Players Alliance
The main group lobbying for US poker online is the Poker Alliance (PPA). This is a non-profit organization formed in 2005 that now has over a million members. The group’s main objective is to protect the game from becoming illegal or banned - and add legislations where it currently doesn’t exist.
PPA has responded to poker becoming illegal in many ways, however in the last few years, it may have shifted to accommodate the industry’s needs. It has even been involved in legal matters in some states where live poker was on the edge. Recently, it has raised a louder voice with regards to online gaming - which of course includes poker.
Often it would mean that casino games also have to be added alongside a poker offering. This is a good compromise because poker then becomes feasible for everybody - casinos, lawmakers, and third parties. Proof that there’s a way around it and PPA is fighting to achieve that. Any poker enthusiast can join the good fight.
iDevelopment and Economic Association
The iDEA has only recently hopped on the online gaming scene, but is totally based and focused on the US market. Since it’s mission is to grow interactive entertainment online, while growing employment and business development, through advocacy and education.
It immediately reported on how online gaming in New Jersey and regularly lobbies federal legislators and power brokers in gaming. Many US-associated poker groups are part of this organization. Including The Stars Group, who own flagship brand PokerStars, and Paddy Power. Along with GVC Holdings behind Partypoker, Golden Nugget and Paysafe Group.
Online Poker in US - and Poker Sites USA - FAQs
Is Online Poker for US Players legal?Yes. The confusion stems from the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) bill in 2006. This makes it illegal for banks to process online transactions in the States for fear of money laundering. So in 2011, the US Department of Justice shut down the sites still operating in the US.
However, now there are four states which allow licensed poker: Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. You can play on PokerStars NJ and PartyPoker NJ using our exclusive bonus codes. Or at Global Poker using Sweepstakes coins.
When Will Poker Online be Legal Across America?It seems legalization may happen slowly since there have been multiple bills over the last few years. However, nobody really knows when or if this will happen. Meanwhile, organizations like Poker Players Alliance and the former FairPlayUSA continue to lobby hard for fully legal poker. There has been some positive work state-level, but nationwide - we’ve got a way to go.
Can I Play on a USA PokerStars Site?Yes! PokerStars has been officially licensed to offer online poker in New Jersey along with its land-based casino partner, Resorts Casino & Hotel. You can play USA pokerstars at PokerStars NJ if you live in or are visiting New Jersey and are 18+. Or PA poker - currently only on PokerStars - if in Pennsylvania. This means you’ll only be playing against other PokerStars NJ players in New Jersey and PA players in Pennsylvania in daily SnGs, MTTs and cash games.
Otherwise, you can play with Sweeps and Gold coins on Global Poker. However we expect more states to be licensed in the near future. So you may see PokerStars in Michigan, and West Virginia sooner or later. And maybe even NY and California at some point.
Can I Play Poker Online if Outside Licensed States?You can play when you’re within the borders of a licensed state. For those who live close to one, you can simply pop over. Like New Yorkers going to Jersey for a weekend or visiting Atlantic City. Same for Californians who visit Nevada.
Otherwise, don’t be tempted to use a VPN to play on licensed card rooms because their security is very strong. If you get caught, your account will be closed and your funds confiscated.
Can I Play on Unlicensed US Poker Sites?There are some unregulated poker sites that let US players sign up and play against other US poker players. But obviously there’s a ton of risk involved. Because with no governing body to regulate them, there are no best practices, fairness and safety measures enforced. Plus, they can easily go out of business and take player funds with them.
So, honestly - we strongly advise against playing on unlicensed/unregulated poker sites still offering online poker for USA players.
What are the US poker sites with the most player traffic?As it stands in 2020, Pokerstars PA has some of the highest traffic from the US sites we can recommend. Closely followed by the WSOP / 888 player pool of 400-500 players at peak hours. Probably because the player pool is shared between New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware. PokerStars NJ has between 100-300 online players and Party poker NJ has around a hundred players at a time.
Is GGPoker US friendly?Not yet. However, GGPoker is rapidly expanding its license base. So we hope that it reaches outside its Asian and European networks. Brand ambassador Daniel Negreanu confirms that the growing card room is working on a US license, it’s just not that easy.
Can US poker players play 888 poker?Yes, US players can play on 888 poker from New Jersey.