Virginia is a hot topic in many conversations about poker because the players want it. They want more live poker, and they want access to online poker.
In reality, some of the inquiries about Virginia online poker come from people who mistake Virginia for West Virginia; they are two different states. Other questions pertain to the state’s location, near several states that offer both online and live poker. New Jersey is the best known of Virginia’s neighbors for live poker stemming from decades of Atlantic City games, as well as online poker, as NJ was one of the very first states to legalize state-regulated igaming.
Then there is the confusion regarding why poker is so difficult to find in Virginia. We will clear up some of that confusion here.
Poker players who reside in Virginia do play online poker. There are several ways they do this.
The sweepstakes name for this type of online poker is a tad misleading, as sweepstakes indicate a predominance of chance. Poker sites operating on the sweepstakes model involve no more chance than a regular game of poker.
The best way to explain is to take the most popular poker site of this kind – Global Poker – and describe how it works.
Technically, Global Poker is a free-play poker site. You can simply log on, obtain free Gold Coins, and use those as virtual currency to play Texas Hold’em, Omaha, or Crazy Pineapple. There are also free daily Gold Coin awards for simply logging in to play every day. And players can also earn Sweeps Coins, which allow them to participate in promotions and win prizes.
Players can also choose to buy more Gold Coins. That allows them to play more cash games or tournaments.
Ultimately, accumulating GC (Gold Coins) and Sweeps Coins (SC) allow players to redeem them for gift cards and cash prizes.
It may seem complicated, but it all makes sense when you log on and start playing. The instructions are clear, and the options revolve around free-money play and using virtual currency to win cash and prizes.
Many people in Virginia play poker on sites with servers located outside of the United States. These offshore sites are often licensed by regulators in island nations like Curacao or Panama, but they have no licenses issued by American state governments or regulators. Therein lies the risk that players assume when they deposit real money. They have no guarantee by a US entity that their money is safe.
Poker is a game of skill and risk. Some feel that the risk is worth the reward, which comes in the form of extensive cash game and tournament options. The online poker tournaments on some of these sites offer millions of dollars in guarantees, and the promotions can be substantial.
Virginia lacks the state-licensed online poker option. To play online, many of them choose the offshore sites. This is one of the most important reasons that state governments should be inclined to legalize online poker – to protect players and provide safe, licensed, and regulated options.
The honest answer is that it will be years – many years, most likely – before Virginia legislators seriously consider legalizing i-gaming.
By itself, online poker is not a moneymaker for the state. Since poker is a peer-to-peer game, with the house (operator) not taking a huge profit except standard rake, most of the money in online poker remains between players. That is not a source of huge profit in and of itself.
The real profits in i-gaming come from online casino games. Online slots are the largest source of profit, but table games like blackjack and baccarat are also big customer draws. The online casino collects significant revenue and pays a percentage of it to the state.
A state like New Jersey shows the revenue potential of online gaming.
This demonstrates why states like Virginia will not legalize online poker only, as the primary profit – and thusly, state taxes – derive from online casino games.
Virginia lawmakers have never seriously considered an online gaming legalization proposal. In fact, the state is wary of casinos in general. While they view sports betting differently, casinos have a gambling stigma that keeps Virginia from going all-in. And that leaves i-gaming, which is a much more convenient way to gamble, an issue that few lawmakers will even consider.
It is not easy to find live poker in casino poker rooms in Virginia. In fact, according to Poker Atlas, there is only one poker room in operation in all of Virginia, located at Rivers Casino Portsmouth in the Norfolk region. There are 24 tables, with all cash games – Hold’em and Omaha – and no tournaments at the current time.
The Hard Rock Bristol Casino did open recently but has no poker room. Caesars Virginia in Danville – also known as Caesars Casino Danville – is set to open in 2024, and it advertises that it will have a 25-table World Series of Poker Room.
There have been other efforts to offer poker in Virginia.
The state law classifies poker as a game of chance, but charitable gambling is permitted, and that includes games of chance, specifically Texas Hold’em tournaments. Under the Virginia Charitable Gaming Council, poker players in Virginia took their charitable poker to a new level.
They authorized the opening of poker rooms, clubs that are similar to the membership clubs established in Texas. Players pay a fee to enter the club or tournament, pay for chips, and win prizes based on the number of players. However, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) that oversees all of charitable gaming has not been fond of the application of the law.
Poker clubs have opened and then shut their doors without much of a chance to succeed.
Pop’s Poker opened as a small poker room in Richmond in 2020. There were 10 tables in the small club, hosting regular freerolls and promotions, and offering cash games with the occasional tournaments.
The problem was the owner of Pop’s, Chuck Lessin, who was the Chairman of the Charitable Gaming Joint Subcommittee. Lessin opened the club as a nonprofit organization but leased out the space to people who wanted to run tournaments and host poker events. Some lawmakers saw that as a conflict of interest.
When said lawmakers contacted the VDACS as the oversight body for charitable gambling, the VDACS did stop issuing permits for poker in such clubs in the fall of 2021. Lessin then sued the VDACS. And he won.
Even so, lawmakers didn’t like Lessin’s interpretation of the law or his role in Pop’s Poker. They also relied on a new gambling regulation passed in January 2022 that made it illegal for people in Virginia to play poker without a license. So, Pop’s shut down in July 2022. The Pop’s website stated that management was awaiting new licensing information, but that never happened.
Pop’s tried to challenge the issues legally, but pushing it to the level of the Virginia Supreme Court was too far. The State Supreme Court denied the appeal.
This is just one example of a poker room trying to separate poker from games of chance and show that it can abide by laws without needing a casino in which to operate. It failed, though it is unclear if places like Pop’s have played their final hands.
While lawmakers worry about poker, they’ve allowed sports betting to run wild. Less than one year after the United States Supreme Court invalidated the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, the Virginia Senate commissioned a report to study sports betting.
By the end of 2019, lawmakers had the study in hand showing a potential statewide market of sports wagering could produce $400 million per year. That led to a bill that became law in April 2020.
The first sportsbooks launched in January 2021.
According to Legal Sports Report, the industry from January 2021 through June 2023 produced the following 2.5-year totals:
Despite the success with sports betting, the rest of the state’s gambling offerings are on a slow path to growth. Virginia’s first casinos are still being built, there is only one operational poker room in the state, and there is no talk of online poker or any type of igaming.
For the players who are able, they can leave Virginia and travel to a neighboring state with thriving poker industries.