Washington is a complicated state with regard to gambling.
On one hand, the Washington State Gambling Commission is very clear about what types of gambling it will license and what it considers illegal by law. Tribal gaming is a huge part of Washington’s gaming culture, as 29 compacts with tribal entities. Not all of them offer casino gaming, but most of them offer some sort of activity regulated by said compacts.
On the other hand, Washington has fought against the idea of online poker – and other types of online gambling – for decades. In fact, lawmakers passed a bill in 2006 to make online poker a Class C felony, and the governor approved it. They defended it in court and won. The state has even gone so far as to criminalize free-play online gaming apps, defending those cases in court as well.
The primary form of legal gambling in Washington is the lottery, which is a statewide and even allows the state’s participation in nationwide lotteries like Powerball. The support of the lottery, arguably the type of game involving the most luck, is at odds with its stance on other forms of gambling.
That is the state of Washington. It’s relationship with gambling is always going to be complicated.
This state provides an interesting look into the difficulty surrounding online poker in the United States. Its unique stance on the issue shows the depth of misunderstanding about the game and the sheer will of lawmakers to take a stance that may be misinformed but one that they will defend to the ends of the legal system.
Washington also makes an interesting case of the benefits of tribal gaming to Native Americans, with the caveat that tribes not participating in some form of gambling often suffer economically as compared to fellow tribal nations. And contrary to the nature of gambling, Washington’s tribes take few risks when it comes to gambling expansion. Sports betting was allowed, but i-gaming is not given a second thought because of the unknowns associated with it.
With all of that said, let’s break it all down.
The state of Washington embraced the lottery in the early 1980s. In 1992, tribal gaming began to take shape.
In 1988, the United States Congress passed a federal law called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). It established the authority and general framework for Native American tribes to negotiate gaming compacts with state governments. Tribes in Washington immediately began to act to negotiate, solidify, and sign their compacts as follows:
Four tribal nations signed compacts in 1992, and the process continued through the 1990s and beyond. Many compacts were re-signed and amended along the way. As of 2023, there are 29 tribal nations with gaming compacts.
In 1996, the Washington State Gambling Commission (WSGC) launched a study into table games, such as poker and blackjack. They authorized a temporary addition of more tables into existing casinos to take a closer look at their popularity and economic feasibility aside from the entirety of a casino. What they found was an opportunity to allow individual proprietors outside of the tribal gaming realm to open card rooms.
The following year, the WSGC transformed its pilot program into a set of regulations, while lawmakers simultaneously passed legislation to allow those small gaming centers, sometimes called mini-casinos, to operate. It took a few years of tweaking the program, but they did implement it.
Over the years, the mini-casino framework has changed to stay relevant.
There was a little downsizing. The city of Tacoma outlawed mini-casinos in 1999, though the WSGC allowed them to remain open for several more years to pay off their initial opening costs. When voters confirmed the decision to close their three Tacoma card rooms in 2006, they did so. Other towns and cities that specifically prohibit card rooms and casinos include Edgewood, Granite Falls, Liberty Lake, Long Beach, Poulsbo, and Prescott.
There are four types of card rooms in Washington:
Poker players can find live poker throughout the state, from casinos to various types of card rooms. The WSGC website shows 99 public card rooms currently holding licenses, many of them restaurants and bars.
Poker Atlas lists 34 active card rooms with cash games, many also offering tournaments. The largest ones are:
The vast majority of the rooms listed on Poker Atlas have fewer than ten tables but still offer regular cash games and tournaments.
The list of social card rooms via the Washington State Gambling Commission includes about 75 rooms, most of them licensed to VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and similar groups like the Elks and American Legion. There are also rooms licensed to the Tacoma Association for the Deaf, several senior centers, and Royal Oaks Country Club.
In 2006, the United States federal government passed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act). It was an addition to a port security bill, and it was aimed at the growing interest in igaming – mostly poker – generated by the poker boom. The law prohibited gambling business from “knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law.”
Washington lawmakers were enamored with that piece of legislation and wanted to duplicate it. Using even more general terms than the UIGEA, the Washington legislature took a bill from State Senator Margarita Prentice and approved it (House approved 93-to-5, Senate approved unanimously), ultimately instituting a constitutional amendment to the 1973 Gambling Act. The amendment stated:
“Whoever knowingly transmits or receives gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphore, the internet, a telecommunications transmission system, or similar means, or knowingly installs or maintains equipment for the transmission or receipt of gambling information shall be guilty of a class C felony.”
For the record, a person found guilty of a class C felony could be imprisoned for up to five years or fined $10,000 – or both.
Lee Rousso was a poker player who lived in Washington who was appalled by the 2006 law against online poker and igaming in general. Rousso also happened to be an attorney.
He sued the state of Washington on the grounds that the law violated the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, as the prohibition was cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, the Poker Players Alliance was a well-funded online poker advocate in America, so the group supported Rousso’s lawsuit.
Rousso lost his initial Superior Court case, appealed, and ended up in the Washington Supreme Court. He lost that one as well. The court upheld the amendment in 2010.
The law was strong enough to prompt PokerStars to pull its real-money poker play from residents in the state, though most of the rest of America could still access PokerStars-dot-com at the time. Other sites followed.
Several years later, Big Fish Casino ran afoul of Washington’s law. Big Fish was a play-money online casino that required no money to play, though in-app purchases were available. The bullet points of this situation were:
All of this prompted PokerStars to even withdraw its play-money dot-net site from players located in Washington. Other sites did the same.
There doesn’t appear to be a future for online poker in Washington. With the state even willing to deem play-money gaming sites illegal, there is little to no chance of passing a law to legalize online poker or any type of igaming.
No one even tries.
The state did legalize sports betting in 2020, though only on tribal lands for in-person betting. Players wanting to be online must still be present on the reservation land to do so.
Technically, there are no options.
Global Poker, which is one of the fastest growing sites for poker in America, is essentially a free-play poker site, though players can earn real-money currency on the site. The FAQ section of the Global Poker website states that the site is available to most people residing in the United States “excluding outlying territories and the state of Washington.”
Most offshore-licensed poker sites no longer accept new players logging in from within the borders of Washington.
Even Zynga just lost a class action settlement by players in Washington in 2022. Zynga settled the case for $12 million. While this pertained specifically to casino-style games, it is fairly certain that Zynga no longer accepts any player from Washington for any type of online gaming, free or otherwise.