Online Poker USA: Legality, Reviews and FAQ's

The US online poker industry has proven quite resilient over the years. Despite federal actions like the UIGEA of 2006 and Black Friday of 2011, American card players continue to bet online without legal consequences. Many legal online poker sites are massively popular.

Six U.S. states have legalized and regulated online poker: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Delaware, West Virginia, and Michigan. The other 44 states don't have online poker regulations. They enforce bans on poker operators and payment processors who maintain servers in their jurisdictions, but state officials also don't prosecute individuals who play poker online. Instead, US poker players gamble at offshore online poker rooms.

Several states could legalize online poker in the coming years. The 2018 US Supreme Court decision to repeal the PASPA sports betting ban opened the door to more gambling throughout the country. Recent history shows that, as lawmakers champion land-based sports betting laws, they sometimes attach online gambling to the new gaming bills.

This online poker guide provides a detailed, unbiased overview of the online poker niche in the United States. We provide a history and summary of America's online poker laws, a preview of poker bills in the legal system, and a helpful online poker FAQ for those who still have questions. We also give recommendations for players who want advice on the best US poker sites. Keep reading for a full scoop on US poker online.

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Poker Compatibility

Most, if not all, online poker sites will have mobile compatibility. Many casinos offer mobile cash games and mobile poker tournaments alike. Players can enjoy games like Texas Hold'em, Omaha Hi, and Omaha Hi/Lo on their Android and iOS devices. 

Online Poker USA Laws

The poker laws of the United States are complicated. They’re a patchwork of federal and state laws, since the federal government, 50 different states, and the District of Columbia each have their own online poker laws. We’ll discuss state laws in a bit, but let’s start with a quick overview and timeline of the US government’s federal online poker laws.

The 1961 Federal Wire Act

On September 13, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Interstate Anti-Crime Acts -- known today as the 1961 Federal Wire Act. The Wire Act made it illegal to make interstate sports bets over US telephone lines. The US Department of Justice used the Wire Act to target organized crime in the United States. It was difficult to prove most forms of racketeering, but the Feds could tap phone lines to violations of the Wire Act.

For the next several decades, federal prosecutors used the Wire Act to prosecute mobsters and local bookies alike. During these years, they never prosecuted Americans for making poker or casino bets over the phone lines. The reason was simple -- it was impossible to play poker or casino games over the phone.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA)

On October 13, 2006, US President George W. Bush signed into law the Safe Port Act. One provision of the Safe Port Act was the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, usually known as UIGEA. The UIGEA made it illegal for online websites to process payments on bets that would be illegal under the 1961 Wire Act. Therefore, if a bet was illegal for telephone lines under the Wire Act, it also would be illegal for online sites under the UIGEA.

The US Justice Department at the time claimed the UIGEA applied to all forms of online betting: sports betting, casino gambling, and poker. The interpretation flew in the face of established federal law. The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November 2002 that the Wire Act applied to sports betting only, but the Wire Act was not a blanket ban on betting. Despite that ruling, the Bush administration said it would go after payment processors at all gambling sites.

The UIGEA caused many payment processors to leave the US market by the start of 2007. Publicly-traded online Sportsbooks, casinos, and poker rooms also led the US market, robbing American gamblers of some of its biggest operators. Privately owned offshore operators continued to accept US players, though. The US online poker market changed dramatically but continued unabated.

The Black Friday Poker Scandal

On April 15, 2011, the Justice Department seized the domains of America's top poker rooms: PokerStars, FullTilt Poker, and Absolute Poker. The DOJ issued indictments of executives from the same companies, claiming they had violated the UIGEA. The three sites controlled most of the poker traffic in the United States, so US poker players had trouble finding trusted and legitimate poker games online for some time after Black Friday.

Eventually, PokerStars and the other sites paid huge fines, regained their domains, and left the US gaming market. Things seemed bleak for US poker players, but a decision at the end of the year offered new hope.

2011 Department of Justice Opinion on UIGEA

In 2011, the state attorney generals of Illinois and New York asked the Obama-era US Justice Department to offer an opinion on which forms of gambling are considered illegal under the UIGEA. Months later, the DOJ ruled that the Wire Act applied to sports betting but not poker or casino games. As justification, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) pointed to the fact that the Wire Act had never been used once to prosecute poker or casino betting.

This opened the door for state governments to legalize, license, and regulate online poker sites and online casinos. The next year, the states of Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey had referendums to determine whether to legalize online poker and casino gaming. All three initiatives succeeded. Nevada launched online poker in 2013, while New Jersey and Delaware launched online casinos and poker sites.

Restore America's Wire Act (RAWA)

The state online poker legislation drew a reaction. In the spring of 2014, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to see online gambling banned throughout the United States. Since Adelson donated more than anyone else to US political candidates in the 2012 elections, he soon had several US congressmen willing to do his bidding.

Chief among these politicians were Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Each introduced a bill to their house of congress that would ban all online gambling in the United States. This bill was called Restore America's Wire Act, usually shortened to RAWA.

RAWA's proponents claimed their bill would enforce the UIGEA as the Wire Act had been enforced since 1961. Graham and Chaffetz could not convince their fellow lawmakers this was the case, despite a variety of congressional hearings on the matter. Many fellow Republicans -- lobbyist Grover Norquist, ex-Rep. Ron Paul, and Sen. Rand Paul -- opposed RAWA because it would create a huge expansion of federal power over state's rights.

The debate over RAWA continued until December 2016, when Chaffetz chaired a House hearing on online poker. The hearing went so badly for RAWA supporters that Chaffetz handed over his gavel and left the room by the end of the hearing. RAWA appeared dead in the water.

Multi-State Internet Gaming Association (MSIGA)

In 2014, the governors of Nevada and Delaware signed a poker liquidity sharing agreement. Players on licensed online poker sites from both states could play in games against each other. The bigger player pools would lead to bigger prizes, more tournaments, and a greater range of games and bet sizes. While both states had small populations, the MSIGA allowed any other state to join.

In 2018, New Jersey joined the MSIGA, thus expanding player pools by a factor of 2.5. New Jersey had held aloof from the liquidity sharing agreement before, but the potential inclusion of Pennsylvania -- which had approved online poker a few weeks prior -- changed the equation. If Pennsylvania joined, the MSIGA would allow poker sites like PokerStars, Sportsbook, and WSOP to build player pools from a population base of over 20 million residents.

2019 Department of Justice Opinion on UIGEA

In January 2019, Acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker's OLG issued a new opinion on the UIGEA and Wire Act. According to this version of the DOJ, the Wire Act and UIGEA applied to online sports betting, casino games, and poker. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave operators 90 days to get into compliance with the law, a deadline eventually extended to June 15, 2019.

The opinion received challenges from multiple sources. The state AGs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined in a lawsuit against the DOJ over the pronouncement. The state lottery of New Hampshire also sued, because the opinion threatened revenues from online sales of lottery tickets. In February 2019, the 1st Circuit court ruled that Whitaker's DOJ had overreached. Several judges have backed the 1st Circuit decision, though the case remains in federal court at the present.

The 2019 opinion did not change intrastate online gambling in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Nevada, West Virginia, or Michigan. It also did not block unregulated offshore online poker sites. Its main effect was to squelch the interstate online poker liquidity sharing agreement between Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey -- because one could argue interstate online poker violates federal law. Thus, the MSIGA poker liquidity sharing network was dead in the water -- at least for the time being.

US States That Have Legalized Online Poker

Since the 2011 DOJ opinion limited the provisions of the 1961 Wire Act, individual US states have had the right to legalize, license, and regulate online poker sites. Several states have taken action to do so. After Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey passed such laws in 2013, five years passed before Pennsylvania passed online poker and casino sites in 2018. West Virginia passed such laws in 2019, while Michigan followed suit in 2021.

The 2018 DOJ opinion reversed the 2011 Wire Act stance, but it was challenged immediately by the attorney generals of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Even states with online lottery ticket sales sued the US Justice Department. Presently, six states have licensed US online poker sites. Here's an overview of them:

1. Nevada is 1st State to Legalize Online Poker (2013)

In January 2012, just one month after the DOJ's 2011 opinion came down, Nevada lawmakers began drafting an online poker bill. The draft legislation called for a statewide referendum on legalized online poker, set to take place during the November 2012 US presidential election. The voters approved, so Nevada launched online poker the next year.

In February 2014, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a poker liquidity deal with Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. This led to the Multi-State Internet Gambling Association, which included interstate poker between Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey. Unlike other states, Nevada did not approve online casinos, because it wanted to encourage players to visit their multi-billion dollar casinos.

2. Delaware Approves Online Poker and Casinos (2013)

Delaware's legislature was almost as fast. In June 2013, lawmakers approved online gambling. The state launched online casinos in October 2013 and online poker in November 2013.

The plan was to save Delaware's land-based racing industry. Delaware has three horse racing venues: Delaware Park, Dover Downs, and Harrington Racecourse. These were strong venues when few gambling options existed in the USA. As gambling proliferated throughout the United States, horse racing began to struggle. Some states legalized land-based slot gambling (racinos) to help race tracks, but Delaware's lawmakers hoped online gambling would save the venues.

Eventually, Delaware signed the interstate poker compact with Nevada. As a smaller state, its online poker industry required poker liquidity sharing with other states. While slow at first, interstate poker began to pick up steam in late 2018 when New Jersey joined the pact.

3. New Jersey Approves Licensed Online Gambling (2013)

Speaking of New Jersey, the Garden State also approved online gambling in 2013. New Jersey's gaming portals began launching in November 2013. The early stage of New Jersey's rollout was dogged with problems. A high percentage of Visa and MasterCard credit card deposits did not work, due to concern by the banks that issued the cards. The geolocation technology did not work all the time, so players on the borders of the state (Newark, Jersey City, and Camden) often were blocked from playing.

In the coming months, the geolocation bugs were sorted out, while new codes for legal gaming were issued for bank transactions. Despite its status as the biggest revenue-generating state for online gambling, New Jersey's online poker and casino rollout did not match then-Gov. Chris Christie's projections. Christie had suggested online gambling would lead to $1 billion in revenues per year.

Over time, New Jersey's online gambling became a major revenue source, eventually sitting between $300 million to $400 million in revenues generated each year. The online casino niche generates more than New Jersey online poker, though the inclusion of major operators like PokerStars and Sportsbook improved the revenues significantly.

Online Poker Site - New Jersey Casino

  • PokerStars - Resorts Casino
  • 888poker and WSOP - Sportsbook New Jersey
  • PartyPoker - Borgata
  • Pala Poker - Borgata (No Shared Player Pools)

In late 2017, New Jersey joined the interstate poker compact. That decision was motivated by nearby Pennsylvania joining the legal online gambling states.

4. Pennsylvania Legalizes Online Poker and Casinos (2017)

Pennsylvania followed suit in October 2017 by legalizing online poker, sports betting, and casino gaming. At the time, Pennsylvania had a $2 billion budget shortfall (over a 2-year budget). The state's Democrat Governor Tom Wolfe was at an impasse with its Republican legislature. One side wanted to tax natural gas companies to make up the shortfall, while the other wanted increased venues for alcohol sales, slots parlors, and online gambling.

Eventually, the two sides agreed on a compromise that included legalized online gambling and daily fantasy sports, which lawmakers hoped would lead to $200 million a year in new tax revenues. Slot parlors at restaurants were nixed, though video lottery terminals (VLTs) would be installed at truck stops across the state. Tablet gambling at international airport terminals also was approved, as well as DSF and land-based sportsbooks. Ultimately, online gambling would be a huge part of the package.

Like New Jersey, Pennsylvania allowed world-famous online poker operators to partner with land-based casinos and racinos. In time, all of the biggest poker operators found partners.

5. West Virginia Passes Online Poker (2019)

In March 2019, West Virginia became the 5th state with online gambling. It passed online poker, casinos, and sportsbooks. Sports betting was the key provision that led West Virginia to take the leap. In May 2018, the US Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which had banned sports betting in 46 states for the past 25 years.

Suddenly, states that wanted to expand gambling had another lucrative draw. While online sports betting remained off-limits due to the Wire Act, land-based casinos wanted live sportsbooks in order to draw customers through the front door. The idea was: come for the sports betting and stay for the slots.

West Virginia placed the state lottery as the regulator, which is a departure from the other states that have legalized online betting. The state lottery drew up the regulations, issued licenses, and regulated the online gambling industry. Most online casinos launched in 2020, while online poker launched in 2021.

6. Michigan Online Poker Bill (2019)

By 2020, Michigan had been top of the list of states that might legalize poker sites for several years. Starting in 2017,  former State Senator Mike Kowall began to champion legal online gambling, while State Representative Brandt Iden became its main proponent once Kowall retired. At first, Gov. Rick Snyder and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined to sign such a bill, because they were concerned that online gambling would hurt the state's lottery sales.

In late 2019, a new effort by State Sen. Curtis Hentel achieved success, as he worked on the Legal Internet Gambling Act with a lawmaker closely tied to Gov. Whitmer. She signed the bill, which legalized land-based sports betting along with online poker and casino sites. Online poker should launch sometime in 2022.

Future US Online Poker Legalization

Buzz about online gambling legalization has surrounded several US states over the past several years. Of those, Connecticut and New York inspire optimism among online gaming advocates, while California appears to be further from legal online poker than it has been in some time.

Connecticut Online Poker Bill of 2022

For three decades, Connecticut's two tribal casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, have been among the largest casinos in the world. In recent years, though, both have faced trouble from an increasingly fractured land-based gaming industry. The two gaming tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegan tribes, each want to boost revenues with online gambling.

Connecticut lawmakers introduced an online poker and online casino bill in 2019, but the measure did not have enough votes to pass. One issue was a lawsuit by MGM Resorts over the way land-based casinos were authorized in the state. In the three years since, the legal issues have abated somewhat, while support has coalesced around online gambling. The Connecticut tribes hope to see online gambling authorized in 2022.

New York Online Poker Laws

Meanwhile, New York state has been a perennial disappointment to those in the online gambling community. New York State Sen. Joe Addabbo has championed several online poker and casino bills in the legislature, while State Assemblyman Gary Pretlow has introduced several companion bills in the General Assembly. The online gambling bill of 2020 stalled, though the effect of the Covid pandemic stalled many initiatives that year. The debacle around former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's scandals and eventual resignation stalled momentum on many initiatives last year.

Nevertheless, the lack of momentum is notable, because several bills have failed in New York over the past 5 years. Proponents of online gambling expect Addabbo and Pretlow to introduce a new online poker bill in 2022, but it's anyone's guess whether such a bill has a chance to pass.

California Online Poker Laws

Since the 2011 DOJ opinion on the legal right of state to license online poker and casino sites, no state has seen more legalization bills than California. Over an 8-year period, 11 bills were introduced by 5 different California lawmakers. Each of those bills stalled because of a rift between the Golden State's land-based tribal casino operators.

One group, led by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, supported online poker legalization. A second group, led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, opposed legalized online poker. In California, the longstanding debate centered upon the entry of PokerStars to the state's online poker industry. The Morongo Band signed a deal with PokerStars -- plus the Bicycle Club of Los Angeles -- to launch online poker websites. Assuming the Morongo/PokerStars partnership would dominate the market, the Pechanga coalition squelched every attempt to pass licensed online poker.

Outside observers have pointed out to the interested parties that PokerStars doesn't dominate New Jersey, but often is a second-place finisher to the 888poker/Sportsbook/WSOP brand there. That argument hasn't changed anyone's stance, so the impasse continues. Since 2019, California lawmakers have shown little willingness to support a new online poker bill. For the time being, California appears to be a long way from legalized online poker.

In all three states -- plus other large US states like Texas, Ohio, and Florida -- US poker players can still play at offshore online poker sites. The great irony is blanket bans on poker do nothing to stop people playing -- it only drives them to offshore cardrooms.

Online Poker USA FAQ

Is it legal to play online poker in the US?

Yes. The US Department of Justice has never prosecuted an individual resident for playing online poker. Instead, the DOJ sanctions online poker operators and payment processors. Several US states license online poker sites: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Nevada.

How does OddsShark decide which are the best online poker sites?

It's a good idea to look at a variety of factors: game selection, welcome bonuses, deposit methods, safety, reputation, traffic, and prize pools. Different poker players will have different opinions on which factor is most important. Most poker review sites look at the casinos from a variety of angles, then rank them according to the criteria that the most card players consider. Your opinion might vary slightly.

What are the best online poker sites for US players?

Traffic is important for many players, because popular cardrooms have a bigger variety of events, more bet ranges, and bigger prize pools. Look for casinos that have a large and stable player community, use popular software, and offer a wide variety of cash games and tournaments.

Where do I play online poker if I don't live in a regulated poker state?

Players in the 44 US states without regulated poker sites can play at offshore online poker sites. Though the US Justice Department claims the right to ban online poker, it's never prosecuted a US resident for playing at offshore online cardrooms. These sites' servers are beyond their jurisdiction, so they have no authority to do so. US poker players won't have consumer protection at these sites, so do your research and choose sites with longstanding and good reputations.

Where is online poker legal in the United States?

From an individual player's perspective, online poker is legal in all 50 US states. You won't receive fines or charges for playing poker online in the privacy of your own home. The real question is where online poker is regulated and where it's unregulated. Six US states have regulated online poker: Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It's unregulated in the other states.

In what states is online poker legal?

Again, it's legal for US residents to play in all 50 US states. Even in states like Utah and Hawaii that have a 100% ban on all forms of gambling, authorities do not charge private citizens for playing poker online from computers in their home. In the 44 states without regulated online poker, though, you'll play without the kind of consumer protections or self-exclusion laws you'd get in regulated states. Instead, you'll need to pick trustworthy operators that are known for safety and fairness.

How do I win at online poker?

Study online poker strategy, then start playing at low stakes to hone your poker skills. While poker has elements of chance, it's also a game of skill. It's a game that can be beaten, but you have to understanding poker strategies and avoid poker's pitfalls. Read poker books, study poker tutorials, use poker tools (if allowed), and play a lot of hands of poker to improve.

How do I play poker online?

Sign up at a trusted and popular online poker room if you want to play poker online. These sites offer welcome bonuses and freerolls for new players, so play as much free poker online as possible when you're learning the game. If you haven't mastered poker strategies, play at the lowest stakes until you start to improve.

Once you consistently win at a lower stake, move up to the next set of bet limits and proceed. Continue to learn and improve as you go, build your poker bankroll, and slowly ascend to higher stakes cash games and tournaments. It all starts by signing up at an online poker site, though.

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