Hawaii Online Poker & Gambling Laws

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Legal Hawaii Poker SitesRelevant state code: 712-1220 et seq.

Hawaii is one of only two states in the US that has no regulated forms of gambling, a distinction that the state shares with Utah.  Hawaii takes a very strict approach to the prohibition of gambling and operates under a very broad statutory definition of gambling:  

Section 712-1220(4)
A person engages in gambling if he stakes or risks something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under his control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that he or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome

While the presence of "contest of chance" in the above definition might seem to leave some legal wiggle room, Hawaii law also comes equipped with a broad definition for such contests:

Section 712-1220(3)
"Contest of chance" means any contest, game, gaming scheme, or gaming device in which the outcome depends in a material degree upon an element of chance, notwithstanding that skill of the contestants may also be a factor therein
.

What exactly does "material degree" mean?  Hawaii doesn't define the test in their law, but a definition from Washington State law should help to clarify.  Washington law provides the following two-prong test for determining whether a material degree of skill exists in an amusement game:

WAC 230-13-100
We consider a "material degree of skill" to be present when both of these requirements are met:

 (1) The player's physical or mental abilities play an important and integral role in determining the outcome of the game; and

 (2) The success rate of the average player would improve with repeated play or practice.

One could conclude a slight inversion of the above definition would produce a workable definition of "material degree of chance."  Alternatively, one could consider it as a legal test similar to the Dominant Factor Test employed by many other states to distinguish between games of skill and game of chance.  While some legal experts believe Material Degree and Dominant Factor to be practically identica ltests, others have concluded that a test of material degree essentially raises the skill threshold - that is to say that, under the Material Degree Test, a game could be dominated by skill but still be defined as a game of chance if chance played a minority, but significant (or material), role in the outcome of the game.

Individual players do not appear to be the focus of gambling law in Hawaii.  Instead, the majority of charges and penalties are directed at those who run, promote, assist or otherwise facilitate illegal gambling operations.

What Forms of  Gambling are Legal in Hawaii?

As mentioned above, Hawaii has no forms of regulated gambling.  That means no lottery, no horse or dog racing, no casinos and no cardrooms. 

Social gambling is the lone exception to Hawaii's stringent gambling laws.  For gambling to fall under the social exemption in Hawaii, it must occur under strict conditions:  No one can profit from the game, a rule that extends even to profit from the sale of food and beverages at the game.  The game also cannot occur anywhere besides in the home (and possibly private clubs), and everyone must be of legal age.

Hawaii does not permit charitable gambling.

Can I Play Poker for Money Legally in Hawaii?

If you're playing in a social game that fits within Hawaii's criteria, you're fine.  Otherwise, you are potentially in violation of the law when you play poker for stakes in Hawaii, whether in a live setting or online.

While poker is not specifically mentioned in the law, case law in Hawaii has concluded that wagering something of value on games of skill runs a foul of the state's gambling statutes.  The chance of an individual player facing prosecution for participating in a poker game remains quite low, and the penalties for individual players under Hawaii law are relatively minor.

Is it Legal to Play Poker Online in Hawaii?

We could not locate any aspects of Hawaii law that specifically address the issue of playing poker on a poker site in Hawaii.

As no forms of gambling besides limited social gambling are allowed under Hawaii law, operating or participating in the operation of an online casino or poker room would appear to be clearly in violation of the law. 

Recent updates to Hawaii law (2009) includes a revision of the charge possession of a gambling device that could prove problematic for online poker players and online casino patrons:

Section 712-1226
A person commits this offense, a misdemeanor, “if the person manufactures, sells, transports, places, possesses, or conducts or negotiates any transaction affecting or designed to affect ownership, custody, or use of any gambling device, knowing it is to be used in the advancement of gambling activity which is not social gambling.”

Under that definition, the computer used by the player for poker or casino games could conceivably be considered to be a gambling device.  That statutes banning the promotion of gambling (Section 712-1221) could also apply to individual gamblers.

Summary:  It appears that you cannot be involved in online poker for real money as either an operator of a poker site or a participant wouldn't be in compliance with Hawaii law.

Hawaii Online Poker Laws - Recent Developments

There have been a few attempts in the last couple of years to introduce regulated online gambling / online poker to Hawaii.  A failed attempt in 2011 (SB 755) sought to redefine poker as a game of skill and allow both land-based and online poker sites.  A series of bills that were introduced following the DOJ's Wire Act position revision in early 2012 (including SB2980) sought to establish a regulatory authority for online gambling in the state, but those bills all died a quick legislative death.

What are the Chances That Hawaii Will Regulate Online Poker?

Minimal.  While recent bills might suggest momentum in the direction of regulation to some, to others they are representative of Hawaii's long-running flirtation with regulating gambling and nothing more.

Any regulated gambling in a state where no regulated gambling exists would likely face unique and significant hurdles.  We see no reason why Hawaii would prove an exception to this rule, and as such have little optimism regarding the potential for regulated intrastate (or interstate) online poker in the state anytime soon.

Written by Christine Davies

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