Iowa Online Poker / Gambling Laws

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Legal Iowa Poker SitesRelevant state code: 99.1 et seq.; 725.5 et seq.

Gamblers in Iowa have one of the broadest menus of regulated gambling to choose from, but the consequence of that variety is a set of robust laws addressing unregulated gambling.  The methods used by Iowa to control unregulated gambling are very strict and rest on a very broad statutory definition of gambling:

Section 725.1(1)
A person shall not do any of the following:

a.  Participate in a game for any sum of money or other property of any value.
b.  Make any bet.
c.  For a fee, directly or indirectly, give or accept anything of value to be wagered or to be transmitted or delivered for a wager to be placed within or without the state of Iowa.

Iowa, along with other states such as Indiana and Illinois, basically prohibits just about any form of unregulated gambling by identifying the act of wagering as the chargeable offense.  While Iowa law makes frequent mention of "games of skill" and "games of chance,"  the laws of the state do not make any specific exceptions for games of skill.

The penalties for violating Iowa gambling law are somewhat unique (and potentially severe).  The penalty aspect of Iowa gambling law does not appear to distinguish between players and operators.  Additionally, the penalties are structured to increase as the amount of money involved in the gambling offense increases - if the total involved in the game is under $100, you're looking at illegal gaming in the fourth degree; $101 to $500 gets you illegal gaming in the third degree; $501 to $5000 is second degree and over $5000 is first degree.  Previous gambling-related convictions can also boost your charge.

Our research revealed only a handful of gambling-related charges in Iowa over the last few years.  With that said, the potential charges involved with unregulated gambling in Iowa still stand out for their severity and failure to draw a clear distinction between players and operators.

What Types of Gambling Are Legal in Iowa?

Just about every kind of regulated gambling that you'll find in the US is available within Iowa.  The state offers a regulated lottery, pari-mutuel wagering on horse and dog racing (including simulcasts from other states), commercial casinos and tribal gambling.  Select casino games are also permitted at the state's racetracks.

Iowa has an exception for social gambling or, as they call it, "games between individuals."  The exception is very limited - by the letter of the law, no person in the game can win or lose more than $50 in a 24-hour period.  Even more absurd: The law specifically dictates that "winnings" include any money wagered by the player in the course of the game, so if you won a $55 pot that you had bet $25 into, your win would be $55 and you'd be in violation of the law.

Iowa does allow charitable gambling.  Appropriately licensed organizations may conduct a variety of gambling activities, including game nights, raffles, bingo and so on.  For a more complete list of games and the relevant licenses required, visit the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals Social and Charitable Gambling website

Is Playing Poker For Money Legal in Iowa?

The answer is a clear "yes" if you're playing at a commercial casino, Indian casino or any other licensed location.  For social games, small-stakes poker appears to be well within Iowa law.

Past those examples, there appear to be few situations where you can play poker for money and be in compliance with Iowa law.  The state's position on what constitutes illegal gambling would seem to clearly include games of poker where something of value is at stake.

It should be noted that the gap between the letter of gambling law and actual enforcement of that law appears to be quite wide in Iowa; however, the potential penalties may lead many to conclude that the risk, no matter how remote, isn't justifiable.

Can I Play Poker Legally at an Iowa Poker Site? 

No part of the statute at the time of our review mentioned Internet-based gambling or online poker specifically.  A close reading of the core violation of gambling reveals language that could be seen as applicable to online betting:

Section 725.1(1)
A person shall not do any of the following: [...]

c. For a fee, directly or indirectly, give or accept anything of value to be wagered or to be transmitted or delivered for a wager to be placed within or without the state of Iowa.

While no laws on Iowa's books directly address the issue, many would no doubt contend that the existing laws designed to prohibit unregulated land-based wagering would apply equally to gambling activities conducted online while in Iowa.

Iowa Gambling Laws: Fun Facts
Iowa was the first state to regulate riverboat gambling (in 1989).

Recent Headlines for Iowa and Online Poker

Iowa was in the news again in early 2012 as a result of a proposed bill to regulate online poker in the state.  Like previous attempts to pass online poker regulation in Iowa, the bill appears to have permanently stalled.

Will Iowa Regulate Online Poker Soon?

States that have seen online poker legislation proposed and shot down are a unique case.  It's hard to dismiss the fact that the bill failed, as it indicates either serious opposition or a lack of support.  However, it's also hard to dismiss the significance of the bill coming to life in the first place - it's a crucial step in the process that often indicates significant underlying activity on the part of lawmakers and gambling industry stakeholders.

Iowa has shown a historic willingness to expand gambling, first with riverboats and then with racinos.  A 2011 report prepared by the Iowa Department of Public Health on the public health impacts of regulating online poker landed in squarely neutral territory on the issue.  Those factors, when combined with the apparent legislative support for regulating online poker, make Iowa one of the better bets to regulate online poker in the next few years.  Their timetable would definitely accelerate if a neighboring state such as Illinois were to act on the matter first.

Written by Christine Davies

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