Legal Poker / Online Gambling Sites in Massachusetts

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Relevant state code: 271§1 et seq.; 128A§1 et seq.

Rich in history and tradition, Massachusetts is caught between the past and the present when it comes to the issue of gambling.  The state has recently embarked on a major expansion of regulated gambling, but still maintains a somewhat arcane approach to unregulated gambling.  Such gambling is dealt with very strictly in Massachusetts, and the definition of illegal gambling is very broad.  Consider the following:

Chapter 271, Section 1
Whoever, on a prosecution commenced within eighteen months after the commission of the crime, is convicted of winning at one time or sitting, by gaming or betting on the sides or hands of those gaming, money or goods to the value of five dollars or more, and of receiving the same or security therefor, shall forfeit double the value of such money or goods.

Chapter 271, Section 2
 Whoever, in a public conveyance or public place, or in a private place upon which he is trespassing, plays at cards, dice or any other game for money or other property, or bets on the sides or hands of those playing, shall forfeit not more than fifty dollars or be imprisoned for not more than three months; and whoever sets up or permits such a game shall be punished by a fine of not less than fifty nor more than one hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not less than three nor more than twelve months.

Additional violations found in the statute further expand the definition of illegal gambling, but you get the basic idea from the above - if a form of gambling isn't explicitly permitted by Massachusetts law, the state likely considers that gambling to be illegal.

As for penalties, Massachusetts has over a dozen unique individual charges that can be levied against both players and operators.  Those who merely participate in games have greater legal risk in Massachusetts than in the average US state, with players technically being eligible for gaming device charges (and a handful of other charges) that are generally reserved for operators.

The true nature of that risk obviously must include a sense of how likely the laws are to be enforced; our research did not identify Massachusetts as a state that appears to be eager to prosecute individual gamblers.  One of the only recent stories we could locate involving a police raid of a poker game ended with no charges for players and an effective dismissal of charges for the operator.

Massachusetts: Legal Forms of Poker / Gambling

Massachusetts has a veritable buffet of regulated gambling options.  The state recently expanded into commercial casinos (an expansion that hasn't been without issues) and also plays host to tribal casinos, pari-mutuel wagering on horseracing and a state lottery. 

There is a limited, but explicit, social gambling exception in Massachusetts that allows seniors to conduct beano games.  Past that, you could argue that the law in Massachusetts doesn't really cover gambling in the home where no one acts as the house or takes a charge, but the law on the matter isn't settled.

Massachusetts permits charitable gambling in a number of forms, including raffles and other games of chance.  For a complete rundown of the rules governing charitable gambling, visit the website for the Massachusetts Attorney General.

Can People Play Poker Legally in Massachusetts?

In a regulated commercial or charitable environment, yes - poker is legal in Massachusetts.

Otherwise, playing poker for anything of value seems to be clearly covered under the "cards, dice or any other game for money" part of Massachusetts law regarding gambling.  The one area where things get trickier:  Home poker games where no rake or charge is taken seem to be permissible under the law, which requires that the action take place in a "public conveyance or public place, or in a private place upon which he is trespassing" - an aspect of the statute which would seem to specifically protect gambling in the home, assuming the primary purpose of the home isn't to conduct said gambling.

Massachusetts appears to have a fairly relaxed attitude toward enforcement when it comes to individual poker players, but the bigger the game gets in terms of players and money, the more likely it is to attract the attention of officials.

Can I Play Online Poker Legally in Massachusetts? 

There is no law currently on the books in Massachusetts that explicitly prohibits gambling over the Internet - which could include online poker sites.   Massachusetts does have a law (Chapter 271, Section 17A) concerning use of a telephone for gambling purposes, but it appears limited in scope to those taking the bet and whether or not the law can be equally applied to the Internet remains an open question.

Individuals using online poker sites and online casinos seem unlikely to run afoul of any law in Massachusetts - assuming they don't play in public or in a commercial establishment used for gambling.  Since much of the gambling law in the state is over 100 years old, any reading of it for applicability to the Internet will naturally involve some interpretation and assumptions.

Massachusetts Gambling Laws: Fun Facts
Dog racing was outlawed in Massachusetts in 2009.

Case law and precedent in Massachusetts suggests that the state views poker as a game of chance and not one of skill.

Recent Headlines for Massachusetts and Online Poker

Massachusetts made online gambling headlines in 2010 for a failed attempt to explicitly criminalize online poker (along with other forms of Internet gambling).

In 2011, State Rep Dan Winslow announced plans to attach an online poker amendment to casino legislation (failed), and then again in 2012 as an amendment to a budget bill (withdrawn).

Will Massachusetts Move to Regulate and Legalize Online Poker?

It's tempting to think so.  After all, online poker seems to have an advocate in Rep. Winslow, and the state did approve expanded gambling relatively recently.  An official state commission - the Treasurer's Online Products Task Force - is studying the issue of online gambling.   Task force head (and State Treasurer) Steve Grossman recently told reporters that: “I think we’ve got an obligation to the people of the commonwealth to study the whole basket of (Internet gaming options) — including online poker.” 

Massachusetts also has what most would consider to be a sufficient population for supporting an intrastate poker room (along with high urban density), and would have no shortage of potential partners for an interstate network.

All of that would seem to indicate a favorable environment for regulating online poker in Massachusetts.  With that said, the current difficulties faced by the fledgling commercial casino industry might portend rough going for any bill to regulate online gambling.  Ultimately, Massachusetts has a reasonable chance to regulate online poker in the next three years, and certainly is more likely than average among US states to do so.

Written by Christine Davies

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