Arkansas Legal Poker Laws

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Relevant state code: 5-66-101 et seq.; 23-110 et seq.

Like many other conservative southern states, Arkansas takes a restrictive approach to gambling. Though Arkansas may be nicknamed the “Land of Opportunity”, that promise doesn’t necessarily hold true for poker enthusiasts and those who like to place an occasional wager or two. While Arkansas at first embraced gambling after the Civil War – largely thanks to the influence of mobsters – public opinion eventually shifted and the status of gambling in Arkansas today is far different from what could have been.

Arkansas Gambling Laws

If you want to live in a state that pretty much completely bans gambling as you know it, pack your bags for Arkansas. There are actually two casinos in Arkansas but archaic gambling laws mean that the games you’ll find inside won’t look much like the poker, blackjack, and craps you probably know and love. Locals can also head to the horse track at Oaklawn Jockey Club or watch the dogs run at Southland Greyhound Park and there are some very low limit video poker and slot machines at both, but that’s the extent of that state’s leniency casino-wise. Table games are strictly forbidden.

Section 5-66-106

Take a look at the 2010 Arkansas Code, Section 5-66-106 and you’ll see that the law succinctly defines their stance on gambling:

  1. “It is unlawful for any person to bet any money or other valuable thing or any representative of anything that is esteemed of value on any game prohibited by state law.”

The phrase “any game prohibited by state law” leaves the powers that be plenty of room to decide what type of gaming they want to prohibit and that list can change at any time. That’s likely why parti-mutuel betting such as horse and dog racing is deemed okay while joining some strangers for a few rounds of Texas Hold’Em is a whole other kettle of fish. The vague language in the code also means that it could technically be illegal for Arkansas residents to make a bet on something as seemingly innocuous as how many fish two friends might catch during a weekend outing, which adds to the strangeness.

Another relevant section of the code is 5-66-107, “Gambling Devices”:

  1. "(a)It is unlawful for any owner or occupant of any house, outbuilding, or other building or any steamboat, or other vessel to knowingly permit or suffer any games, tables, or banks mentioned in ß 5-66-104 or permit or suffer any kind of gaming under any name, to be carried on or exhibited in his or her house, outbuilding, or other building, or on board of any steamboat, flatboat, keelboat, or other vessel on any of the waters within this state.
  2. (b) Upon conviction, a person who violates this section is guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor and shall be fined in any sum not less than one hundred dollars ($100) and may be imprisoned any length of time not less than thirty (30) days nor more than one (1) year."

Similar to many other states, Arkansas’ regulation of gambling devices is actually stricter than the regulation of gambling itself, putting the onus on organizations and hosts rather than individual players.

While there are racetracks and related gambling in Arkansas, wagering on other types of sports of games is illegal. So are card games like poker, although there are some exceptions for charitable gaming (bingo and raffles) and social gaming provided those gatherings follow all the rules laid out by the state.

As for online gambling, there are no regulations that specifically prohibit, ban, or otherwise regulate internet-based gaming.

Rather hilariously, just as Arkansas gambling laws are very similar to the way they were originally enacted in 1967, the penalties have also remained largely unchanged. If you’re convicted of gambling, you may be levied with a whopping fine of $10 or, for larger offenses, as much as $25 – hardly a deterrent and as those fines have not been updated, it seems that gambling penalties are not seen as a top-level item on the state’s agenda.

Arkansas Online Poker Laws

As mentioned, there are currently no laws on the books in Arkansas that deal with the particulars of online gambling by name, which is not surprising since the state still relies on laws that were written in the late 1960s, before computers and internet gaming were even fully conceptualized. That leads most online poker enthusiasts to feel pretty confident that they can play online and not worry about enforcement but the broad nature of basic anti-gambling laws means that interpretation could get gamblers in trouble when they least expect it.

Gambling laws that make “any game of change” during which “any money or property may be won” completely illegal could technically mean that online gambling is against the law, too, but with low fines and a legislature that seems to have little if any interest in cracking down on those who gambling in the privacy of their own home, the risk appears to be ridiculous low. The only thing that gamblers should keep an eye on is laws regarding “gaming devices”, which allow for a little more interpretation and relatively steeper fines, though the penalties are still close to laughable.

The most important takeaway is that there has yet to be a single occurrence of a gambler arrested for or charged with a crime as a result of online gambling. Could it happen? Sure, but it’s pretty unlikely. In the meantime, there are plenty of online casinos that welcome business from Arkansas residents and plenty of residents are happy to play.

Is it Legal to Play Poker in Arkansas?

The old-school gambling laws in Arkansas make it illegal to play poker for money in casinos, at home, or even for the sake of charity. One section of the Arkansas criminal code deals with poker in detail:

  1. “If a person bets any money or any valuable thing on any game of brag, bluff, poker, seven-up, three-up, twenty-one, vingt-et-un, thirteen cards, the odd trick, forty-five, whist, or at any other game of cards known by any name now known to the law or with any other or new name or without any name, upon conviction he or she is guilty of a violation and shall be fined in any sum not less than ten dollars ($10.00) nor more than twenty-five dollars ($25).”

So three things are clear: you can’t bet anything of value even if it’s not money, you can’t make up a new name for poker and expect to be granted a legal exception, and even if you’re caught the fine won’t cost you more than a night at the movies.

What the laws don’t address is any form of online poker although some conservative forces argue that the general gambling laws include language that could very well apply to internet-based gambling as well. That’s clearly a matter of interpretation and no one in a position of legal power seems to be interested in making any official clarifications.

Will Arkansas Regulate Online Poker?

This seems very unlikely. While it’s always possible that conservative factions will want precisely defined legislation that outlaws online poker or that more progressive groups will lobby for the exact opposite, at present there’s a status quo that no one’s very interested in disturbing. There’s a sort of “live and let live” attitude that prevails; as long as people aren’t gambling in the open in outright defiance of the law or flaunting their pastime, no one seems to care.

That said, the state lottery was only in enacted in 2009 and it passed because of the lottery’s ability to funnel money intended for the state’s educational system. If internet gambling could raise similar funds for state use, regulation and taxation could become an increasingly attractive option.

History of Gambling in Arkansas

If you think Las Vegas has rich, mob-related casino history, check out the background of an area in Arkansas called Hot Springs (now a spot practically synonymous with leisurely vacations and spa retreats). This federally protected reserve had gambling way back in the post-civil war era and the men in charge were gangsters who also controlled the area’s liquor. By the 1920s, Hot Springs had more than 10 casinos – more than Vegas boasted at the time – but that all changed in 1947 when the law blew through town and many of the big casino owners ended up in legal trouble. Gambling in Hot Springs came to an end in 1967.

The early 20th century brought baseball training camps to Arkansas and with the camps came a bump in tourism. Those visitors needed somewhere to go and the Oaklawn racetrack held the answer. That racetrack is still running today, albeit with some significant alterations and additions.

The law that closed down Hot Springs in 1967 is largely still in effect today with a few exceptions. In 2005, the infamous “Game of Skill” legislation took effect, allowing the state’s biggest racetracks to include electronic skill-based games. Though the machines in these so-called “racinos” don’t much in common with the slot machines you’d see in Atlantic City or Vegas as far as jackpots and options go, they’re still popular, and the potential for profits has led racetracks to try out new versions that combine electronics and live dealer options.

In 2007, the Charitable Bingo and Raffles Enabling Act allowed for some restricted versions of charitable gambling. Two years later, the Arkansas launched the state’s first lottery which was granted an exception due to its status as a fundraising “scholarship lottery” that would generate money funneled into the state’s education programs.

Also in 2009, Arkansas lawmakers allocated $200,000 from the state budget to help fight and treat gambling addiction. It was a bit of an odd move considering the heavy restrictions on gambling in the state which may be why the money was soon rerouted to other causes. The National Council on Problem Gambling stepped in to take up the slack. Using money contributed by the Oaklawn and Southland tracks, the council established a gambling helpline that aims to combat the proliferation of racino gambling which currently generates a staggering $3.5 billion in legal wagers on an annual basis. Funding was for problem gambling was cut in 2015 by lawmakers and as of 2017, the NCPG continued to fund the hotline and basic services without the asistance of the Arkansas government.