Legal Washington Poker Laws / Gambling Laws

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Washington Legal PokerRelevant State Code: 9.46.010 et seq.; 67.16.010 et seq.

Washington State has likely secured a place in the annals of online gambling thanks to the state's status as the first to explicitly outlaw the act of placing a bet online.  That is only one aspect of Washington's very strict approach to handling gambling activity, which rests on a broad definition of what it means to gamble: 

Section  9.46.0237
"Gambling," as used in this chapter, means staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under the person's control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.

Washington law also provides a further definition of "contest of chance":

Section  9.46.0225
"Contest of chance." as used in this chapter, 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.

Washington, therefore, applies the Material Degree Test to determine whether a game is one of chance.  Under this test, a game that involves substantial skill can still be considered a game of chance if chance still plays a significant role in the outcome.  Any form of gambling not expressly regulated is illegal per the state constitution of Washington.

Penalties in Washington for gambling violations are, by the letter of the law, quite severe.  Players are on the hook for charges ranging from gross misdemeanors to class C felonies.  Operators face at least a half-dozen unique felony charges (click here for information about associated sentences and fines).  

Despite (or perhaps due to) that formidable arsenal, Washington reported only 5 gambling-related arrests in 2011. 

Regulated Gambling Options in Washington

Washington State hosts tribal casinos, commercial casinos and a state lottery.  Wagering on horse racing, overseen by the Washington Horse Racing Commission, is available at tracks such as Emerald Downs.

There is an apparent exception for social gambling provided by the legal definition of "player" found in Washington law:

Section 9.46.0265
as used in this chapter, means a natural person who engages, on equal terms with the other participants, and solely as a contestant or bettor, in any form of gambling in which no person may receive or become entitled to receive any profit therefrom other than personal gambling winnings, and without otherwise rendering any material assistance to the establishment, conduct or operation of a particular gambling activity. A natural person who gambles at a social game of chance on equal terms with the other participants shall not be considered as rendering material assistance to the establishment, conduct or operation of the social game merely by performing, without fee or remuneration, acts directed toward the arrangement or facilitation of the game, such as inviting persons to play, permitting the use of premises for the game, or supplying cards or other equipment to be used in the games.

If no one pays a fee, no one profits, and all are on equal terms, social games of chance appear to be exempted from Washington gambling law.

Washington law grants broad exceptions to gambling activities conducted by approved charitable organizations.  Some forms of gambling (Vegas Nights, poker games) require a license, while others (raffles and some card games, depending on the organization) do not require a license.  Complete information about charitable gambling regulations can be found at the website for the Washington State Gambling Commission.

Can I Play Poker For Real Money Legally In Washington?

Yes.  Washington State is home to a number of casinos and card clubs that offer poker (albeit under some strange conditions).

Additionally, home games of poker appear to be legal as long as they adhere to the conditions set forth by Washington law.   Charitable poker games (tournaments only) are allowed at "Vegas Nights" in Washington when conducted in compliance with all rules and regulations.

Online poker is a different story.  Playing online poker is specifically criminalized (although officialsclaimplayersaren'tatarget) in Washington, a situation we'll discuss in more depth below.

Washington's Stance - Is Poker Legal in Washinton?

In 2006, Washington passed a law that amended their criminal code to include the act of placing or receiving bets online.  The law updated Section 9.46.240, which now reads:

Gambling information, transmitting or receiving.
Whoever knowingly transmits or receives gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphore, the internet, a telecommunications transmission system, or similar means, or knowingly installs or maintains equipment for the transmission or receipt of gambling information shall be guilty of a class C felony subject to the penalty set forth in RCW 9A.20.021.

Other states, such as Georgia and Connecticut, have similar "transmission" laws, but such laws generally fail to mention the Internet, focus exclusively on sports wagering or are only concerned with the party sending the information.  Transmission laws are generally also misdemeanor violations, whereas Washington's is a felony charge.

The Washington State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in 2010, rejecting a commerce clause argument brought by Lee Russo and the Poker Player's Alliance.

Noted gambling law expert I Nelson Rose published ananalysis of the law back at the time of passage that is still quite relevant today.  His basic conclusion: While the law does technically include players in its scope, the functional target of the law is operators and not players.

Washington Gambling Laws: Fun Facts
For a brief period, Washington law allowed a $500 "all-in" bet in addition to the $40 maximum bet state law currently enforces.  As strange as it was brief, the law was revised a few months later to remove the "all-in" bet.

A bill to except online poker players playing in their homes from Washington anti-gambling law stalledin 2008.

Online Gambling Headlines in Washington

Washington State law was invoked as part of a multi - million dollar asset seizure action in January 2011 against individuals allegedly involved in online gambling payment processing.

There have been no recent efforts of note to regulate online gambling in the state.

Likelihood of Online Poker Regulation in Washington

It would certainly be a bit ironic if one of the first states to outlaw online poker was also one of the first states to regulate it, but Washington appears to be quite a far distance from any sort of serious effort to regulate online poker (or online gambling of any sort).  The fractured nature of the state's current gambling industry would make garnering broad support for such a proposal difficult (see California for an example of how frustrating such a process can be), and there is no clear advocate for such a push in the state legislature.

Lacking those fundamental elements, the environment in Washington is simply inhospitable for online poker regulation.  As a result, online poker enthusiasts in Washington have a worse-than-average shot of seeing the game they enjoy regulated at any point in the foreseeable future.