5 Interesting American Gambling Laws

Map of the United States With A Gavel and Gambling Laws Written on it

I know that it might come as a shock, but not all US laws make sense. In fact, you’ve probably come across lists of so-called “blue laws” and other seemingly nonsensical restrictions placed on US citizens in various parts of the country. Lists like this seem to be their own genre. And every few years the, “weird laws” memes make the social media rounds.

For example, a small county in Alabama forbids wearing a fake mustache in church. A funny one from the state of Texas declares it a misdemeanor to sell your own eye—either one of them, of course. In a rural West Virginia county, people caught whistling underwater face a fine of not more than $20. These laws may have made sense at one time, but they’re just foolish to us now.

People are often surprised by the complexity of gambling laws in America, and it’s a fun topic of conversation among other gambling enthusiasts.

I think you can learn a lot about the industry by taking a little dive into some of the more bizarre aspects of US gambling laws.

Here are five laws in the United States about gambling that, for one reason or another, absolutely blow my mind.

#1 – Five States Ban Slot Machine Ownership

I can understand forbidding people from owning and operating real money slot machines, particularly in states where casino gambling is generally forbidden. I can also understand how areas, where casino gambling is a huge industry, might want to make ownership of working machines illegal to prevent an underground industry of small-scale slot gaming.

But I will never understand the five states that make it a crime to own even a non-working slot or video poker game.

If you live in Hawaii, Connecticut, Nebraska, South Carolina, or Tennessee, it is against the law (in all but one case a misdemeanor) to own even a deactivated or antique slot machine.

It doesn’t matter if the machine has been conditioned specifically not to run, or if it’s clearly being used as set dressing in a movie or play. In these states, no exception exists. Own a slot, get caught, spend some time on a cot.

In Hawaii, you’re eligible for a felony charge should you be caught a second time in ownership of any slot, even one with no working brain, no working guts, or no symbols. Hawaii’s law is so loose, it’s not clear that even a toy or replica machine that hands out gum or candy would be within the confines of the law. It’s a bit much.

#2 – The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006

I don’t want to rant too long here. So, when it comes to the UIGEA of 2006, I’ll just point out a couple of things that I thought were a bit much.

  1. This law was passed as part of an anti-terrorism bill. You read that right. A law regulating online gambling couldn’t pass on its own two feet, instead requiring lawmakers to sneak it into an unrelated bill just for it to see the light of day.
  2. Designed to have an impact on surging web-based betting, and to get the US government involved in the cash flow, the UIGEA actually did very little. Despite the hoopla, the UIGEA had very little in the way of teeth. What it actually accomplished was merely scare away big banks from their early tiptoes into the business.
  3. The UIGEA doesn’t do what most people think it does. It doesn’t make all online gambling illegal—far from it. In fact, some forms of online gambling are totally exempt from the UIGEA’s rules and regs. Daily fantasy sports betting is one example of a hugely popular gaming format that the UIGEA can’t touch. Online lotto sales and certain forms of legal sports betting are likewise free and clear.

At the end of the day, what the UIGEA does do is create enough red tape to frighten away most, but not all, financial bodies from doing business with some forms of online casino and card play.

#3 – Texas Hold’em Is Illegal in Texas

The headline here is mostly for shock value. Technically, poker is played in Texas. The legal game isn’t much like traditional poker. Many restrictions exist which turn it into more of a friendly contest than a skill game for cash. What the headline should say is, traditional Vegas-style Texas Hold’em isn’t available in Texas. It’s ironic considering, you know, the namesake of the game.

Texas State Flag

The state of Texas allows some legal forms of gambling. For example, Texas Lotto is big business, and the state still operates a number of dog and horse races. Charities are allowed to host bingo and table games, as long as the host entity doesn’t profit from the event.

You’ll find plenty of card rooms in the state, but you may not get from them what you’re used to:

Since poker games are illegal in public places, you’ll need to find and join a private club. The cost of these memberships is the only real legal way for providers of poker gambling in Texas to earn income, so the fees are higher than you may be thinking. $10 or $20 for a day of membership isn’t uncommon, and the costs are trending upward.

For the purpose of gaming law, “public spaces” in Texas can include everything from hospitals, schools, and businesses to private homes and apartments, even hotel and motel rooms. So, where do these clubs exist? Inside private businesses, often in less attractive areas of town.

Another difference between legal Texas poker and what you’ll usually get in gambling halls is that there’s no rake or really any profit allowed for anyone in the club except for skill-based winnings. That means there’s no outside bets or profit for the game’s host beyond admission or food costs. Some legal spots get around this by charging exorbitant rates for inexpensive food items, but this is technically illegal and can get the room in big trouble.

#4 – Sunday Gambling Blues

A list of areas in America where forms of gambling normally allowed become verboten at midnight on Sunday morning would be several miles long.

To understand these laws, remember that when a lot of state law was being codified, basically throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Sunday was “the Lord’s day.” And most, if not all, citizens were churchgoing people.

St. Therese Little Flower Parish Front Entrance

This gave the church a strong natural lobby and influence when it came to vices. Drinking, smoking, prostitution, and gaming were all seen as unnatural pursuits on the Lord’s day, and many US counties and cities went out of their way to make sure people didn’t have a good time instead of, I don’t know, sitting in church being told how to vote.

While some of these so-called “blue laws” have been changed or redacted over the years, as more progressive values took over, many are around to this day.

It’s not a bad idea to check local law before taking part in even normally legal games of chance or skill on Sundays.

#5 – North Carolina’s Bizarre Bingo Rules

When I think of playing bingo for real money, I think of low-stakes playful betting, prizes like gift certificates and free couple’s massages, and church barbecues in the summer. I’ve never seen or heard of a bingo game that needed much regulation.

The state of North Carolina obviously disagrees. In fact, the state’s penal code explicitly states that no bingo game is allowed to go on longer than five hours.

Expanding their opinions on what is otherwise seen as a harmless game of chance, the administrative code allows hosts to take part in only one five-hour session within any 48-hour period and limits individual prizes to no more than $500, in cash or other value.

I can understand rake restrictions and limits on high roller slots and such, but putting the brakes on the slowest-paced and friendliest game in the industry? That’s wild.

Our Final Thoughts

The next time you’re enjoying a legal game of poker or placing a sports wager at a legit sportsbook, think of the people affected by the ridiculous legal statutes described above.

It’s good to be grateful for what you have, and now that you know how Byzantine the legality of placing bets in our own country can be, maybe you’ll feel motivated to take better advantage of what’s available to you.

By highlighting the way-out-there stuff in American gaming laws, I hope to have celebrated the richness of our country’s gaming industry. And if you are looking to find your state’s online gambling laws, look no farther than our legal section.

And hey, maybe you’ll think twice before whistling the next time you find yourself in a West Virginia riverbed.