It’s a tradition as old as suburbia itself. The backyard (or rec room or garage) poker game. A small group of friends get together, pull out some cards and chips, and play some poker while they enjoy drinks and snacks. It’s such a common thing that it’s become a sitcom trope.
Are all those private poker games among friends illegal? What if nobody in the game is under 18, does that make a difference? Does it matter if you charge admission? What makes a private poker game, played behind closed doors among consenting adults, illegal?
I started getting more of these questions during and after the poker boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, and they really intensified after all the UIGEA and poker crackdown nonsense. People got legitimately paranoid about playing poker due to all the headlines.
Here’s the good news – for the most part, private poker games are totally legal, and people who play in them don’t face any real threat of prosecution or harassment by law enforcement.
Let’s start this discussion on the legality of home poker games with some definitions, just so we’re clear on what exactly we’re talking about.
A Little Bit of Lawyer Talk
By anyone’s definition, poker is a skill game. That means the outcome of the game is determined mainly by the player’s skill and not random chance. The opposite of a game of skill is a game of chance – that’s one where the winner is determined mainly by random chance.
This distinction is important because more jurisdictions outlaw games of chance than games of skill.
The skill elements of poker go beyond using gambling strategy. Skilled poker players are experts at the psychological side of the game and learn to work out difficult probabilities on the fly.
Check out this piece in the NYT on a federal judge’s 2012 ruling that winning consistently at games like Texas Hold’em requires an “array of talents” that go beyond random chance.
Also, in most cases, private poker games aren’t what are known as “percentage games.” Percentage games are outlawed in lots of US states – this is basically any game where the house takes a percentage of the pot, sometimes called a rake. Rules on rake vary from state to state, and I cover this in more detail further down the page.
By most interpretations of gambling law, you aren’t gambling until there’s a prize element, a consideration element, and a strong amount of random chance influencing the outcome. A couple of court cases have found that poker doesn’t qualify as gambling under this interpretation, since the random chance element plays such a small role.
All of that dry stuff up above is important. It’s what separates the game of poker from a game like a slot machine. Clearly, luck plays a huge element in slot play – it isn’t so obvious that the world’s best poker players are getting by consistently on luck alone.
State Law and Private Poker Games
Federal law doesn’t address private home poker games directly, leaving that authority up to state governments and gambling agencies. That means Americans who want to run a private poker game legally have to do some research into the specific state laws in the jurisdiction where they live.
It also means that private poker game legality in America resembles a patchwork quilt, with some states allowing those games explicitly under the right conditions, with others outlawing them altogether, with no room for interpretation or playing by the rules.
It’s important to consider the purpose of these laws. For the most part, US states that have outlawed a form of gambling did so a very long time ago, sometimes hundreds of years in the past.
These laws were designed to protect citizens from widespread illegal gambling. Without these laws, unmonitored private casinos could rip their customers off and cause big problems in small frontier towns.
Most states aren’t interested in preventing truly private games played among friends behind closed doors – instead, their gaming laws are designed to prevent organized crime from running illegal casinos without oversight.
A Look at US State Laws about Private Poker Games
I’m not going to give specifics for all fifty states – that’s a massive undertaking, and its information that’s freely available elsewhere online.
Alabama Private Poker Law
If you read Title 13A-12-21 of Alabama law, you’ll find a defense against prosecution built in to the state’s laws against gambling. Basically, if a player can argue that they were playing in a social game in a private place, they won’t be convicted of illegal gambling.
Alabama is one of a dozen or so states that crafted this specific defense when they updated their gambling laws over the past century. It’s designed to protect what’s seen as an age-old social institution in the state, the private home poker game between friends.
California Private Poker Law
You’d think an uber-progressive state like California would have strict anti-poker laws. That’s not the case when it comes to private home games.
California law says outright that games played with cards in private homes, in which no person makes money for operating the game, are legal and protected forms of play.
Provided the host of your game doesn’t make any money for serving as host, your game is legal, and nobody playing is committing an illegal act.
Florida Private Poker Law
People think Florida has relatively liberal social gambling laws, and that’s usually true for conservative states in the South. I don’t think Florida is really a private poker-friendly state. Yes, Florida allows social gambling like private poker games, but the state also imposes a limit on winnings.
Here’s a quote from Title 46, Section 849 of Florida’s Constitution –
“it is not a crime for a person to participate in a game … if such game is conducted strictly in accordance with the law … in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value.”
It’s not clear how a state agency would know that you handed out $10.50 instead of just $10 for a given hand, but that’s what the law says.
Kansas Private Poker Law
Kansas has one of the broadest definitions of illegal gambling of any US state. According to Chapter 21, Article 43, Sections 2 and 3 of the Kansas Constitution, gambling is “making a bet” or even “entering … a gambling place with intent to make a bet.”
There’s no exception made for any game, whether it’s social or not. If you host or play in a private poker game in Kansas, you’re technically breaking the law. Again, it’s unclear how you’d get caught, but the state has the right to intervene if they discover your game.
Texas Private Poker Law
While Texas has some of the nation’s toughest gambling laws, state law honors the practice of private, social gambling. Look in Section 47.02 of state law, and you’ll see a built-in defense to prosecution for illegal gambling.
If you play poker in “a private place” (undefined), you’re not guilty of illegal gambling. Thanks to an almost total lack of legal casinos in the state, private poker games are extremely popular in Texas. They’re also extremely legal.
How to Make a Private Poker Game Legal
Here’s what you can do to protect your private poker game:
- don’t rake the pots – in some states, you’re allowed to rake up to a certain number of times or a certain percentage. If you’re going to rake pots at your private game, be sure you’re doing so within the confines of your state’s gaming laws.
- don’t charge admission – in most US states, your private game is private so long as players aren’t charged any kind of admission. This also prevents operators from doing things like selling food. If you’re planning to charge admission to your game, consult a lawyer to be sure you’re not breaking a state gaming law.
- don’t advertise the game – if law enforcement doesn’t know about your game, you’re unlikely to get busted.
- don’t go overboard – social poker laws are designed to protect true private social gambling among friends. Inviting dozens of friends over every other night to play poker is going to be obvious and annoying to your neighbors. Keep it simple and small.
Just because a state has a law against illegal gambling on the books, you may not need to be worried about playing in a private poker game.
For starters, some states have carved out protection for people playing in private games. Another consideration – very few people have ever been prosecuted for illegal gambling in America. Most American law enforcement actions against illegal gambling are against illegal providers or operators of games of chance.
I’m not a lawyer. This post doesn’t constitute legal advice. If you’re genuinely concerned about the legality of your home poker game, consult a lawyer familiar with your state’s gaming laws.