Steve Ruddock is the content director for BettingUSA.com and the Editor-in-Chief of Gaming Law Review. Steve has covered the legal and legislative developments in the US gambling sector for more than a decade for online and print publications.
COVID-19 lockdowns increased our already considerable reliance on online services and products. Across the US, grocery stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues were shuttered, capacity-limited, or simply seen as an unnecessary risk to a weary populace, especially with online alternatives at their fingertips.
Unsurprisingly, some industries have thrived, including the US online poker industry.
COVID’s Impact on Gambling
COVID-19 shuttered casinos and the cardrooms contained therein. Even when casinos have reopened, poker rooms have largely remained closed or capacity-restricted due to the potential for transmission and the general public’s uneasiness about sitting at a tightly-packed table with several strangers for hours on end. That has sent many avid poker players back to their online poker roots. And with other entertainment venues still shuttered, new players have been drawn to the game.
That has sparked a resurgence in online poker’s popularity, what many have called a mini-boom. Online poker revenues are on the rise in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and operators have been able to increase prize-pools resulting in record-breaking online poker tournament series that would have been inconceivable pre-COVID.
That has the poker community hopeful that lawmakers will take notice and join the half-dozen states – Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan – that have legalized online poker.
There’s also some momentum towards the current crop of legal online poker states joining Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey in interstate online poker agreements.
With that as the backdrop, here’s the outlook for legal online poker in the US.
Don’t Expect Much from the Big States…
… But there is some hope in a couple of smaller states.
There’s been some chatter about online poker legalization in Indiana and Connecticut. While both states would be welcome additions to the legal online poker column, they’re not the major award previous online poker candidates were.
As far as big states go, there’s little optimism that a state like California or New York (previously considered strong candidates) will be in the online poker conversation in 2021. As such, the US online poker community should temper its expectations. Adding just Connecticut or just Indiana would be a big win, but even those will be difficult lifts.
Progress Hinges on the Wire Act
As bearish as the outlook is for new states, several states that have already legalized online poker can improve the US online poker situation overnight. What’s holding them back is the still unresolved Wire Act case.
The Wire Act case stems from the 2018 Department of Justice opinion that reversed a 2011 DOJ opinion that concluded the Wire Act only applied to sports betting.
The 2018 opinion resulted in two adverse outcomes:
- Pennsylvania was poised to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Association (an interstate online poker compact) with New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware but put its plans on pause following the 2018 Wire Act opinion.
- Michigan and West Virginia have since legalized online poker (along with online casino and sports betting). Unfortunately, they’ve followed Pennsylvania’s lead and placed online poker on the back burner due to its reliance on liquidity and their regulatory reluctance to enter interstate agreements because of the outstanding litigation.
Until the Wire Act case is resolved, progress on the online poker front will be slow.
Hopefully, that resolution will happen in 2021, either through New Hampshire prevailing in court or the incoming Biden administration deciding the 2018 opinion isn’t worth defending.
Interstate Agreements Could Be a Game Changer
Should the lingering Wire Act concern disappear, the US online poker market would quickly take shape.
With the additions of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia to the US online poker menagerie, every state would suddenly be worth fighting for. That wasn’t the case when the legal online poker states stood at three: New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware.
The first three states have a combined population of 13 million. The three newcomers boast a total population of nearly 25 million. Removing the Wire Act obstruction would fast-track the interstate agreements and bring the possibility of a legal, interstate online poker network to 38 million Americans.
If that becomes a reality, 2022 could be a big year for online poker legalization efforts in the US.