The Commonwealth state of Massachusetts is a heavily congested one, ranked 44th largest (or 7th smallest) in the US, but supporting the 14th largest population of 6,692,824 (est. 2013). Its historical status is unmatched, home to the landing point of the Mayflower, who founded Plymouth in 1620, as well as the nation’s oldest ‘higher learning’ facility, Harvard University, established in 1636. Biotechnology and finance are major economical contributors, and thanks to a new referendum, casino gambling will soon be adding to the tax coffers in the Bay State.
There are countless online poker players in Massachusetts to this day, despite the events of Black Friday in 2011, but many residents are unsure of whether it’s actually illegal to play for real money. It is the natural assumption of the majority that if the Bay State hasn’t legalized and regulated online poker, as was done in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey last year, it must be illegal, but that simply isn’t the case. The only way to determine the legalities of online poker in the Bay State is to examine the verbiage of its gambling laws.
Land-based Gambling in Massachusetts
A puritan-led state by historic nature, all forms of gambling in Massachusetts were outlawed for centuries. Bingo was legalized in 1931, and the first horse racing track opened in 1935, followed by a minimal legalization of gambling that resulted in the Massachusetts Lottery being established in 1971. It wasn’t until the fall of 2011 that casino gambling was finally legalized, permitting three casinos to be developed in the Bay State. None were slated to open until 2016, but Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville is ahead of schedule and expects to hold its grand opening in 2015.
An MGM branded casinos is destined for Springfield in 2016 and the third license, which will see another casino built in southeastern Massachusetts, has yet to be finalized. There has already been talk of expanding into the online poker industry once the casinos are up and running, but only time will tell if and when such an expansion is to take place.
Deciphering the Laws of Massachusetts as they relate to Online Poker
Next, we will examine the General Laws of Massachusetts as they pertain to gambling to determine what category online poker falls into; legal, illegal or a median grey area of the law. A brief meaning for each excerpt is supplied for clarification.
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|I-I-4-7 Definitions||“Illegal gaming,” a banking or percentage game played with cards, dice, tiles or dominoes, or an electronic, electrical or mechanical device or machine for money, property, checks, credit or any representative of value, but excluding:
(i) a lottery game conducted by the state lottery commission…
(ii) a game conducted under chapter 23K;
(iii) pari-mutuel wagering on horse races…and greyhound races…
(iv) a game of bingo…
(v) charitable gaming…
|Chapter 23K refers to all state-licensed forms of gambling. Online poker does not fall into that category, or any of the other excluded (legal) forms listed. However, poker is not a banking or percentage game, thus the definition of illegal gaming should not apply online poker.|
|IV-I-271 Crimes Against Public Policy||Section 1. Whoever, on a prosecution commenced within eighteen months after the commission of the crime, is convicted of winning at one time or sitting, by gaming or betting on the sides or hands of those gaming, except as permitted under chapter 23K, money or goods to the value of five dollars or more, and of receiving the same or security therefor, shall forfeit double the value of such money or goods.||Anyone convicted for illegal betting where the amount won is $5 or more per wager will be fined 2x the amount won. This law applies to all forms of gambling that occur within Massachusetts, but are not licensed by the state.|
|Section 2. Whoever, in a public conveyance or public place, or in a private place upon which he is trespassing, plays at cards, dice or any other game for money or other property, or bets on the sides or hands of those playing, except as permitted under chapter 23K, shall forfeit not more than fifty dollars or be imprisoned for not more than three months…||Again, chapter 23k refers to state-licensed gambling activities. Playing poker for money would be considered illegal under this definition, but note the requirement of the game occurring in a public place or private place upon which he is trespassing. So long as the player is in their own home, or welcomed in a private location, online poker should not be illegal under this section.|
|Section 5A. Whoever…possesses or uses any gambling device or parts for use therein shall be punished by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars… As used in this section, the term “gambling device” means any so called “slot machine” or any other machine or mechanical device an essential part of which is a drum or reel with insignia thereon, and which, when operated, may deal…or by the operation of which a person may become entitled to receive, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property…||A computer or mobile device used for playing online poker should not be defined as a gambling device because it does not contain the required drum or reel as part of its operation.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in Massachusetts?
Probably not. It appears that online poker, while not exactly legal or illegal, falls into a grey area of Massachusetts law. The text is not very precise, but is just clear enough that anyone arrested for playing real money Texas Holdem in their own home should be able to get out of it with a decent lawyer. Here’s why:
1. A computer or mobile device cannot be defined as a gambling device since they don’t feature drums or reels.
2. Playing cards for money/value (if not licensed by the state) is only illegal when it occurs in a public place or private place where the player is trespassing. Playing mobile poker on the city bus might be illegal, but not when sitting in your own home.
The only possible penalty that would apply is found under IV-I-271, Section 1., wherein winning $5 or more per bet at an illegal gambling activity suffers a fine of double the value of the wager. However, if playing online poker in one’s own private residence is not illegal, there should be no grounds for arrest in the first place.
Is Massachusetts working to Legalize Online Poker?
Yes. When Massachusetts legalized state-licensed casino gambling, State Representatives authored Amendment #365 to H.3400 allowing for online poker licenses. It would give the Massachusetts Gaming Commission the right to issue Category 3 License to permit the operation of internet card rooms. Online poker would be the only form of gambling licensed, with casino style gaming (slots, blackjack, etc.) excluded.
The laws are already in place to conduct regulated online poker in Massachusetts. It would merely take the proverbial flip of a switch to make it happen. Ostensibly, internet card rooms won’t come to the Bay State until the casino industry is up and running, but realistically, it’s just a matter of time.
Online Poker Players from Massachusetts
There are many online poker players native to Massachusetts, and while their access to major poker sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt was extinguished in 2011, they continue to grind the felt at other internationally-regulated poker sites. A few of the more recognizable names include Joe “BustYou79” Chase of Brockton, William “RideTheSploogeLuge” Foxen of Waltham, Mark “markdube” Dube of Newburyport and Andrew “ForeverL0st” / “RReckless1” Graham of Westford.
Land-Based Card Rooms in Massachusetts
Massachusetts lawmakers have only authorized two casino licenses to date, with a third set to be granted in southeastern Massachusetts once an appropriate host is approved. The first license was granted to Penn National, which is busy developing the new slots and video poker casino at Plainridge Park Racecourse. The casino is scheduled for a grand opening in 2015, but will not include a poker room. The second license went to MGM to open a casino in Springfield, and the plans do include a live poker room, but no launch date has been set.
Plainridge Park Casino (Opening 2015)
Location: Plainville, MA
Poker Room: No