The District of Columbia, often referred to as Washington DC, is the capital of the United States of America. Situated on the eastern coastline and nestled snuggly between the states of Maryland and Virginia, it is ranked the 23rd most populace city in the US with 658,893 residents (est. 2014). That’s more than the entire state of Wyoming or Vermont, despite having a land mass of just 61.4 square miles. And being the central government of the nation, one might naturally assume that playing online poker in the District of Columbia is an outright crime.
We know that internet poker is a legally regulated activity in just three US states—Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey. That’s enough information to determine that online poker is not specifically legal in Washington DC. However, there’s a grey line that often separates illegal activities from legal ones, and in many US territories, the legalities of online poker fall within that grey area.
To understand where online poker stands in the District of Columbia, we’ll examine the current gambling laws of the region.
Land-based Gambling in the District of Columbia
There are very few gambling options available in the District of Columbia. Charitable games, including bingo, raffles and Texas Hold’em tournaments, are held on occasion, and the lottery has been in operation since 1982, but that’s about it. Technically, pari-mutuel betting is legal, but there haven’t been any horse or dog racing tracks in operation for a very long time. Washington DC has no casinos or live poker rooms to speak of, either.
Deciphering the Online Poker Laws of the District of Columbia
The Code of the District of Columbia defines the laws of Gambling under Title 22, Chapter 17. The following text is taken directly from that section, but includes only subsections that may apply to the legality of online poker in Washington DC.
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|§22–1704 Gaming; setting up gaming table; inducing play.||Whoever shall in the District set up or keep any gaming table, or any house, vessel, or place, on land or water, for the purpose of gaming, or gambling device commonly called A B C, faro bank, E O, roulette, equality, keno, thimbles, or little joker, or any kind of gaming table or gambling device adapted, devised, and designed for the purpose of playing any game of chance for money or property, or shall induce, entice, and permit any person to bet or play at or upon any such gaming table or gambling device, or on the side of or against the keeper thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term of not more than 5 years and, in addition, may be fined not more than the amount set forth in § 22‑3571.01.||The phrase “any kind of gaming table or gambling device adapted, devised, and designed for the purpose of playing any game of chance for money or property” could target online poker games played on a computer or mobile device. However, this law is aimed at “whoever shall… set up or keep a gaming table”, which points to the person or operator responsible for hosting the game, or anyone promoting its availability.
The punishment for doing so is up to 5 years in jail and a possible fine of up to $12,500. But note that players are not penalized in this section.
|§22–1707 “Gaming table” defined.||All games, devices, or contrivances at which money or any other thing shall be bet or wagered shall be deemed a gaming table within the meaning of §§ 22‑1704 to 22‑1706; and the courts shall construe said sections liberally, so as to prevent the mischief intended to be guarded against.||Although the above law states “any game of chance”, and fails to mention any element of skill being involved, §22–1707 makes it clear that “all games…at which money…shall be bet” are considered a gaming table. Therefore poker does fall under the definition of a gaming table.|
|§22–1716 Statement of purpose.
[under Subchapter II, Legalization]
|It is the purpose of this subchapter to legalize lotteries, daily numbers games, bingo, raffles, and Monte Carlo night parties, which activities are to be conducted only by the District of Columbia and only those licensed by the District of Columbia and subject to the jurisdiction, authority, and control of the District of Columbia. These activities will provide revenue to the District of Columbia and will provide the citizens of the District of Columbia financial benefits.||This law defines what gambling activities are legal for charitable purposes when presented by an authorized operator licensed in the District of Columbia. Texas Holdem tournaments would fall under the category of Monte Carlo night parties, thus charitable poker tournaments are legal when conducted in accordance with the law.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in the District of Columbia?
Maybe not. Responsible for defining the laws for all of the ‘free world’, you would expect the gambling laws of Washington DC to offer a bit more clarity. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The ambiguity of the text places online poker into a vast grey area of the law.
While a computer or mobile device used to play online poker could be considered a “gaming table” by definition, the penalties are only placed upon those who set up and/or promote such games. Thus it would seem that online poker operators stand to face a stiff penalty, but no consequence is defined for players who participate in a potentially illegal online poker game.
The same can be said of home poker games. Setting up, hosting or inviting people to play in a social, home poker game appears to be illegal, but again, no law defines a penalty for those simply participating as players.
Note that the only gambling activities in which the player is specifically penalized is ‘Three Card Monte and Confidence Games’, as found in §22–1706. That law was not included in the list above as it does not apply to poker.
Is the District of Columbia working to Legalize Online Poker?
Not currently. Although no online poker bills are presently being circulated on a district-wide level, you may be surprised to know that online gambling was actually legal in Washington DC for a short period of time.
In 2010, Councilman Michael A Brown sponsored legislation to legalize online gambling in the District of Columbia in an effort to make up for a $200 million gap in the budget. The measure was passed in 2011, but while developers were busy organizing the websites for online poker and casino games, voters expressed mass confusion. Claiming they had no idea what they had approved, Washington DC thought it best to repeal the law in 2012, squashing the legality of online poker.
There have been no public debates on the topic since, but knowing how willing the District of Columbia was to legalize online poker and rake in tax dollars at least offers a positive outlook for the future. Considering how slow the legal markets have grown in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey over the last year or so, the District won’t see iGaming as a cash cow anytime soon, but once shared liquidity (player pooling) between states becomes a reality, that could change.
Online Poker Players from the District of Columbia
Justin “ZeeJustin” Bonomo is the most famous professional live and online poker player from the District of Columbia. Although he was born in Canada, the WSOP bracelet winner grew up in the Washington DC suburb of Fairfax.
Land-Based Card Rooms in the District of Columbia
There are no commercial or tribal card rooms in the District of Columbia. The nearest place to play poker is currently Maryland Live! Casino, one of 5 casinos in Maryland. That should change in 2016 with the highly anticipated grand opening of MGM National Harbor, under construction just 11 miles south of the Washington DC’s city center.