Pennsylvania Online Poker Legal Definitions

Though not among the largest states in the US, ranked 33rd by land mass, Pennsylvania has an undeniably extensive rate of residency, home to the 6th largest population of 12,773,801 (est. 2013). The Appalachian Mountain range cuts right through the middle of the state. As such, mining once reigned supreme as an economic catalyst in the Keystone State, but has since been overtaken by manufacturing and financial industries. A notable portion of the state’s tax dollars come from gambling related activities, including pari-mutuel racing, casino gambling and a multi-billion dollar state lottery. The idea of expanding into an online gaming market has surfaced on numerous occasions, but for the moment, online poker is not a regulated activity in Pennsylvania.

Where does that leave the state’s plethora of online poker players who continue to log into offshore poker sites to toss chips on the virtual felt? That’s a very good question; one this article aims to shed some light on. We will examine the land-based gambling industry in Pennsylvania and the laws surrounding it to extrapolate the legalities of online poker in the Keystone State.

Land-based Gambling in Pennsylvania

The history of gambling in Pennsylvania isn’t as extensive as you might think. The first legalized form of gambling came in 1968, when pari-mutuel horse race betting was permitted. A state-run lottery was legalized in 1971 and launched the following year, but as far as casino style gambling goes, most residents of the Keystone State spent their hard earned dollars wagering in Atlantic City, NJ since 1978. Finally, in 2004, the Race Horse Development and Gaming Act was passed, authorizing racinos and casino with limited gaming options. In 2010, table games were legalized, including banked games like blackjack, as well as non-banked games like Texas Holdem poker.

There are now 12 casinos in Pennsylvania, including 6 racinos, 4 stand-alone casinos and 2 resort casinos. Some of them already offer free-to-play online gambling at their websites in hopes of a regulated online poker and casino market coming to the state in the near future.

Deciphering the Laws of Pennsylvania as they relate to Online Poker

Pennsylvania law is extremely obtuse when it comes to defining the legalities of gambling. The following is a list of all related laws that might possibly correlate with online poker.

Section Text Meaning (in re online poker)
§ 5513.  Gambling devices, gambling, etc. (a)  Offense defined.
A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree if he:
(1)  intentionally or knowingly makes, assembles, sets up, maintains, sells, lends, leases, gives away, or offers for sale, loan, lease or gift, any punch board, drawing card, slot machine or any device to be used for gambling purposes, except playing cards;
(2)  allows persons to collect and assemble for the purpose of unlawful gambling at any place under his control;
(3)  solicits or invites any person to visit any unlawful gambling place for the purpose of gambling; or
(4)  being the owner, tenant, lessee or occupant of any premises, knowingly permits or suffers the same, or any part thereof, to be used for the purpose of unlawful gambling.
An offense of this nature is bestowed upon any person conducting or benefiting from illegal gambling in any way shape or form, except as a player. Owning or assisting in a business where illegal gambling is conducted, promoting such a business, these are all 1st degree misdemeanors. Nowhere does it say that the act of gambling is illegal.
(a.1)  Electronic video monitor.
A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he owns, operates, maintains, places into operation or has a financial interest in an electronic video monitor or business that owns, operates, maintains or places into operation or has a financial interest in an electronic video monitor:
(1)  which is offered or made available to persons to play or participate in a simulated gambling program…; and
(2)  for which the person playing the simulated gambling program may become eligible for a cash or cash-equivalent prize…
To own an electronic video monitor that is used as a simulated gambling program is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and/or up to $10,000 fine. See the definitions of electronic video monitor and simulated gambling program below.
(f)  Definitions.
The following words and phrases when used in this section shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection unless the context clearly indicates otherwise:
Electronic video monitor.”  An electronic device capable of showing moving or still images.
Simulated gambling program.”  Any method intended to be used by a person interacting with an electronic video monitor in a business establishment that directly or indirectly implements the predetermination of sweepstakes cash or cash-equivalent prizes or otherwise connects the sweepstakes player or participant with the cash or cash-equivalent prize.
An electronic video monitor could be anything with a screen, including a computer or mobile device.
A simulated gambling program could include online poker. However, the definition clearly states “used by a person interacting with an electronic video monitor in a business establishment…” 

Is Online Poker Illegal in Pennsylvania?

Probably not. Online poker seems to fall into a grey area of the law in Pennsylvania. First of all, there is no clear definition of what constitutes gambling. In § 5512.  Lotteries, etc., the term “unlawful” is defined as anything “not specifically authorized by law”, but also states, “as used in this section”. Gambling and lotteries are two different entities, with two different sections, thus § 5512 applies only to lotteries and was not included in the gambling laws listed above.

All of the gambling offenses that could possibly be tied to online poker refer to penalties imposed upon businesses, operators, promoters, etc.; not players. And the only law that prohibits use of a gambling device (i.e. an electronic video monitor used as a simulated gambling program) requires that it be used in a “business establishment”.

Although playing online poker in Pennsylvania is not legally authorized, it does not seem to be illegal either, so long as the player is doing it from home and is not earning any proceeds from their poker play outside of personal gambling winnings.

Is Pennsylvania working to legalize Online Poker?

Yes. Pennsylvania has been among the top states expected to legalize and regulate online poker and casino gambling ever since the DOJ gave states the right to do so in late 2011. Studies have been requested and hearings have been held to debate the matter, and two bills have already been introduced in the Keystone State for the purpose of regulating online gambling in one fashion or another. The most recent, SB 1368, was introduced in June of 2014 to “authorize interactive gaming”. That bill, like the 2013 version before it, died in session.

Interestingly enough, in February of 2014, another bill was introduced to specifically prohibited internet gaming, but it received very little support. Pennsylvania has taken a ‘watch and wait’ approach to the situation. In all likelihood, the state will wait for federal regulations to be implemented, or player pooling compacts between states (like the one soon to go into effect between Delaware and Nevada) to become productive, before taking the big leap into online poker regulation. One way or another, the Keystone State is a very likely candidate for legalization, perhaps as soon as 2015.

Online Poker Players from Pennsylvania

A multitude of online poker players are logging on from Pennsylvania every day. Thanks to the loose verbiage of state law, many of them don’t bother to hide their identities either, including well known players like Jason “PlastikCards” Burt, Jonathan “blackjackleak” / “grindnitout” Paul, Chris “chrisp200” Perkins, Arthur “lefty1423” / “hunter127” Cottle, Joel “DTB4FREE4M” Barton, Matt “GRider12” Livingston and Tony “TonyAnthony4” Monaco.

Land-Based Card Rooms in Pennsylvania

There are 12 land-based casinos in Pennsylvania, 9 of which offer live poker rooms (accounted for as non-banking tables via the PAGC). A full list is supplied below, including location and availability of live poker action.

Harrah’s Philadelphia
Location: Chester, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Hollywood Casino
Location: Grantville, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin
Location: Farmington, PA
Poker Room: No

The Meadows Racetrack and Casino
Location: North Strabane Township, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs
Location: Plains Township, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Mount Airy Casino Resort
Location: Mount Pocono, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Parx Casino and Racing
Location: Bensalem, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Presque Isle Downs
Location: Erie, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Rivers Casino
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Poker Room: Yes

Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem
Location: Bethlehem, PA
Poker Room: Yes

SugarHouse Casino
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Poker Room: No

Valley Forge Casino Resort
Location: Upper Merion Township, PA
Poker Room: No

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