Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US, ranked 8th smallest in population as an estimated 1,050,292 call the Plantation State home. Industrial manufacturing and tourism are major contributors to the state’s economy, but most visitors come to see the multitude of historical landmarks, many of which date back to the 1600’s, or the Tennis Hall of Fame that originated within Newport Casino (a social club, not a gambling facility) in 1954. In terms of traditional casinos, there are two location licensed by the state, but neither is authorized for live poker cash games or tournaments. As such, it should come as no surprise that online poker is not found within Rhode Island’s regulatory framework either.
It doesn’t take much investigating to find that there is an abundance of online poker players logging into international websites to play for real money. What’s more difficult to delineate is the legality of doing so. In this document, we will evaluate the conditions of land-based gambling in Rhode Island and comb over the relative laws in an effort to conclude whether online poker is legal, illegal or somewhere in the middle.
Land-based Gambling in Rhode Island
Rhode Island’s lawmakers have historically opposed gambling. In the earliest centuries of the Americas, all wagering activities were outlawed in Rhode Island, but enforcement was near impossible, thus not much effort was made to stop it. Authorities finally began raiding illegal gambling establishments in the mid 1920’s, when organized crime became prevalent. From there, it took years for the Plantation State to finally warm up to the idea of sanctioning any type of gambling.
The first legalized gambling activity was a state lottery, passed in 1974. Two decades later in 1993, pari-mutuel wagering on horses and greyhounds, as well as restricted casino gambling (namely slots) was permitted, resulting in several racinos in the area. Bids for a commercial casino came promptly, but the populace was fervidly opposed to the idea. Even tribal casinos were rebuffed. It wasn’t until casino gambling expanded throughout the northeastern states (beyond New Jersey) that voters finally acquiesced to the concept in 2012. Twin River was allowed to expand from a limited racino to a full-scale casino operation. At the same time, voters approved a new commercial casino in Newport, RI, which opened last year as Newport Grand.
Deciphering the Laws of Rhode Island as they relate to Online Poker
Rhode Island’s statutes have changed a lot over the years, including relevant amendments and repeals that occurred as recent as 2013. The following excerpts are taken from the most current version of the Rhode Island Statutes (Fall 2014).
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|§ 11-19-1 Forms of gambling prohibited||Every person who shall, directly or indirectly, set up, put forth, carry on, promote, or draw, publicly or privately, any lottery, chance, game, or device of any nature or kind whatsoever…for the purpose of exposing, setting for sale or disposing of any money, houses, lands, merchandise, or articles of value…except as authorized…shall be deemed guilty of a felony and shall be imprisoned not exceeding two (2) years or be fined not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000).||Although it does state whoever shall “carry on” any “game” (which seems to point towards players), if we keep reading, it says “for the purpose of…”, the following which relates to exposing things of value for sale in some way or another. Essentially, the operators of the game, if trying to make a profit in any way, or help others make a profit (outside of personal gambling winnings), could be guilty of a felony crime.Simply put, this law does not seem to apply to online poker players.|
|§ 42-61.2-1 Definitions||(8) “Casino gaming” means any and all table and casino-style games played with cards, dice or equipment, for money, credit, or any representative of value; including, but not limited to roulette, blackjack, big six, craps, poker, baccarat, paigow, any banking or percentage game, or any other game of device included within the definition of Class III gaming as that term is defined in Section 2703(8) of Title 25 of the United States Code and which is approved by the state through the division of state lottery.||Poker is defined as Class III casino gaming in Rhode Island.|
|(11) “Table Game” or “Table Gaming” means that type of Casino Gaming in which table games are played for cash or chips representing cash, using cards, dice or equipment and conducted by one or more live persons.||Poker would fall into the category of table games.|
|§ 42-61.3-2 Casino gaming crimes||(18) Conduct a gaming operation, or attempt to conduct a gaming operation, where wagering is used or to be used without a license issued by the division of state lottery. Any person convicted of violating this section shall be guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than ten (10) years or a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), or both;||Again, the conductor of an illegal gambling operation is targeted by state law; not the player.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in Rhode Island?
Doubtful. There doesn’t seem to be a single penalty imposed towards players who partake in illegal gambling activities, so long as they are not profiting from the game in any way outside of personal gambling winnings.
At one time, social games were expressly permitted, so long as no one stood to profit outside of a player’s personal gambling winnings, but that law was repealed last year. However, several local businesses continue to offer social-style poker tournaments on a weekly basis, such as the Grid Iron Ale House & Grille in Warwick, where entries to the Wednesday night Texas Holdem poker tournament are free to anyone who purchases a buffet. According to § 11-19-1, that seems to breech Rhode Island law, but that hasn’t stopped several businesses from offering comparable live poker action.
Is Rhode Island working to legalize Online Poker?
Not exactly. State officials vowed to explore the concept right after the DOJ made it legal for states to regulate certain forms of online gambling. Explore it they did, but the results weren’t favorable for such a small territory where it was feared online poker and gaming would merely cannibalize their current land-based market. An initiative was introduced in Spring of 2013, but was immediately shot down by state officials. In March of this year, the topic of legal online poker in Rhode Island arose again. Lottery Director Gerald Aubin said that it could be a possibility for the future, but would take a constitutional amendment, requiring statewide approval, and cannibalization is still a looming fear for the Plantation State. Realistically, online poker isn’t going to hit Rhode Island anytime soon, but the outlook for the future is steadily improving.
Online Poker Players from Rhode Island
It’s somewhat surprising how easy it is to find online poker players logging on from Rhode Island, the majority of which are perfectly willing to share their true identity with the world. Certainly that can be attributed, in part, to the belief that online poker is not illegal to play in Rhode Island. Some of the more prominent names include Ryan “silence23” Martin, Patricia “PattRiver” Herron, Colin “ChadNFreude” McKenna, Harry “Harry044” Oxx and Douglas “foxwoodzaby” Drexel.
Land-Based Card Rooms in Rhode Island
Akin to its diminutive land mass, Rhode Island doesn’t offer many gambling opportunities. There are two land-based casinos in the state, but neither has been approved to offer live poker tables. A couple of local nightlife venues, however, have taken the initiative to present regularly scheduled poker tournaments.
Location: Newport, RI
Poker Room: No
Twin River Casino
Location: Lincoln, RI
Poker Room: No
Grid Iron Ale House & Grill
Location: Warwick, RI
Poker Room: Yes
Details: Free poker tournament every Wednesday with buffet purchase
RI Billiards Bar and Bistro
Location: North Providence, RI
Poker Room: Yes
Details: Free poker tournament every Mon & Wed