Tennessee is the 36th largest state in the US by land mass, home to the 17th highest population of 6,495,978 (est. 2013). Known for its prominent mountain ranges – particularly the Great Smoky Mountains in the east – and considered the bedrock of the country music industry, Tennessee relies heavily on tourism to support its economy. Visitors come from all over the globe to see the landscape and visit historic locations, like Graceland, but what they won’t find are any land-based gambling establishments. That’s because gambling of just about any form, including poker games, casino games and even bingo, has been outlawed for over a century.
If a friendly poker game is unlawful, it would stand to reason that online poker must be illegal in Tennessee as well. However, that’s not always the case, as we’ve often found when studying the legislative measures on a state by state basis. Online poker is actually a rather popular activity in the Volunteer State, but whether it’s legal, illegal or in a grey area of the law is a matter of frequent debate. We will examine legal gambling activities and relative statutes to find out exactly where Tennessee stands on internet poker.
Land-based Gambling in Tennessee
A very limited number of charitable gambling activities may be conducted in Tennessee. Aside from that, the state lottery is the only way to place a wager without traveling beyond the state’s borders, such as Kentucky, where pari-mutuel horse racing reigns supreme. But it wasn’t always that way. Throughout the 1800’s, Tennessee was the epicenter of horse breeding and racing in the country. That all changed in 1906 when the Tennessee General Assembly passed a blanket gambling ban, enforced the following year. One horse racing facility did manage to surface after that time; the Iroquois Steeplechase in Franklin, TN.
In 1936, a group of well-to-do foxhunters with ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt used that influence to woo state officials, achieving a majority vote to build the race course, which continues to hold prestigious events every Spring.
In 1980, the government cracked down on gambling by shutting down more than 300 bingo halls. State lotteries had been flourishing for three decades throughout the US before Tennessee finally gave voters the right to choose, resulting in an overwhelming approval of the Tennessee State Lottery, legalized in 2003. Due to a devastating flood and lack of funding in 2010, officials approved highly-restricted charitable gambling in Tennessee, allowing eligible organizations to apply for a permit to hold one fundraising raffle per year.
Deciphering the Laws of Tennessee as they relate to Online Poker
The following citations are taken from the Tennessee Code Annotated as they may relate to the legality of online poker. A brief meaning is provided for clarification.
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|(1) Gambling is contrary to the public policy of this state and means risking anything of value for a profit whose return is to any degree contingent on chance, or any games of chance associated with casinos, including, but not limited to, slot machines, roulette wheels and the like. For the purposes of this chapter gambling does not include:
(A) A lawful business transaction;
(B) Annual events operated for the benefit of charitable § 501(c)(3) organizations that are authorized…
(C) A state lottery…authorized by amendment to the Constitution of Tennessee…
|Betting of any type is illegal unless authorized by state law. Because poker does involve some degree of chance, and is not authorized, it is illegal in Tennessee.|
|(2) Gambling bet means anything of value risked in gambling;||Betting on poker is defined as a gambling bet.|
|(3) Gambling device or record means anything designed for use in gambling, intended for use in gambling, or used for gambling;||A computer or mobile device used to play online poker for real money could be defined as a gambling device.|
|39-17-502 Gambling Defenses||(a) A person commits an offense who knowingly engages in gambling.||To play online poker, knowing that real money or anything of value is at stake, is illegal in Tennessee.|
|(c) The offense of gambling is a Class C misdemeanor.||If convicted, the penalty for gambling (including online poker) is up to 30 days in jail and/or up to $50 fine.|
|39-17-505 Possession of gambling device or record Forfeiture||(a) (1) A person commits an offense who knowingly owns, manufactures, possesses, buys, sells, rents, leases, stores, repairs, transports, prints, or makes any gambling device or record.||Owning a computer or mobile device used to play online poker for real money could be considered an offense in Tennessee.|
|(c) Possession of a gambling device or record is a Class B misdemeanor.||If convicted of owning a gambling device, the penalty is up to 6 months in jail and/or up to $500 fine.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in Tennessee?
Yes. It doesn’t matter that poker or the term internet/online is never used in the text of state’s laws. The broad definition of gambling is inclusive enough to envelop any form of betting that involves risking something of value for a chance to win something of greater value. Therefore poker is also included. There is also no definition of where gambling cannot take place, which by default translates to anywhere in the state. Thus online poker, whether played in a home, on a bus or in a public/private building, is also illegal.
As further proof that online poker is not legal in Tennessee, the state clarified its stance on the unlawful nature of Texas Hold’em tournaments in 2005. The document cited numerous laws, including those detailed above, deciding that, “a poker tournament charging an entry fee to play poker and to have the chance to win a prize constitutes “gambling” under Tennessee law.”
Is Tennessee working to legalize Online Poker?
No. With poker and casino gambling 100% outlawed in the Volunteer State, it should come as no surprise that lawmakers are putting forth no efforts to legalize online poker in Tennessee. One State Representative, Steven Cohen, did support a federal bill to outlaw internet gambling with a carve out for online poker, saying it would not pose harm to the state lottery “because online poker caters to a different population of gamblers”, but that bill died in 2011, along with Tennessee’s hopes of regulation.
Interestingly enough, one could say that the global online poker industry was born in Tennessee. A resident of the state since childhood, Chris Moneymaker is credited with instigating the internet poker boom in 2003 – henceforth known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’ – when he paid $39 to enter an online poker satellite that awarded him a seat in that year’s WSOP Main Event, which he went on to win for $2.5 million.
Online Poker Players from Tennessee
Tennessee is home to a multitude of online poker players, the most famous of which is 2003 WSOP Champion Chris “Money800” Moneymaker. Other distinguished names include James “nashpred22” Phillips, Sean “All In Reed” / “ReedMoney” Reed, Ryan “boneman27” McMaster and Joe “papaking” Gorman.
Land-Based Card Rooms in Tennessee