Virginia plays host to a considerable population of 8,260,405 (est. 2013), ranked 12th highest in the US; impressive when compared to the lower echelon of the state’s position as 35th largest by land mass. From the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, to Chesapeake Bay along the eastern coastline, the topography is a diverse one, unlike the economy which relies heavily upon the fishing industry, as well as tourism. Most visitors come for the pleasures of Virginia Beach or the historical value of the region much more so than any type of gambling, due primarily to the blatant fact that there are no casinos in Virginia. And without land-based casinos, the availability of regulated online poker is a moot issue.
The Old Dominion State is home to a multitude of online poker players, but many of them are still unsure whether it’s legal or illegal to play for real money in Virginia. Such definitions often fall into a grey area of the law in cases where gambling legislation is vague and/or antiquated. In order to draw an educated conclusion on the matter of online poker’s legality, we’ll examine the land-based gambling industry and its relative laws.
Land-based Gambling in Virginia
The location of the original Jamestown Settlement in 1607, the history of gambling runs very deep in Virginia, although prohibition dominates the subject’s transcripts. Early settlers were accustomed to gambling, and a morality law adopted in 1610 to restrict wagering had little effect. Two years later, Virginia initiated the very first lottery in America, known as the Great Virginia Lottery, in an effort to raise money for the struggling Jamestown Settlement.
With gambling still running rampant in 1744, legislators banned wagering in public places, but again, the law held little water as the nation’s first thoroughbred horse race was opened in Gloucester, VA in 1752. Why were gambling laws so ineffective? If we jump ahead two centuries to 1960, we see that was when Virginia enacted the first penalties for illegal gambling, finally giving officials a means to enforce the age-old laws.
The first form of gambling legalized from that point was the Virginia State Lottery, enacted in 1987. In 1995, limited charitable gambling was permitted by the state, followed by the launch of the Virginia Racing Commission and subsequent Colonial Downs race track in 1997.
Several bills have been introduced in the last four years, including updates to the definition of illegal gambling that included wagers involving ‘internet access’ and a failed attempt at having poker declared a game of skill in 2011. In 2013, lawmakers tried to introduce land-based casinos in Virginia, but that measure failed too.
Deciphering the Laws of Virginia as they relate to Online Poker
|Section||Text||Meaning (in re online poker)|
|§ 18.2-325 Definitions||1. “Illegal gambling” means the making, placing or receipt of any bet or wager in the Commonwealth of money or other thing of value, made in exchange for a chance to win a prize, stake or other consideration or thing of value, dependent upon the result of any game, contest or any other event the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance, whether such game, contest or event occurs or is to occur inside or outside the limits of the Commonwealth.
For the purposes of this subdivision and notwithstanding any provision in this section to the contrary, the making, placing, or receipt of any bet or wager of money or other thing of value shall include the purchase of a product, Internet access, or other thing, which purchase credits the purchaser with free points or other measurable units that may be (i) risked by the purchaser for an opportunity to win additional points or other measurable units that are redeemable by the purchaser for money…
|Any gambling activity in which there is something of value being staked on an event whose outcome is not known is illegal. That would, by definition, include poker.
The second paragraph, though long and somewhat confusing, was amended in 2011 to criminalize forms of gambling that are accessed via the internet (i.e. online gambling), and since poker is defined as gambling, it falls into the category of illegal gambling as well.
|3. “Gambling device” includes:
a. Any device…or other thing…which are actually used in an illegal gambling operation or activity, and
b. Any machine, apparatus, implement, instrument, contrivance, board or other thing, or electronic or video versions thereof, including but not limited to those dependent upon the insertion of a coin or other object for their operation, which operates, either completely automatically or with the aid of some physical act by the player or operator, in such a manner that, depending upon elements of chance, it may eject something of value or determine the prize or other thing of value to which the player is entitled…
|If used to play online poker for real money, a computer or mobile device could be interpreted as a gambling device.|
|§ 18.2-326 Penalty for illegal gambling||Except as otherwise provided in this article, any person who illegally gambles or engages in interstate gambling…shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor…||If convicted of playing online poker in Virginia, the penalty is a fine of up to $500; no jail time.|
Is Online Poker Illegal in Virginia?
Yes. The amendment to Virginia’s gambling laws in 2011 was enacted to expressly prohibit online poker and other forms of internet gambling in the state. The provisionary text of § 18.2-325 is effusive, thus difficult to understand, but is aimed directly at criminalizing online gambling activities. If we eliminate the unnecessary text, it reads more clearly as a ban of online poker.
“…The making… of a wager of money… shall include the purchase of… internet access… which… credits the purchaser with… measureable units that may be risked by the purchaser for an opportunity to win additional… measureable units that are redeemable… for money.”
To clarify, using the internet to buy virtual poker chips, play online poker, then exchange those chips for money, is illegal.
It should also be noted that home poker games are perfectly legal in Virginia, but if any form of rake or fee is collected, it becomes an illegal activity. Thus stating that online poker is legal because it’s conducted from home is not a tangible defense because real money online poker sites collect a rake and/or fee.
Is Virginia working to legalize Online Poker?
In a way, yes, although every attempt has been denied up to this point. Legislators have introduced bills aimed at legalizing land-based casinos and deeming poker a game of skill, both of which would benefit the progression of regulated online poker in the future.
Games of skill are already exempt from the definition of illegal gambling, but until poker is defined as a game of skill, or other laws are amended to permit gambling in a regulated live and/or online setting, poker players will be targeted by authorities in the Old Dominion State.
Online Poker Players from Virginia
Despite the state’s explicit (but often misunderstood) prohibition of internet gambling, there are hundreds of known online poker players in Virginia who continue to play for real money. Some of the more successful names include Corey “a1phadoggg” Kennel, Jordan “clemsonrich” Skinner, John “jzm341” / “innasence” Mitchell, Teddy “PACIFIC1203” Pugh and Stephen “slickpulla7” Philpott.
Land-Based Card Rooms in Virginia