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Pennsylvania Legal Poker

Last Update: April 4, 2015

Online Poker

Rep. Tina Davis (D-Bucks) of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives introduced an internet gambling bill that has the support of nearly a dozen co-sponsors. Proposals include a license fee of $5 million and a $500,000 renewal fee every three years. Additionally, the state would be taxing online gambling operators at 28% of their gross gaming revenue. Play is to be restricted to residents of Pennsylvania that are older than 21, and be required to set up their online gaming accounts in person at a casino. Included is a provision to allow for player pooling with other states and no provision targeting operators that took bets in the U.S. after 2006.

The bill was shelved in 2013, with the legislature calling for a study on online gambling around the country and its potential impact on Pennsylvania in December of 2013 –the study is due on May 7th, 2014.

In the meantime the Pennsylvania Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing to discuss online gambling which could best be described as leaving attendees with a lukewarm perception of Pennsylvania’s chances for expansion of online gambling.

In June of 2014, two bills have been introduced calling for expansion into online gambling, but like the online hearings, their reception has been lukewarm at best.

In 2015 Pennsylvania once again has two online gambling bills to choose from, with each presenting a very different path forward. HB 649 by Rep. John Payne is a comprehensive iGaming bill with few exclusions, while Rep. Nick Micarelli’s HB 695 is poker-only and contains strict Bad Actor language.

Pennsylvania didn’t have any statutes specifically addressing internet poker or internet gambling prior to April 2013, but several were in the works. Politicians in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate were reported to be working on legislation that would authorize and regulate internet gaming within the state. In the House, at least, other representatives were reported to be working legislation that would prohibit internet gaming.

In the absence of any enacted legislation, however, online poker players and operators are left to muddle their way through Pennsylvania’s confusing patchwork of existing gambling laws. Without a definition of gambling to be found in the law, it’s anybody’s guess whether poker is actually gambling in Pennsylvania. If it is, then online poker presumably also would be gambling. If poker isn’t gambling, then online poker presumably also isn’t.

Still, online poker players have little to worry about either way, since Pennsylvania criminals law go after operators. Operators inside the state would have a lot more to worry about. Operators outside the state could theoretically argue that Pennsylvania has no jurisdiction over them. How any of those arguments would play out in court is unknown, as the Pennsylvania courts have never addressed the issue.

Live Poker

It’s a relatively recent development in the Keystone State but live poker is fully legal at state-regulated and licensed casinos. The casinos are regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Poker is an authorized game subject to Title 58, Part VII, Sub-Part K, Chapter 637a of the Pennsylvania Code.

Outside of the state-licensed casinos, there are no tribal casinos in Pennsylvania. Strangely, however, “gambling” is not defined anywhere in Pennsylvania law. Things that are unlawful under the law are things “not specifically authorized by law”, but without a clear definition of gambling it’s hard to know what falls inside the bounds of the statute and what falls outside it.

From a player’s perspective, that lack of clarity is irrelevant, as most of the gambling crimes enumerated under Pennsylvania law target operators. The law on home games, however, is unclear. It is illegal for anyone to “allow persons to assemble for unlawful gambling at any place under his control”, to “solicit or invite” players for unlawful gambling, and to be the owner or occupant of any premises used for unlawful gambling.

Without a definition of unlawful gambling, however, it’s impossible to know whether poker is lawful or unlawful and thus whether these provisions would or wouldn’t apply to a home game.

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