Perhaps not surprisingly, Rhode Island has no statute the expressly authorizes or prohibits online gambling or online poker. The state appears to leave online poker to its general anti-gambling laws, which as previously mentioned are broad enough to encompass all forms of live poker, including home games. However, the penalties target operators of the games rather than the players, so the risk of players being arrested or prosecuted for playing online poker appears to be nil.
Online poker operators themselves clearly cannot set up shop inside the state of New Hampshire. The legality of offering their games to New Hampshire residents from servers outside the state remains untested.
Confusion, thy name is Rhode Island gambling law and how it relates to poker.
The state does not have any legal, licensed poker rooms or casinos, nor does it have any tribal gaming operations. Rhode Island gambling law is thus controlled by its criminal code – which is where things get confusing. Rhode Island General Law §11-19-1 provides that “every person who shall… set up… carry on, promote… any chance, game… for the purpose of exposing, setting for sale or disposing of any money… shall be deemed guilty of a felony.”
That’s a fairly broad statute that is about as clear as mud, but would seem to target operators of unregulated gaming. The statute could very well include poker.
Further down the same Title 11 of Rhode Island General Law, Chapter 51 looks at organized criminal gambling. It defines “gambling” as including, but not being limited to, lotteries, dice games, roulette, bookmaking and the like. Card games are conspicuously absent from this non-comprehensive list.
However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court muddied the waters further in In re Advisory Opinion to the Governor (Casino), 856 A.2d 320, but holding that the term “lottery” in Rhode Island law has a very broad definition that can include just about any casino game, including poker. Although the Supreme Court was considering the question in the context of Rhode Island’s constitutional requirement that lotteries are only allowed to be operated by the state, there’s no reason the same definition wouldn’t apply to the state gambling laws.
Where does that leave us? Constitutionally, the only entity that can operate poker games in Rhode Island is the state. It chooses to criminalize the game under its gambling laws, and currently there are no tribal casinos to offer an alternative.
This applies to home games as well. All gambling requires state authorization.