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Is It Legal to Bet on a Poker Game?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on December 15, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Since the early 1990s, gambling laws have been in a constant state of flux, leaving poker players scratching their heads. Legislation at both the state and federal level highly regulates the activity.

But under current law, is it legal to bet on a poker game?

Gambling: Games of Skill vs. Chance

An element of "chance" is required for a game to violate a state anti-gambling statute. Under the "dominant factor test," which many states follow, a game violates a state's anti-gambling law when there's more chance than skill involved.

But many states use other tests to classify games of chance, such as: the "predominance test" (skilled player beats unskilled player at least 75% of the time) while others use the "material element" test (it's gambling when chance is a material element), and "any chance" test (any chance is enough).

Poker is generally considered a game of chance under the law, but that determination is fiercely debated.

Poker players have long contended that poker is a game of skill, not chance, and is therefore not gambling. In a case last year, a federal judge in New York ruled that poker is skill-based, though it still violated state law.

Online Poker: Upping the Ante

Under the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), Internet gambling businesses can't accept payments related to illegal gambling, including sports wagering, casino games, and card games. But like most things, there is a gray area.

Federal legislation may soon legalize online poker, the Big Kahuna of online gambling. But under current law, only Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware have made online poker a legal reality, reports Forbes.

Social Gambling

Regardless of the status of poker, many players can safely "bet" in states which allow an exception for social gambling. Social gambling is usually defined where the betting takes place in a purely social context -- as in, no bookies. Red flags go up as soon as it smells like a business.

So in most cases, casual bets with friends would qualify under the social gambling exception. But not all states have social gambling laws.

Because the law varies significantly state-by-state, you may want consult a gaming lawyer to learn your local law.

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