Online Gaming in United States

The United States began permitting intrastate online gambling, i.e., gambling contained by the borders of one state, in 2014 when three states licensed, regulated and permitted intrastate online gaming: Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. In October 2017, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf approved a massive expansion of gambling in the state. In addition to online gaming, the bill approved the creation of 10 new mini-casinos, fantasy sports betting and video gaming terminals at truck stops. A complete rollout of online gaming launched July 2019. As of January 2024, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware and Michigan offer legalized and regulated online casinos.

Pennsylvania's 12 existing casinos will be permitted to offer three categories of interactive gaming: poker, slots and table games. Those 39 individual permits cost USD 4 million apiece. Another 13 sports betting permits are available for USD 10 million apiece, and they include approval for both retail and online/mobile wagering.

New Jersey – the most populous of the original three states, with over 9 million residents in 2017 – allowed Atlantic City casinos to launch real-money online gaming on 16 November 2013.

Online casinos in New Jersey must have their servers located in an Atlantic City casino and are permitted to offer any game played in the casino.

Like New Jersey, Delaware offers the full suite of casino games online. It began offering games on 31 October 2013, but has struggled to generate much revenue because of its small population. To compensate, it signed an agreement to pool liquidity for online poker with Nevada in 2015. New Jersey joined the shared player liquidity pool in July 2018.

The only online gaming activity Nevada regulates is online poker. Other forms of online gaming – with the exception of betting on horse races and sports betting – remain illegal in Nevada. Online poker is legal and regulated in four U.S. states (Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan). Players in New Jersey, Nevada, and Delaware can compete against each other thanks to a multi-state poker alliance. In December 2022, the Michigan Gaming Control Board granted approval for PokerStars to launch shared player liquidity with players in New Jersey, beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Connecticut and Michigan offer legalized and regulated online casinos.

The road to permitting intrastate online gambling has been a long and winding one. The chief obstacle to intrastate online gambling has been the Department of Justice's (DOJ) interpretation of the Wire Act.

The Wire Act was enacted in 1961 to prevent bookmakers from accepting sports bets over the telephone. For years, the DOJ maintained the Wire Act prohibited all forms of internet gambling, while online gaming proponents maintained the Wire Act only applied to sports betting.

The DOJ's position prevented the domestic growth of online gaming in the U.S., although jurisdictions outside the U.S. offered real-money play to American residents.

In 2011, the DOJ reversed its long-held position that all forms of online gambling were illegal because they violated the Wire Act. In a letter released on 23 December 2011, the DOJ said the law applied only to sports betting, and intrastate gaming outside of sports betting did not violate the law. Gambling across state borders, say between poker players in California and Nevada, remained illegal according to the DOJ.

The ruling cleared the way for states to regulate and license intrastate online gaming. Nevada began issuing licenses to operators and software providers in 2012.

Nevada also adopted legislation in 2013 that allows it to sign compacts with other states to build player liquidity. Essentially, if Nevada signs a compact with a state, players on Nevada online poker networks will have access to players on poker networks in the other state and vice versa.

Delaware and New Jersey quickly joined Nevada in passing online gaming legislation. In June 2012, Delaware authorized online gambling in response to expanded brick-and-mortar casino gambling in Maryland and Pennsylvania. In February 2013, New Jersey signed into law online gambling legislation in an effort to help Atlantic City casinos. Unlike Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware are licensing and regulating the full suite of casino games, including table games such as blackjack, roulette and craps.

Historically, gambling regulation in the U.S. has been reserved for the state governments. However, sometimes federal law supersedes state law. The Department of Justice (DOJ) had, before 2011, held that the Wire Act prohibits all forms of online gambling in all the U.S. states, and that view colored past prosecutions of online gaming cases. (Federal gambling law does not address games of skill or state lotteries that wish to offer subscription services on the internet.)

Accusations of Wire Act violations are usually accompanied by other charges, including conspiracy; money laundering; and violations of the RICO Act, Travel Act and Illegal Gambling Business Act. Enforcement of the Wire Act is directed at the gambling operators; there is no language that makes it illegal for a consumer to place a wager.

Because the Act was written in 1961, its language is limited to communication systems that use "wires," and the types of betting it describes are limited to fixed-odds propositions, such as are offered on sporting and other events. It simply was not possible to have foreseen remote casino and poker games over 50 years ago, so taken literally, the language of the Wire Act is not adequate to apply to casino gaming and poker over the internet. In a case involving online gamblers who tried to get their credit card debts ruled unenforceable because their online casino gambling had been illegal, the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared in 2002 that the gambling losses were indeed enforceable because "the Wire Act does not prohibit non-sports Internet gambling."

The DOJ disagreed with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, and for years the Wire Act served as the foundation for all of the DOJ's arguments against the legality of internet gambling for both sports wagering and non-sports wagering. DOJ officials asserted this belief several times before Congress since 2002. The DOJ also asserted this belief when advising the U.S. Virgin Islands and the states of Nevada and North Dakota against regulating online gaming. They also threatened and settled with media companies that advertised for online gambling companies.

Internet gambling on horse racing is permitted by the Interstate Horse Racing Act in states that have chosen to regulate such wagering. Although the DOJ insists that the Act is not consistent with the Wire Act, it has never filed charges against any of the many domestic remote horse race wagering operators.

In fall 2006, the United States enacted the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which makes it illegal for financial institutions to facilitate payment transactions between offshore gambling operations and American customers. The law says nothing about it being illegal for a person located in the U.S. to gamble on an internet site.

The UIGEA resulted in the online gambling industry's publicly listed companies withdrawing from the American market, while many private companies continue to serve it.

UIGEA regulations require financial firms that participate in designated payment systems to implement policies and procedures designed to halt payments being made to gambling businesses in connection with unlawful internet gambling.

Certain participants in designated payment systems are exempt from the rule because the government questions the practicality of these participants attempting to identify and block unlawful internet gambling transactions. For example, participants in automated clearing house (ACH), check collection and wire transfer systems would be exempt, barring a beneficiary's bank or a bank that is directly involved with an illegal gambling business. The rule also outlines the types of policies and procedures that nonexempt participants in designated payment systems may adopt to prevent transactions restricted by the UIGEA.

The UIGEA regulations were approved on 19 January 2009. Financial institutions had to begin complying with the regulations by 1 December 2009.

The states of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Louisiana have all passed legislation that specifically prohibits unauthorized forms of internet gambling. All forms of gambling are illegal in Hawaii and Utah.

In April 2008, federal regulators and representatives of the financial services community testified before Congress that any attempts to enforce the UIGEA would result in serious regulatory burdens. A result of the testimony was new legislation introduced by Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul, proponents of legalizing and regulating online gaming, which would prohibit the Department of the Treasury and Federal Reserve System from implementing any regulations related to the UIGEA. The proposed bill did not pass.

In October 2008, the state of Kentucky was granted permission by Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate to begin the seizure of gambling websites. In January 2009, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in a 2-1 decision, citing that domain names are not gambling devices under Kentucky law. The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision, saying the online gaming interests arguing the case lacked standing.

The Kentucky case is still ongoing, although a few online gaming companies have settled with the state. settled its case with Kentucky for $15 million.

In April 2011, the DOJ indicted the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker/UB. The charges, most of which have been settled, resulted in the forfeiture of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and assets, the sale of Full Tilt to PokerStars, the closing of Absolute/UB, and the withdrawal of PokerStars and Full Tilt from the U.S. market. In addition to shutting down the U.S. operations of the most popular online poker sites, the DOJ indictments convinced many operators to shut down their U.S.-facing operations, leaving American online gamblers with a limited marketplace.

That marketplace is now being filled, in a limited way, by the state-by-state expansion of online gaming.

In September 2015, New Jersey regulators approved a partnership between Amaya Gaming, parent company of PokerStars, and land-based casino Resorts Atlantic City. The approval cleared the way for PokerStars to re-enter the U.S. online poker market for the first time since April 2011. PokerStars launched in New Jersey in March 2016.

In early 2015, billionaire Republican power broker and Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson began a push for Congress to ban all forms of online gambling. In February 2015, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R–Utah) introduced a bill called the Restoration of America's Wire Act in the House Judiciary Committee. In June 2015, RAWA was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–South Carolina) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Florida).

In June 2015, Rep. Joe Barton (R–Texas) introduced his third attempt to advance federal online poker legislation since 2011 when he introduced the Internet Poker Freedom Act of 2015.

In October 2015, in response to an "insider information" scandal that brought attention to the burgeoning real-money daily fantasy sports industry, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association created a new control board to oversee the U.S. market in an attempt to avoid government regulation.

In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) was unconstitutional, paving the way for an explosion of legalized and regulated sports betting in the U.S.

On 14 January 2019, a legal opinion from the U.S. Department of Justice was made public that could threaten the viability of online gambling that crosses state lines. The new opinion interprets the federal Wire Act, which prohibits interstate wagering, to apply to any form of gambling that crosses state lines, not just sports betting. The opinion marks a reversal for the department, which said in 2011 that online gambling within states that does not involve sporting events would not violate the federal law. Within the next six weeks, 15 states and the District of Columbia decided to sue the DOJ in court regarding the new opinion.

On January 20, 2021, the First Circuit issued its ruling that the Wire Act only applies to sports betting. In reaching its conclusion, the appeals court determined that the phrase “on any sporting event or contest” qualifies the term “bets or wagers” throughout the Wire Act. In June 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice allowed the deadline to expire without appealing the ruling

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