What is illegal gambling?

Any form of gambling not explicitly authorized by the state is deemed illegal. Penalties for illegal gambling will depend upon your state's laws, but punishment typically ranges from fines to jail time. If you need more legal advice regarding illegal gambling charges, call the toll-free number above to speak with an attorney.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 1, 2021

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Any gambling not specifically legalized and authorized by the state as it sees fit is illegal. If gambling is legal, only certain types, in permitted locations, conducted by state-authorized providers or operators, will be authorized and regulated. State gambling laws will lay out exactly —what forms of gambling, where, offered by whom– is legal, and anything not pre-approved by the state government will be illegal. If gambling is not legal in your state, and you choose not to comply, the type of penalty imposed (monetary fines, jail, etc.) will depend upon the laws of your state.

There is an infinite number of types of gaming (i.e., lottery tickets, raffles, poker, internet sweepstakes, casinos, Fantasy, card and dice games, video line machines, and so forth). Some states regulate all forms of gambling; others ban some forms and allow others; two explicitly ban gambling. (The article about the legality of gambling. (The article about the legality of gambling – States That Allow Gambling – breaks down which types of gambling in which state is authorized.)

Greatly oversimplified, we will look at three categories of gambling: social; charitable, or fundraising; and “for-profit” gambling (such as commercial casinos, tribal gaming or Indian gambling, lotteries, horse racing, sports betting, online, and pari-mutuel betting).

What is considered social gambling?

Social gambling is your neighborhood card game (i.e., playing poker or bridge for money) or your friendly wager with your best friend on which sports team will win Monday Night football or the NCAA tournaments brackets. Typically, players must be at least 18 (or 21 in some states) and participate on equal terms (no individual player has an advantage over the other participants), and no one is paid to organize or run the game. There are often limits on the size of bet, pot, or pool the winner receives.

Social gambling has a mixed bag of acceptance by states: 29 of 50 states either explicitly permit it or at least arguably do. Essentially, you can legally engage in social gambling in less than two-thirds of states, which means social gambling is illegal in over one-third of U.S. states. That said, enforcement of existing laws, when there is a genuine social connection, is rare.  But the point is, if your state doesn’t make it legal, social gambling would be considered illegal gambling.

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What is charitable gambling?

This would be gambling-themed charity events and fundraisers offered by civic, charitable, religious, or fraternal organizations.

It must be offered for charitable purposes-

(1) by an eligible organization,

(2) be properly registered or licensed by the state, and

(3) can only consist of approved games–most typically bingo, raffles of various kinds, “casino night” events using play or fake money or nonredeemable chips, or “armchair races” where you bet on the outcome of previously-staged horse races.

A majority of states in America (46 of 50) allow games at charitable events, but only if you comply with the state regulations. Any violations would make it illegal.

What is “for-profit” gambling?

This is gambling offered by gambling venues – race tracks, online gambling sites, Indian casinos, sportsbooks –where the provider’s or operator’s goal is to make money, and where either there is some entrance or participation fee and/or the odds favor the “house.”

For-profit gambling is very highly regulated–much more so than even charitable or social gambling–because it is bereft of some altruistic (charitable) purpose or is not a game played between friends and family principally for entertainment (such as playing “Monopoly” with real money (social gambling)). It is the type of gambling that the moralizers and anti-gambling crusaders in society find nothing redeeming about except for the fact that the licensing fees and taxes are income for the state. It’s also the type of gambling historically associated with organized crime. And even today, with lots of cash being thrown around, it poses risks of money laundering. For all these reasons, the state tightly regulates the circumstances of who can offer it, where they can offer it, what kinds of games can be offered, and the rules of those games.

Who can offer it?

No state offers unrestricted for-profit gambling. Gambling businesses must obtain licenses from the state. Licensing generally means passing a battery of criteria meant to ensure that the operator has no connections to organized crime, is financially secure, has good systems in place, is well resourced, and in all other ways is someone the state trusts with bettors’ money.

Furthermore, most states limit the number of licensees (Nevada is the only one that does not), so even the best-qualified potential operators cannot get a license if there are no licenses available.

If you gamble with an unlicensed operator, including an unlicensed online gambling website or unlicensed bookmaker, it is illegal gambling.

Location: Most states (NV is the exception) limit where gambling can be offered. This is typically due to a concern over the potential negative “social” effects of gambling, which can also be called the “NIMBY,” or “Not in My Back Yard,” effect. Everyone wants the state to have the revenue from legalized gambling, but few people want a casino in their neighborhood, near their schools. Some states offer a handful of licenses in strategic locations, meant to maximize gambling coverage while minimizing exposure to gambling; New Jersey allows it only in one place (Atlantic City); some western states, in an ode to the old riverboat gambling, require casinos to be on real or faux ships located on or adjacent to a river; and tribal (Indian) gambling must be on tribal land (reservation land).

Is gambling outside of an approved location illegal?

Types of gambling: Not all types of gambling are typically allowed. For example, most states have state-run lotteries with lottery revenues typically benefiting schools, but not all do. Many states allow casino games at commercial (non-Indian) or tribal casinos, but a significant fraction do not. Around half the states allow bets at racetracks. As of November 2018, only eight states allowed sports betting but in 2020 it became legal in 18 states plus Washington D.C. Four additional states have passed bills and nine states have active bills to allow it. Only four states currently allow online gambling.

The specificity of allowed gambling goes to a finer level than defining broad categories of permitted gambling. Within each category, states will define what games or bets are allowed. For example, not all types of sports bets are allowed–if you’re curious, compare the sports bets you can legally make in New Jersey with the huge variety of bets offered by Ladbrokes in the UK. Or take casino games: there are hundreds of different card, dice, gambling machines, and wheel (e.g., roulette) games out there, but every state lists the specific games and their approved variations that casinos may offer–any game not on the list is not allowed.

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Is any type of gambling not authorized by a state illegal?

Rules of the game: States don’t just tell you what kinds of games you can play–they specify how they are played. Operators (e.g., licensed casinos) have to play by their state’s official rules, offering the permitted odds, using equipment and supplies from approved vendors, etc. (You can see the effect of a state’s rules about odds very clearly in terms of slot machines, where the state will specify approved payout percentages).

Offering games or using non-approved equipment that does not comply with the state’s rules are illegal. For example, you can’t just get (or make) any old style of slot machine: a slot machine that was not tested and approved by the state is illegal, even if slot machines are otherwise legal in your state. If you use 8 decks of cards in the dealer’s “shoe” in blackjack in Las Vegas, you are breaking the law–the same way you would be if you used 4 decks in Atlantic City. (Las Vegas uses 4-deck shoes; AC uses 8-deck.) The rules are very particular.

What are the legal consequences for unsanctioned gambling?

Punishment ranges from jail time to fines, depending on how the state looks at illegal gambling operations. In Texas, for example, illegal gambling is a misdemeanor, subjecting you to up to around $1,000 in fines and potentially months (but not more than a year) in jail. Operators–the persons who provide or organize the illegal gambling–can face tens of thousands of dollars of fines in many states, and/or confiscation of all winnings and gambling equipment or supplies.

If you are playing poker with your buddies in your apartment or home in a strictly social context, prosecuting home poker games (where players have a genuine social connection) isn’t of interest to the policing authorities. However, if you decide to turn your poker game into a home-based online business, you will definitely be violating the law unless you manage to get licensed to do so (and your state allows online poker in the first place). Unless you comply with your state laws, you are on the hook for whatever type of penalty your state imposes for your situation.

Collecting on a gambling debt is also problematic. Unlike participants in legalized forms of gambling, persons who wager on online casinos or with telephone sports books have no recourse with any state agency or the courts should they not get paid or have any other complaint. The law does not enforce or help you collect illegal debts.

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