When it comes to talk of poker legalization, the online game gets a ton of press, and understandably so. The poker boom built a giant market and there are all sorts of interested parties ready to cash in if they can convince state legislatures to let them. What isn’t nearly as talked about is live poker legalization. Nearly one-third of the country’s population live in jurisdictions where social poker games are illegal, and about 13 percent of Americans have no access to legal games without leaving their home states. I know this well because I’m one of them.
I’ve been writing about poker professionally for the better part of a decade now. In all that time I’ve played in plenty of legal live poker games, with anywhere from tens to thousand of dollars on the table depending on the venue, but none of them have ever been played in my home state of Tennessee. There are plenty of great things about living here, from the food to the culture to the friendly residents, but from a poker player’s perspective, it’s pretty terrible. The Poker Atlas describes the situation here quite well: “no casino industry, a vast and powerful religious community, no Indian casinos, and no real poker community.” Those poker players who do live here and want to play in legal games have traditionally crossed the state line into Mississippi, or traveled even further afield to southern Indiana. Those who choose to play at home, including WSOP bracelet winners, risk raids by the police.
The laws in Tennessee used to be outright hostile to all forms of gambling before a constitutional amendment allowing a state lottery was approved in 2002. That 58 percent of the state’s voters were in favor of the lottery would seem to indicate that they have an appetite for gambling. So would the repeated busts of underground poker rooms and social poker games in cities around the state. As it stands now, only the state itself is allowed to profit off Tennesseans’ urge to gamble. So playing actual poker for as little as a one-cent buy-in is against the law, but buying WSOP-themed lottery tickets is totally kosher.
The situation in my home state is, unfortunately, far from unique. For every three states in the U.S. that allow social games of poker, there are two that remain hostile to even small-stakes social games among friends. That means that more than 100 million Americans aren’t legally allowed to play a game of poker with no rake. Some of those states have actually legalized casino poker, so players can play their favorite game so long as the state is getting a cut. Others won’t take the money themselves but are fine with letting the local Indian tribes take a rake. In all of them, competing in a raked poker game for any stakes outside of a casino is a crime.
The amazing thing is that these laws exist despite the fact that they don’t actually stop anyone from playing poker. Lots of people are willing to risk the chance of a bust to run underground games. Even more are willing to play in those games. And plenty of others who wouldn’t be so willing to flaunt the law live close enough to a poker-friendly state that they can commute to games. It’s hard to figure out who exactly the law is protecting when everyone who wants a seat at the poker table is free to pull one up.
I just learned this week that I’ll soon have the chance to play in a legal poker game right down the road from my house – not here in Tennessee, but in the state of Washington, where my wife’s new job is located. When we move later this year I’ll have a poker room in my town and dozens of others within a two-hour drive. I’ll be able to play for small stakes without worrying about breaking the law. When I do, I’ll think of all the times I wished I could play a game back in Tennessee and had to settle for doing something else instead – at least until it’s time to check-raise the cowboy in the eight-seat who thinks that I must not know what I’m doing because he’s never seen me before. I’ll have to take advantage of my image as much as I can in the early going, because soon enough I’ll be just another regular at the legal live poker tables.