While many in the United States have been focused on the Senate confirmation hearings in Washington D.C. for Donald Trump’s controversial choices for Attorney General and Education Secretary of America, there was something else even more profound happening in the senate in Virginia... the reclassification of poker!
The bill, known as Senate Bill 1400, was introduced by State Senator Louise Lucas and qualifies poker as a game of skill, not one of chance. It seeks to separate poker from traditional forms of gambling, which are still considered illegal in Virginia. The bill swiftly passed through a Senate committee and onto the floor for a required third reading before a vote could be taken.
Like many of Trump’s nominees, the bill proved divisive, with the Senate for the Commonwealth of Virginia tied 19 in favour and 19 opposed. Drawing parallels to Betty DeVos’ confirmation hearing, the deciding vote was cast by the chairman of the chamber, which fell to Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who quickly approved the legislation.
The current legislation in Virginia defines illegal gambling thus:
"'Illegal gambling' means the making, placing or receipt of any bet or wager in the Commonwealth of money or other thing of value, made in exchange for a chance to win a prize, stake or other consideration or thing of value, dependent upon the result of any game, contest or any other event the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance, whether such game, contest or event occurs or is to occur inside or outside the limits of the Commonwealth."
Senate Bill 1400 adds this crucial line to the existing legislation:
"Poker games shall be deemed games of skill, and nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to make any such game illegal gambling."
Virginia joins a growing list of progressive gambling states where it's legal to play poker, either in a casino or online. This includes Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey, although each state differs slightly in what games can be played and where. The last three states are the first to fully legalise online gambling as long as the online casinos are located within state lines.
Other states, such as New York, offer a grey area where the law is less defined around whether poker is legal or illegal. There are other states, like Illinois, that are edging in the direction of Virginia by pushing for new legislation that will better define gambling and make it legal to play, even online.
The bill will now move on to the Virginia House of Delegates, where it will go through a similar committee process and house vote with any amendments requested. There is scepticism that it will pass beyond the house, which is controlled by 66 Republicans and only 34 Democrats.
In the Senate, the vote was down party lines, with the Democrats for and the Republicans against. If it does pass the House, Governor Terry McAuliffe has indicated that he's willing to sign the bill into law.
Whether or not it passes, the reclassification of poker in Virginia lays the groundwork for future legislation relating to other forms, specifically online gambling. The author of the bill, State Senator Louise Lucas, also tried to pass bills that would allow the building of physical casinos in deprived areas where they could kick-start economic growth.
These were rejected, to which Lucas commented:
"We’re missing out on a real opportunity in this state by not taking advantage."
Technically, gambling is legal under the umbrella of the United States federal laws, but the regulation of gambling laws falls under the mandates of the 50 states that make up North America. With more and more of these individual states looking to gambling as a way to boost their own economies, states that wish to compete with their neighbours have little choice but to follow suit.
Yet, this is a moot point if the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA) is pushed through Congress. The prohibition-style act would update the current Federal Wire Act to specifically include online gambling, as it was written in 1961, before the age of the internet.
The act is being aggressively pursued by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who believes online gambling would impact his profits and who has financially backed several senators in order to garner their support. Should RAWA ever come to fruition, it would devastatingly impact upon any attempt to legalise online gambling in the United States of America.