Arkansas Gambling Laws

Arkansas may be the birthplace of the man who is arguably the second most legendary player in poker history, the inimitable Amarillo Slim and compadre of Doyle Brunson, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a game in this southern state.

Of course, Slim is more often associated with his namesake city in Texas, where he actually grew up, having moved states in infancy. This prop-betting, high-jinxing, wise-cracking cowboy passed away in 2012 [1] and will be sadly missed, but the strength of his character has left a unique stamp on the history of the game.

Funnily enough, back when Slim’s poker antics were just a proverbial gleam in his father’s eye, Arkansas and especially Hot Springs were something of a hot bed for illicit gambling activity, indeed the town had the makings of a turn-of-century Vegas from the 1920s through to the 1940s.

The Southern Club, now a wax museum, was the heart of this underground pulse, and host to politicians, movie stars and high rollers alike, despite being fundamentally illegal in its operations.

Run by mobster Owney Madden [2], who pulled out of New York amidst fierce rivalry, the club was famously host to Al Capone on a semi-permanent basis, who spent plenty of his time in suite 443 of the Arlington just down the way. This underground gambling in Hot Springs was finally stamped out in 1964, over twenty years after its heyday.

Is Online Gambling Legal in Arkansas?

While there is no specific statute on online gambling as such, and no history of prosecutions for online gambling from one’s own home to be found listed in the state press, this is far from saying that it’s legal under state law.

For one thing, online gambling would certainly fall under certain more general laws in the state banning gambling, such as the statement in section 5-66-104 which reads "It is unlawful for any person to bet any money or other valuable thing or any representative of anything that is esteemed of value on any game prohibited…"

Page five of this academic review [3] considers the current status of online gambling in Arkansas, concluding that “While it seems extremely unlikely that a prosecutor would bring charges against an individual for online gaming within the confines of his or her home, such activities would seem to be technically illegal under Arkansas law”, and going on to note that, were the play to take place in public, then this risk of prosecution would likely increase.

There are certainly no plans to enshrine any forms of online gambling into state law, and for now prospective online gamblers must simply flout the law, or play out of state, with the arguable exception of freerolls.

Read More State Laws

The Letter of the Law

Arkansas has a curious combination of rather restrictive, but somewhat underdeveloped laws regarding gambling within the state. Many forms of gambling are outright banned, with certain key exceptions, but many gaming forms fall under umbrella laws without having been legislated against individually.

The state finally got a state lottery voted into existence [4] in 2008, one of the most recent states to join the long list of those providing this gambling option.

There is no specific statute or code relating directly to games of dice (not that this makes them legal in the state), to darts, nor indeed to social forms of gambling, making the legality of even simple social home poker games shaky territory. Free to enter games, even those giving out real money prizes, are legal however.

There is no fundamental distinction made between games of skill and of chance within the most general laws on gambling in the state, although such distinctions are made with regard to certain specific forms of gambling.

One area of specific interest in this regard is a ruling concerning the use of electronic devices which possess a skill element, not necessarily even a material or dominant skill element, initially allowed under law for use on and around certain licensed racetracks.

These laws allow a racetrack to run electronic “games of skill”, provided there is first a local electorate vote on the matter which allows it to go ahead. Devices are subject to an “any skill” ruling which seems at quite a sharp contrast from the total lack of distinction drawn between chance and skill in the state’s overarching gambling laws.

This “any skill” ruling effectively requires simply that a game fail to be based entirely on luck and forces beyond the participant’s control, without specifying how material or substantial the skill element need be.

The reason any of this matters, is that this ruling has paved the way for two, the only two, venues which might come close to what we think of as casinos, enabling them to run a range of electronic forms of gambling right in the middle of Arkansas, amidst an otherwise near blanket ban on gambling in the state, indeed within a state where one cannot even conduct a friendly home game of poker within the letter of the law.

“Racetracks” by Any Other Name

These two behemoths of the Arkansas gambling scene have snuck their way up from simple racetracks by virtue of this electronic gaming regulation. Various objections have been made in court concerning their operation [5], but for now they remain, flying low over the winds of surrounding legislation [6], and seemingly untouchable.

Although the first of these machines were designed to enable pari-mutuel wagering on racetrack events, things have gone way beyond that at Oaklawn Racing. They now feature “skill gaming machines” which bear striking resemblance to slot machines, as well as providing electronic blackjack, video poker, and even live poker against other players, only using electronic cards and deals of course.

The venue even recently won the right to provide free drinks to players during their time spent at Oaklawn, allowing them to emulate the Las Vegas casinos in just one more none-too-subtle way.

Southland Park Gaming & Racing has clearly followed the same trajectory, with the gaming tab on their website even appearing first, closely followed by the racing tab. They feature a high limit room offering machines for wagering between $1 and $25 at a time, a wheel of fortune machine, as well as their own electronic forms of blackjack and poker. They even run craps and roulette at this venue, yet staunchly refuse to be called a casino. There is no pretense about what is being run here, with their website even listing electronic poker table limits for cash games.

This ruling in law over electronic devices is clearly being exploited and stretched far beyond its initial intended purpose, as evidenced by the sheer monopoly these two venues possess, but this has been allowed to continue despite vocal protest from certain parties . The principle reason that no opposition has met with any success, is believed to relate to the fact that these two venues provide both numerous jobs, and more significantly a staggering amount of revenue to the state would otherwise be largely lost to neighboring Mississippi and Oklahoma. Both tracks run only seasonal racing, but gaming around the calendar year. They saw yearly wagers of over $2.7 billion between them over 2012.

The full legal data concerning all of this can be read up on here, on the Arkansas DFA website [9].

Various moves have been made to expand on the inroads made by these two lone gambling titans, so far with little joy. A proposition put forward by Nancy Todd, a poker player, political consultant and strategic consultant based on of Nevada, for four new casinos in Arkansas, was felled by the Supreme Court at the very last hurdle.

Having obtained all the votes it needed to pass, the proposal was shot down for having unclear language. An angle shoot gone wrong, the proposal had attempted to win public support without being sufficiently clear in stating that it would require change to state law, and change which might repeal existing electronic gambling regulations, potentially shutting down Oaklawn and Southland Park.

Still the ground keeps shifting under the very feet of the Arkansas legislature, with numerous venues in the Oaklawn area applying for electronic gaming licenses [10] under the same pretext as the two existing local resorts. The response from local people to this has been mixed, but there is a general awareness of quite how much money this may bring to the area.

Perhaps the gambling hotbed of Arkansas is on the way back in, all these decades later, this time with just a little bit more of the law on its side.

Busts and Arrests

Of course, there are those who feel this monopoly of electronic gaming to be somewhat unfair, and those who take matters into their own hands in setting up illegal electronic machine gambling in areas where no vote has been taken, and of course running them without a license.

In a large raid in 2012, two hundred and twelve of the things were seized in one fell swoop by the authorities, in Pine Bluff. The purveyors were all brought to face felony charges. Players were not arrested, but were cited with gambling.
Other venues have been closed down for encouraging online gambling, such as Lucky’s, a cyber café based in Little Rock which was busted in 2011. Information on the full court case for this bust can be found here [11].

Illegal gambling venue Queen of Clubs had its owner arrested on money laundering charges [12], and he was sentenced to four years’ probation and a $4,000 fine, not so much compared to the $90,000 he admitted having earned from the illicit business! Perhaps this in itself sheds a little more light on why certain businessmen are willing to take such risks.
Finally, in a more minor and perhaps amusing incident, police busted 25 gambling machines frequented by elderly action junkies in the Play Time Arcade, Parkin, citing numerous grannies for gambling as they took their beloved machines away.

Summary

If you want to gamble in Arkansas and remain within the law, you do have a few options. You can play the state lottery. If you take this option, be sure to try and run as good as the Arkansas couple who won it twice in one day!

Otherwise, you may wager on licensed horse and dog tracks, try to find a poker free roll running somewhere, or visit Oaklawn or Southland Park for some electronic gaming extravaganza, as well as for the racing of course. Just don’t say the word “casino” around there, it’s just not the language spoken in those parts! Nonetheless you will find electronic blackjack, poker, and a range of other reel games at these two intriguing establishments.

Beyond that, if you want to stay within the law, even for a social un-raked home game of poker, you’d just best head out of state.

Resourcs for This Article

  1. [1]NYTimes.com: Amarillo Slim, Gambler With a Sly Wit, Dies at 83
  2. [2]InArkansas.com:De Soto, Gambling, Resorts and the Mob: A History of Hot Springs
  3. [3]UARK.edu: Gambling in Arkansas in the Post Lottery Environment
  4. [4]MyArkansasLottery.com
  5. [5]ArkansasNews.com: Could votes shut Oaklawn and Southland casinos?
  6. [6]ArkTimes.com: Legal heavyweights square off on casino amendment
  7. [9]Arkansas.gov: Electronic Games of Skill
  8. [10]Oaklawn: Village Board Ponders Impact of Video Gaming on Oak Lawn
  9. [11]Fox16.com: Arrests made in gambling bust
  10. [12]THV11.com: Little Rock police raid Lucky's Internet café
  11. [13]ArkansasOnline.com: Club owner to be sentenced in money laundering