Idaho Online Gambling Laws

This little gem of a state takes a middle of the road approach to gambling – it does regulate certain legal forms, but the range of options isn’t so wide, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a legal poker game in Idaho. There are a number of tribal casinos across the state, but these must also abide by state prohibitions on poker, roulette and craps, and generally offer only pull tab play.

The history of Idaho, as that of many a western state, is filled with poker games and other forms of gambling. But with a serious crackdown on these activities during the middle of the 20th century, those times are definitely a part of history now. One of the oft’ told tales of that earlier time is that of “Poker Bride” Polly, a Chinese slave who was won by an American in a game of poker in Warrens, Idaho back in the 1870s.

Bemis, the lucky winner of the hand in question went on to win Polly’s [1] hand in marriage, and they became one of very few interracial couples in the USA at that time. Bemis was an ardent gambler, and required nursing back to health by Polly after being badly shot in another wild game of cards held during the 1880s.

Polly went on to live to the grand old age of 81, quite a feat in those days, and has remained a figure of local legend ever since.

A more modern proponent of the game hails from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the notorious Kevin Macphee or “ImaLuckSac” as he is known online, winner of EPT Berlin in 2010 and ranked amongst the top online MTT players in the world. I wonder where he cut his teeth at the game. It seems pretty unlikely that it was in his home town, given the strict rules governing any form of real money poker play in Idaho state.

The Letter of the Law

In Idaho, state law doesn’t differentiate between games of skill and of chance. Where a specific form of wagering is not explicitly allowed under state law, it is illegal. Anyone gambling illegally is committing a misdemeanor.

Exceptions allowed under the law include “bona fide contests of skill, speed, strength or endurance”, although before you poker players perk up at the prospect of arguing for poker being a skill game, bear in mind that it is specifically legislated against by name under state law.

Bingo and raffles are allowed under the law, with certain provisions which mean that in practice most of the events permitted are charitable ones. Licenses must be obtained to run such events, and limits are in place regarding maximum fees, prizes and age of participants.

Pari-mutuel racing is allowed on horse racetracks, and dog racing is illegal in Idaho as it is now in most states. The government themselves helpfully provide this list of scheduled horse racing events [3] taking place across the state.
It is a crime to possess a slot machine in Idaho, unless it’s from before 1950 and non-electronic. Exceptions exist within the tribal casinos for pull tab machines.

The state has run a lottery since 1988, now providing a range of games including scratch cards. With record breaking ticket sales in July 2013, this remains the most popular form of gambling in the state. Of course anyone but the state running a lottery is breaking the law.

Laws governing pool and billiards have been repealed, according to this extensive guide from Gaming Law Masters [5], so there may be room for a flutter there.

The lottery website also offers a handy FAQ [6] for those wishing to find out more about running charitable bingo games and raffles.

There is no provision for social gambling under Idaho law, so while it may or may not be tolerated by lawmakers, it is not technically legal to play any kind of game for real money even in the privacy of your own home.

Is Online Gambling Legal in Idao?

There are no specific statutes under Idaho state law regarding online gambling, but this does not indicate that it’s a legal, or even a risk-free venture. Nonetheless the local press has no reports of arrests for anyone gambling online.

In Section 20 of the state code it is stated that it is illegal to “employ any electronic or electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling”, which would seem to apply to most forms of online wagering, on top of which any such activity would violate more general state laws on gambling anyway.

In response to the news that states such as New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware were working to allow online intra-state gambling, the executive director of the Idaho lottery discussed the prospects for such a thing to occur in Idaho, concluding that while he wouldn’t rule it out at some stage in the future, there are no plans to even look into this matter within the state legislature at this time.

For now then, any online gambling within the state of Idaho is very clearly against state law.

What Forms of Gambling Are Legal?

For those of you still seeking a poker game in the state, there’s really not much in the way of legitimate options. This thread on a sports website discusses the possibilities, essentially concluding that the best option is to head to Washington. I can’t even find any free rolls listed in Idaho.

While there are home games listed here and here on the nation’s most popular websites for such gatherings, it’s unclear whether the people posting here realize that in hosting real money games they are breaking state law. We list these links purely for academic purposes, additionally at least some of them are likely free rolls. If your aim is to stay within the letter of the law, you can’t play home games of any sort for real money.

You can of course attend the tribal casinos, which offer a range of games, almost exclusively pull tab machines with a nice fat house edge. The casinos are not allowed to run poker or other table games, although there does seem to be a very quiet movement towards electronic tables.

The Fort Hall Casino is running electronic blackjack tables [8].

The Coeur d’Alene resort apparently installed video poker tables with manned dealers. The tables aren’t even referenced on the casino website, the only online talk of them being an article in the Spokesman Review when they were first proposed in 2007 [9] and a passing mention in this general guide to Idaho’s casinos [10].

This seeming exception to the law bore further investigation, so being the perfectionist that I am I just had to give them a call. And as it turns out, of course, they are cruising within the letter of the law by keeping the game strictly player vs. machine, not player vs. player, and of course thereby player vs. house. The game featured is a form of Stud, and a live dealer runs the game via prompts from the “poker machine”. Unlike table poker itself, these games cannot be worked for a profit, due to the persistent house edge. A slot by any other name…

Recent Developments in Idaho Gambling Laws

In the only positive poker news to hit Idaho for decades, in 2010 a legal review following a bust of elderly citizens for playing a $20 poker game has led to an adjustment in the existing legislation for how the state handle individual cases of breaking the law by gambling socially.

The local criticism which the police faced after busting over twenty retirees mid-game at the Twin Falls Senior Center was so heavy that the House and Senate passed almost unanimous votes supporting a measure to “place discretion for investigating any gambling reports back in the hands of the prosecutors” .

This small but significant victory seems to suggest that a private home game which doesn’t bother any neighbours or other folk would likely go unprosecuted by the law.

Moving in the opposite direction, resistance to existing tribal gambling continues to make itself heard in Idaho. A new legal claim was put forward in March that the existing resorts are violating the Idaho constitution, and the proponents of this bill also claim that the state lottery has its sights set on electronic gaming.

Busts and Arrests

Venues are periodically shut down for playing host to illegal gambling, as happened to various grocery stores, Laundromats and bars in this series of busts of May 2013 [11] which saw 19 machines seized and four people charged.
Busts of home games do happen from time to time usually based on citizens’ complaints, for example in this case from July 2013 [12] in which four people were arrested. A “facilitator” is discussed as exchanging cash for chips, though no mention of a sizeable operation or premises is made.

It emerges that the family who played cards together moved their friendly games from their home to office locations after neighbor complaints. They were later busted and defended themselves to the press [13], claiming they were just playing socially and weren’t aware of any wrongdoing. Technically, they could avoid prosecution under the 2010 ruling discussed above.

Generally, prosecutions for illegal gambling activity covered in the Idaho press are relatively small scale, and few and far between.

Summary

If you’re seeking a wager in the Gem State, you’re not exactly short on options, but they are perhaps not the most varied, nor glitzy choices in the United States. You can play the state lottery, bet at the licensed horse racetracks with some pari-mutuel wagering, partake in charitable bingo games and raffles organized by licensed non-profits, and perhaps get away with a wager on pool or billiards.

Aside from that, if you’re after an actual gambling venue you have half a dozen tribal casinos to choose from, which run electronic gaming only, mainly limited to pull tabs and with a couple of player vs. house electronic blackjack and poker tables in the larger venues.

Other than that, you’re best off heading to Washington for your closest games. Of course, you could partake in a prop bet about navigating the Idaho River in winter, except that Amarillo Slim already did it and won over $30,000 doing so.

Slim riled locals back in 1972 by running the river [14] at the least challenging time of year, as it’s actually more difficult in the summer with the higher water levels.

Of course to anyone familiar with prop betting this is clearly the exact reason Slim made the wager, since to the layman winter looks like the toughest time, while to someone in the know it’s actually the ideal moment to take the bet. There’s always an edge, if you’re Slim enough to find one.

Sources for this article

  1. NewWest.net: Seeking the Truth Behind Idaho’s Chinese “Poker Bride”
  2. IdahoLottery.com
  3. IdahoLottery.com: Charitable Gaming
  4. IdahoReporter.com: Feds give OK to online gambling, but it is not likely to happen in Idaho
  5. ShobanGaming.com: Virtual Blackjack
  6. Spokesman.com: CdA Casino to add 80 workers, video blackjack, poker machines
  7. Destination360.com: Idaho Casinos
  8. Spokesman.com: New bill goes after tribal gaming in Idaho on ‘moral,’ constitutional grounds
  9. CityofBoise.org: Officers Follow Citizen Complaints; Results in Gambling Arrests
  10. MeridianStar.com: MPD confiscates gambling machines, arrests made
  11. KBOI2.com: Boise couple on gambling arrest: ‘We’re not criminals’