Virginia Gambling & Online Casino Laws

Old Dominion is perhaps best known for having spawned more US presidents than any other state, and despite somewhat prohibitive rules on gambling it has provided the world with one of the most famous young players in the world. While he currently hails from Maryland, Dan Kelly was born in Virginia. He’s arguably better known by his screen-name, djk123.

Dan has a pretty stellar track record of scores stretching back over seven years in live games, with the high point of his career thus far being his first place finish in the WSOP 2010 $25k 6-max event for a mind-blowing $1,315,518. One wonders where Dan got his practice in, since there is no legal poker room in Virginia at the current time. Some clubs were shut down fairly recently though, prior to some legal flip-floppery about poker’s status as a skill game, a chain of events we’ll look into a little further below.

Belying its strict modern countenance regarding gambling, Virginia has a rich history of it in the early days. The Puritan pilgrims even put in place whipping punishments for certain offences of this type, but nonetheless the activity blossomed through the 17th century. Charles II had such a penchant for gambling that it became seriously en vogue, and the aristocracy was known to frequent Virginia gambling halls. The Earl of Sandwich himself is said to have invented his eponymous foodstuff while relaxing at the tables.

As it stands today, you’ve a fairly meagre selection of options when it comes to gambling within the law in Virginia. There is a state lottery, and a small amount of pari-mutuel horserace wagering. Other than that, you can play games held by charitable organizations, play at home socially within the letter of the law, or stick to freerolls.

The Letter of the Law

The law on gambling in Virginia is pretty old and extremely broadly stated. Section 18.2 – 325(1) states that illegal gambling consists of the making, placing or receipt, of any bet or wager in this 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,”. This very concept of uncertainty came up in a recent Supreme Court case about the legal status of poker in the state, the results of which have not been to poker players’ liking so far, and will be touched on below. Suffice to say that uncertainty in outcome is a far broader definition than “a matter of chance”. Many activities highly determined by skill but subject to a degree of chance, typically not regarded as gambling, would arguably qualify as illegal under such a definition. 
A simple class 3 misdemeanor of illegal gambling carries a $500 fine, but organizing or running illegal events can carry several misdemeanor charges or even a felony charge. Enforcement is carried out – in 2011 the state recorded over 150 gambling related arrests. Over a quarter of these charges were against players.

Allowance is made under state law for social home games however, so there’s always that recourse for the future Dan Kellys of Virginia. Section 18.2-334 declares that “Nothing in this article shall be construed to make it illegal to participate in a game of chance conducted in a private residence, provided such private residence is not commonly used for such games of chance and there is no operator”. So provided it’s not a regular game, and the host takes no consideration, you should be alright on the home game front.

Virginia state law also allows for certain forms of charity gaming, mainly consisting of bingo and raffles. The full scoop on what’s allowed in this context can be found at this government portal [1]. For more on Virginia state code, here’s a full breakdown [2].

Online Gambling

First of all, as with almost any state in the USA, if there’s no specific ruling naming online gambling as illegal, such activity would still likely be deemed illegal under broader legislation. In the case of Virginia any such wagering would surely be considered illegal and a class 3 misdemeanor, since it would involve wagering money on an unregulated game with an uncertain outcome.

There are sources online which will give you the guidance that Virginia has no such specific ruling against online gambling. However our research suggests otherwise. As NV Daily discussed back in February 2011,[3] a bill to clarify a ban on Internet gambling passed both chambers of the General Assembly that year, a bill which clarified that any conduct of a game online would be considered lawful only under certain conditions, namely those of not qualifying as a form of gambling. The bill is supposed to clarify that any computer used for gambling should be considered a gambling device, and to close up existing loopholes allowing “sweepstake Internet cafes” and the like to continue operating. The bill itself, HB 1584, can be found here [4].

As a final nail in the coffin for those waiting for new legislation in the state, Senator Richard Salslaw recently commented that it might be “maybe 48” states needed to take the plunge towards Internet gambling before Virginia followed suit, clearly referring to Utah as the only state likely to hold out longer than Virginia. In short, don’t hold your breath.

What Forms of Gambling Are Legal

Your first port of call for a legal wager in Virginia is going to be the state lottery, which has run since 1989 after it was voted in to existence back in 1987. Since 1999 the proceeds have gone solely to educational funding, with total proceeds thus far amounting to almost $9 billion. Interestingly, Virginia also operates an “Off Debt Collection Act”, in which winners’ payments are withheld to cover obligations such as taxes and child support.

The official website [5] keeps a public record of exactly what proportion of funds have benefited which school divisions, as well as an exact tally of how silly anyone believing themselves to be able to “beat the lottery” is. For example, in 2013 sales of tickets added up to $1,689,000,000, and prizes totalled $1,025,000,000. This means that for every $10 a player invests in the lottery, they’ll win prizes totalling $6.07 for an average loss of 39.3% negative ROI. However, it’s all in good fun, since a nice 28.8% of the total sales figure went to deserving causes in 2013, totalling a whopping $486,500,000.

Now, if participating in the educational lottery isn’t for you, there’s always a bit of horseracing available in Virginia. This principally occurs at one venue, Colonial Downs in New Kent. The racecourse features off track betting facilities across many counties, a Derby, and a live racing calendar which will feature motorcycle events and a Rodeo in 2014. For those wishing to keep up with the news on Virginia horseracing a dedicated site exists and for those wishing to understand the legal elements more clearly, the Virginia Racing Commission can be found here.

The off track wagering element is covered by the installation of “EZ Kiosks” around the track and in numerous bars and public locations, providing a means of wagering on races from around the state.

A limited amount of charitable gambling is available, basically bingo rooms and raffles, this is overseen by Agriculture and Consumer Services, with regulations and the relevant gaming statute made available here.

A new law has apparently been passed in late 2013 allowing “network bingo” for charitable purposes, whereby a group of bingo rooms may join together to provide tickets to a live video stream of numbers drawn at a centralized location. The Richmond Times Dispatch has this story on the development.

As for poker, the pickings are sparse. A twoplustwo thread discussing the closure of certain poker rooms in Portsmouth in 2010 goes on to track the progress of a legal case before the Supreme Court up to 2011, in which the court seemingly chose to decline to rule on whether poker was a game of skill or luck.

Since social home games are allowed within certain restrictions, a number of groups have sprung up organizing friendly social events, such as the several hundred strong Richmond Poker group on Yahoo.

Free to play poker leagues do exist as well, the principle one in Virginia seems to be World Tavern Poker, where top winners over a season go on to qualify for regional and national events. The national league events offer 41 tickets to the WSOP as top prizes every year, and run twice a year in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Recent Developments

The Washington Post Local put out a snappy article [6] in November 2013 discussing how Virginia is now amongst ten or fewer states holding out against “the siren call” of commercial casinos. As part of the story, the article covers the various legislative efforts to get some sort of allowance for casinos in Virginia, every one of which has crashed and burned, including two concerted efforts at riverboat casinos made during the 1990s.

This hasn’t stopped certain lawmakers from making recent attempts at the same, with a new bill filed by Senator Louise Lucas for the 2014 General Assembly. The senator has made such efforts in the past and they’ve gained very little traction.

Tom Jackman runs a regular post for the Washington Post Local amusingly entitled “News for Degenerates” in part three of which he discusses the case mentioned earlier in which the Supreme Court was asked, and declined, to define poker in terms of skill and luck – but not before listening to testimony from none other than Greg “Fossilman” Raymer.

Busts and Arrests

Several notable gambling related arrests have taken place in Virginia in recent years.

In 2011 a Vietnamese-American gang was busted for running a gambling operation straight out of a shopping center. The gambling involved seventeen coffee shops running over seventy computers and had raked in over $1 million in profits prior to being busted. This bust of “the Dragon Family” is recounted in detail by NBC Washington.

A home game allegedly running far more than a friendly social event was bust in 2013, as covered by Hampton Roads. According to police reports, the house was raking in around $2000 a night and selling paraphernalia alongside the games themselves.

An extremely disturbing account put out by Salon covering the overuse of police force, even deadly force in relation to gambling busts opens with a worrying account of an undercover cop in Virginia “befriending” a casual sports gambler, encouraging him to increase his stakes and then busting him with a full SWAT team raid on his home which culminated in his being shot dead whilst unarmed. This is certainly a very thought provoking article on gambling law enforcement issues.

Summary

If you’re looking to get your wager on in Virginia, there are a few limited options open to you within the law. You can play the state lottery, place pari-mutuel wagers at Colonial Downs racecourse either in person or remotely, or take part in charitable bingo games and raffles. As for poker, social home games are permitted provided no rake or consideration is taken, and further provided that they are not held as regular events. Free to play poker leagues also exist.

There’s no movement on online gambling regulation, nor on commercial casinos – if you’re looking for anything further, you’ll have to head out of state.