Wisconsin Online Gambling Laws – Legal or Illegal?

Mention Wisconsin and poker in the same breath and one name springs to mind above all others: the poker brat himself Phil Hellmuth Jr.

Phil was born in the Badger State back in 1964 and went on to take the poker world by storm. Currently holding a stunning total of thirteen WSOP bracelets and ranked fifth on the all-time money list for poker with over $17 million in lifetime winnings, Phil is certainly a serious giant in the game. Whether you love him, or love to hate him, you certainly know his name if you play at all.

Phil was born in Madison and attended the University there before dropping out to go full time with poker (please note we don’t recommend this!). He smashed the heads up of the WSOP Main Event versus Johnny Chan in 1989 to take it down and hasn’t looked back since. He holds the records for most WSOP final tables (49) and most WSOP cashes at a nice round 100. In fact over two thirds of his winnings derive solely from WSOP events.

If you’d like to follow Phil Hellmuth a little more closely, there are a few ways you could go about it. You could join the 185 thousand people already following him on Twitter (while he himself wisely follows a mere 12 people!), or head over to his own site, where there’s a section revealing the good work he does for charity. Or if you’d rather dress a little more like the brat, he has his very own clothing company online.

The state’s history of gambling stretches way back past Phil’s debut on the scene however. This little potted history of gambling around Elkhart Lake [1] serves as a useful microcosm of the wider situation. According to this account, slot machines were in abundance in the very early 1900s, with brazen illegal gambling taking place during the peak lake season lasting around two months. It was only when there were so many machines set up around the lake that thieves started stealing them during the off-season that police stepped in, which took place in 1930. This article is an intriguing gem from the past for those interested in having a look.

As for modern times, things are on the move. The state counts a lottery, pari-mutuel wagering on horseracing and a number of tribal casinos amongst its gaming options, as well as a variety of charity gambling events running each year, mostly consisting of raffles and bingo games. While no social gaming exemption exists allowing for home games, the tribal casinos can run poker, and several do, meaning that you can still emerge as the next big thing in Wisconsin when it comes to the poker scene, you just better work hard at it if you hope to trump Hellmuth!

The Letter of the Law

Wisconsin state law on gambling hinges mostly around its definition of a bet as, “a bargain in which the parties agree that, dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose something of value specified in the agreement” as stated in section 945.01. Most betting in a situation not specifically exempted from this law and regulated by the state is regarded as illegal and subject to prosecution.

Most simple charges for gambling or for entering an illegal venue would be misdemeanors, with class 1 felony charges existing for commercial gambling, promotion of gambling and so forth. Enforcement is certainly in action, with 166 arrests linked to gambling reported by the state in 2010.

Several state sanctioned gambling forms exist, including the state lottery, pari-mutuel wagering on horses, charity bingo and raffles as well as a good spread of tribal casinos. There is no allowance for social home gambling under Wisconsin state law, at least as far as we could discover.

If you’d like to try to figure out the detailed ins and outs of the state legislature on the subject of gambling, heading over to the State Division of Gaming is a fine way to get started with that research endeavor. The State of Wisconsin also released a fine and detailed guide to the history of legislation on gambling in the Badger State, which can be perused here.

Legal Online Gambling in Wisconsin

Regardless of whether Wisconsin statute does contain a specific outlawing of internet gambling in name, this is essentially irrelevant to whether it is actually illegal in practice, since it would certainly fall under more general laws in the state banning any gambling activity which is not specifically regulated by the state as an existing exception. In fact, not only is this true of most states’ laws, but a recent paper from Berkeley Law in California actually uses [4]Wisconsin as an illustrative case of this very point. Just scroll down to section B (1) of this fascinating legal document to read the detail on that one.

Bluff Magazine reinforces this point of online gambling’s current illegality in Wisconsin by making reference to a law which could indeed be interpreted as a more specific outlawing of the online part of online gambling – the crime of wire transmission. The magazine references state code which makes it illegal to use a “wire communications facility to transmit or receive information assisting the placing of a bet”.

Despite this unpromising background there is a degree of movement on the issue of online gambling within the state – coming from a tribal quarter, namely the Lac du Flambeau tribe which runs the Lake of the Torches Casino Resort. In fact they have already launched a free-to-play poker site which you can find here. The tribe is actually involved in efforts to form a coalition of tribes of sufficient number that they might legally begin to regulate tribal iGaming. For more on this complex issue and its legal ramifications head over to this report from Poker News.

What Forms of Gambling Are Legal?

Your first legitimate option for a wager in Wisconsin is going to be the state lottery. Having run since 1988, it has generated over $3 billion in property tax relief over that lifespan. For more on the details of where the money goes, check out this section of the official site. [6]

Horseracing is also a valid option, and dog racing was until a few years ago, when the very last dog racing track in the state closed down in 2009. For those interested in the history of horseracing in the state, stretching back as it does to the mid-1800s – this document will serve you well. The state also has a dedicated harness racing association whose main page can be found here. [7]

For detail on the limited range of bingo and raffle games available through the world of charity gaming, Casino City carries a handy guide.

Bear in mind that at the current time there is no exemption for social home gambling in Wisconsin, meaning that any wagering done at home is technically in violation of the law.

Casinos and Poker

If you’re seeking a good poker tournament, you’re not out of options in Wisconsin thanks to the tribal casinos, several of which host regular weekly games. Cardplayer as ever lists the best of the action here.  The games range in buy-in from $12 up to $330, with the two high rollers of the week both taking place at the Ho-Chunk Nekoosa, a $215 and a $330 buy-in tournament, both running on a Saturday. The Poker Atlas, which deals more generally in linking to all existing card rooms, has a list of eleven such rooms within the state all of which are to be found within one existing tribal casino resort or another. As for the dozen or so other regular tournaments running each week in the state, they’re all firmly below $75.

If you’re more inclined towards those good old negative equity casino games such as roulette or slots, these are well catered for too, with a full guide to the state’s tribal casinos offered by the ever trusty 500 nations’ site, so head down there for the details. Travel Wisconsin also gives a good guide, listing 19 casinos as the state’s current total.

The poker communities themselves don’t seem to have a huge amount to say on poker in Wisconsin, all we could find on a cursory inspection are these two short threads discussing the different poker rooms, forum threads on Twoplustwo and Pocketfives.

Recent Developments

Most newsworthy developments in Wisconsin viz a viz gambling tend to concern the tribes.

As recently as late 2013 federal approval was granted for a new tribal casino development, a gaming facility in Kenosha. The Menominee tribe is still waiting on approval from the Governor however.

The Ho-Chunk tribe have had a difference of opinion with the local legislature running over several years concerning the electronic poker games which are run at their Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Casino, which is only licensed up to class II gaming. This dispute centers around the status of the tables as class II or III, and the State Attorney General recently asked the Feds to step in and enact an injunction against the casino, according to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. [8]

Busts and Arrests

Quite a few gambling related incidents hit the headlines in Wisconsin during recent years, particularly in Milwaukee.

A Monroe bar owner faced eight felony counts of commercial gambling in 2012, who according to this report from The Cap Times stood accused of wire communication gambling along with other charges.

For those interested in getting the professional detail on a Wisconsin gambling bust, this dual gambling and drugs bust reported by the DEA in 2011 may be intriguing. This reports an operation which saw 24 arrested and over $1 million seized. Thirteen of those arrested stood charged with operating an illegal gambling business, for which they risked a punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

A pretty large and much disputed case which the perpetrator made into a book after serving time for major gambling offences concerns Adam Resnick, a Wisconsin born man who gambled illegally with the funds of a local community bank. According to his book “Bust”, Adam reached a crisis point where he needed to win $3 million in one night or get the bank closed down, and indeed ran up his stack to an immense $8 million during that one night in a tribal casino, but played on for too long, and lost the lot in the same night. His own and the bank’s fate were determined by this ultimate crazed night. His dizzy, horrendous, tragic tale of gambling addiction is a warning to us all.

Summary

For those amongst you seeking a wager in Wisconsin, there are various ways you can go about it firmly within the sanction of the law. You can first of all purchase a ticket in the state lottery, furthermore you can wager in pari-mutuel fashion on the horses at one of the state’s racetracks. There’s also a live option on charity-run bingo and raffles.

If you’re looking for something a bit more involved, there’s the state’s near score of tribal casinos to choose between. You can just head down to one of these and find a decent selection of slot machines, table games and indeed poker rooms. The state has over a dozen good poker tournaments running weekly across several poker rooms, and who knows, you might even end up playing against Hellmuth one night if he pops back to his home state on a visit.

Resources

  1. Elkhartlake.com: History of Gambling
  2. Berkeley.edu: Wisconsin Gambling
  3. Wiharnessracing.com
  4. JSOnline.com: Attorney General Seeks Injunction
  5. Justice.gov