Prior to 2006, the legal status of online poker in Florida was like that in most other U.S. states. That all changed with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). While the UIGEA didn’t specifically make playing online poker illegal, what it did do was make the processing of online gambling transactions by U.S. banks illegal.
Following the passage of UIGEA, many online poker sites decided to withdraw from the U.S. market rather than risk prosecution. Other sites like Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars chose to stay in the United States after receiving various legal opinions that led them to believe that they were operating legally.
The online poker industry received a major blow on April 11, 2011 when the U.S. Department of Justice indicted PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker on violations of the UIGEA and for operating an illegal gambling business. PokerStars immediately withdrew from the U.S. market and repaid most players within a few weeks.
Full Tilt, Absolute Poker and UB all were forced out of business due to the inability to repay players. UB and Absolute Poker both went into bankruptcy and Full Tilt Poker was ultimately sold to PokerStars as part of a settlement reached with the DOJ.
Following the crackdown on online poker, many feared that it was virtually game over barring a Congressional bill. However, the legal status of online poker was clarified in December 2011 when the DOJ released a memo regarding the federal Wire Act.
Previously, it was believed that the Wire Act only applied to online poker as it prevented the transmission of bets and wagers across state lines. However, the memo released by the DOJ clarified that the Wire Act was only applicable to sports betting, NOT online poker.
With this clarification, several states began exploring online poker regulation. Presently, only three states (NJ, DE and NV) have regulated online poker.
Current Status of Online Poker in Florida
Florida is one of the states that has considered online poker regulation in the past but has yet to pass a bill. The first bill to explore the issue was filed by State Rep. Joseph Abruzzo during the 2011 legislative session. Florida House Bill 77, aka the Internet Poker Consumer Protection and Revenue Generation Act of 2011, was one of the first online poker bills to be filed at the state level and came before the historic DOJ memo that paved the way for states to regulate iPoker. There was also a companion bill filed in the state Senate.
Unfortunately, Abruzzo’s bill never received any traction and failed to emerge from committee. This was the last time an online poker bill has been filed in Florida. There were rumblings of a bill being introduced in the 2012 legislative session but the issue of Internet cafes and concerns over problem gambling were enough to convince lawmakers to shelve any attempts to regulate online poker.
After online poker became regulated in 2013 in Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey, some put Florida on the short list to regulate online poker. This was due to a thriving live poker industry that many believed would benefit further from regulated online poker. Lawmakers never moved forward with a proposal in 2013 and now it may be some time before one is introduced.
Governor Rick Scott publicly announced in 2014 that he was opposed to online gambling and sounded like a mouthpiece for Sheldon Adelson’s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling. Due to his stance against online poker, an online poker bill is not expected to be introduced during the remainder of his tenure as Governor. Gov. Scott began his second term in January 2015 and will not leave office until early 2019.
With that said, there has recently been a push by certain state legislators to regulate Daily Fantasy Sports such as DraftKings and FanDuel. A bill is presently being drafted in Florida that would regulate DFS sites much in the same way that other sites have regulated online poker.
This could ultimately prove to be a catalyst towards regulating online poker. DFS is largely considered to be a form of gambling and if it successfully becomes regulated, it could open the door for online poker.
Will Online Poker be Legal in 2016?
Due to the Governor Scott’s stance on online gambling, we believe there’s zero chance for online poker to become legal in Florida in 2016. Knowing his stance, we also believe that there’s little chance that any type of legislation will be introduced during the 2016 legislative session.
In our opinion, several things need to happen before Florida lawmakers tackle the issue of regulating online poker and casino games. A few are below:
- Election of a Governor that supports online gambling or a change in viewpoint by Governor Scott regarding the issue akin to the chance of heart that Gov. Chris Christie had in New Jersey.
- Significant states become part of the regulated market in the United States. Presently, the only state with a legitimate player base is New Jersey. Once states such as New York, Pennsylvania and California regulate online poker, we believe others will begin to see the true benefit of online poker and of a shared interstate online poker network.
- PokerStars begins operations in the United States and posts successful returns. It is likely that most states will consider PokerStars as a provider now that NJ has paved the way. Successful operations by the company in the U.S. could help prompt lawmakers to examine the issue closely.
- Congress finally abandoning legislation such as the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA). As long as there are still bills in play that could potentially ban online gambling, some lawmakers will sit back and wait before moving forward with laws that could cause strife with federal lawmakers.
- Card rooms start showing a genuine interest in online poker regulation. Presently, FL card rooms are enjoying a bit of a poker boom and haven’t really pressed the issue. Should card rooms start clamoring for online poker, lawmakers may take action.
For now, all that citizens can do is sit back and wait for lawmakers to catch up with other parts of the country in terms of online poker. Gov. Scott’s position regarding online gambling may force Florida to be one of the states that doesn’t regulate the game until 2020.