Is online poker legal in Maine?
The Pine Tree State has some pretty good options for land-based gambling, but what about the online industry? Can residents of Maine legally play online poker?
To fully understand the legality of online poker in Maine, we’re going to take a close look at the Maine Revised Statutes. As there are no specific mentions of card games that are played online, we need to refer to the laws regarding gambling in general. These can be found in Title 17A – Maine Criminal Code, Chapter 39, Unlawful Gambling.
Before we go any further, we’re going to review some of the definitions as laid out in section 952.
For starters, gambling is defined as follows:
A person engages in gambling if he stakes or risks something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under his control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that he or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome. Gambling does not include bona fide business transactions valid under the law of contracts, including but not limited to contracts for the purchase or sale at a future date of securities or commodities, and agreements to compensate for loss caused by the happening of chance, including but not limited to contracts of indemnity or guaranty and life, health or accident insurance.
Okay, so that’s pretty straightforward and much like the laws we find in other states throughout the US. That means that whether or not we consider poker as a form of gambling depends on if it is a contest of chance.
The state laws have this to say on what constitutes a ‘contest of chance.’
“Contest of chance” means any game, contest, scheme or device in which:
- A person stakes or risks something of value for the opportunity to win something of value;
- The rules of operation or play require an event the result of which is determined by chance, outside the control of the contestant or participant; and
- Chance enters as an element that influences the outcome in a manner that can not be eliminated through the application of skill.
That phrase ‘ outside the control of the contestant or participant’ leaves room for interpretation. This is especially true when we read “in a manner that can not be eliminated through the application of skill.”
But then we find the following:
For the purposes of this subsection, “an event the result of which is determined by chance” includes but is not limited to a shuffle of a deck or decks of cards [emphasis added], a roll of a die or dice or a random drawing or generation of an object or objects that may include, but are not limited to, a card or cards, a die or dice, a number or numbers or simulations of any of these.
That means that a deck of shuffled cards is included as a chance-based endeavor. Not good news for fans of poker. And those final few words “or simulations of any of these,” leaves no doubt that poker is included.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the penalties for engaging in unlawful gambling. These can be found in section 954.
- Any person is guilty of unlawful gambling if that person intentionally or knowingly advances or profits from unlawful gambling activity.
1-A. A person is guilty of unlawful gambling if the person is under 21 years of age and plays a slot machine as defined in Title 8, section 1001, subsection 39.
- Unlawful gambling is a Class D crime.
- A person convicted of a violation under this section must forfeit to the State all income associated with that violation.
So if you intentionally or knowingly advance or profit from unlawful gambling activities, then you’re in trouble. But what does that mean?
Back in the definitions section we see the following:
“Advance gambling activity.” A person “advances gambling activity” if, acting other than as a player or a member of the player’s family residing with a player in cases in which the gambling takes place in their residence [emphasis added], he engages in conduct that materially aids any form of gambling activity. Conduct of this nature includes, but is not limited to, bookmaking, conduct directed toward the creation or establishment of the particular game, contest, scheme, device or activity involved, toward the acquisition or maintenance of premises, paraphernalia, equipment or apparatus therefor, toward the solicitation or inducement of persons to participate therein, toward the actual conduct of the playing phases thereof, toward the arrangement of any of its financial or recording phases, or toward any other phase of its operation. A person also advances gambling activity if, having substantial proprietary control or other authoritative control over premises being used with his knowledge for purposes of gambling activity, he permits that activity to occur or continue, or makes no effort to prevent its occurrence or continuation.
“Profit from gambling activity.” A person “profits from gambling activity” if, other than as a player, [emphasis added] he accepts or receives money or other property pursuant to an agreement or understanding with any person whereby he participates or is to participate in the proceeds of gambling activity.
The good news is that Maine lawmakers have made exemptions for players of games. This means that the authorities have no interest in targeting players but are more interested in catching those who run unlawful games or enterprises. In other words, there’s little to no chance that of you facing charges for playing online poker in Maine.
Those who are involved in running illegal gambling enterprises will, however, face the full force of the law. They can be found guilty of class B and D crimes including aggravated unlawful gambling, possession of gambling devices, and/or possession of gambling records. Aggravated unlawful gambling is a class B crime with a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine of up to $20,000. The rest are class D crimes and carry sentences of less than a year in jail and/or fines of up to $2,000.
None of this has stopped offshore poker providers from offering their services to Maine residents. In fact, there are multiple platforms that allow Mainers to register and play in their online poker rooms.
The history of gambling in Maine
Gambling in the state of Maine dates back to the time when only local tribes inhabited the region. The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and other tribes all enjoyed playing games such as waltes. This particular game involved flipping six flat dice in a bowl. At least five of the dice must land with the same side facing up for the player to score points. The game was played for agreed upon stakes and is the earliest known form of gambling in the region.
The first European settlers arrived in the 1600s with the French, Dutch, and English all claiming ownership of the region at some point. In 1652, Maine was a part of the Massachusetts colony, but its location meant that it was hard to govern and so gambling was allowed to flourish. Yet, even though we’re quite sure that gambling was prevalent during this period, there are very few accurate records of the industry’s activity.
One thing we do know is that the government often fell back on lotteries as a way to fund public services and build civic amenities. Records show that in 1758, a lottery was held to fund the building of a bridge across the Presumpscot and Saco rivers. And again in 1786, a land lottery was created to sell off public land. This lottery was a failure though as the lots of land were often very poor quality and not very good for farming.
After the American Revolution, Maine remained a part of Massachusetts until 1820. That was the year that the area gained statehood and became the 23rd state. Maine lawmakers could now establish their own lotteries, but not for long as they were eventually outlawed in 1843.
The rest of the 19th century was a quiet enough time with regards to real-money gambling. The only place where locals could find any real gaming activity was in Bangor where the riverfront district known as The Devil’s Half Acre was popular among sailors and loggers. Here, there were saloons and gamblign houses where a man could spend his hard-earned cash on poker, roulette, and a variety of other games.
It wasn’t until 1935 that we saw any legal movement in the gambling industry. This was the year that pari-mutuel betting on horse races was first allowed. Then, in 1943, charitable bingo games were legalized. In 1973, the voters approved the establishment of a state lottery which began selling tickets in 1974.
Maine is also where one of the very first tribal gaming halls in the United States opened for business. The Penobscot High Stakes Bingo Hall opened in 1973 offering Class II games to residents of Old Town. Over the years, it expanded to offer games like blackjack and poker. However, the Penobscot and other tribes in the state have come up against quite a few roadblocks. The Passamaquoddy went so far as to sue the state in an effort to compel lawmakers to negotiate a compact under the provisions of the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The Court of Appeals ruled against the tribe stating that the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 prohibits gaming.
In 2004, slot machines were introduced at the race track and in 2010, a state referendum saw Maine voters approve the construction of a commercial casino. Oxford Casino opened its doors in 2012 and offered table games alongside slot machines. Then in 2017, the state legalized daily fantasy sports which could bode well for the future of online poker in the state.
Will we ever see online poker legislation in Maine?
Maine legislators seem to be quite open to the idea of real-money gambling with a commercial casino and a racino already serving the state’s relatively small population. Add to that the legalization of daily fantasy sports and we have what some might call, the perfect environment for online poker legislation.
The only problem is that with a small population of just over 1.3 million, the player pool for any online poker operator would be quite small. Compacts with other states would need to be arranged such as the agreements between Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada. It’s possible, but at this moment, there are no indications that it will happen any time soon.
What about land-based gambling?
Maine may not be a state with much gambling history, but there are some good land-based real-money gambling options for residents of the Pine State.
There’s pari-mutuel betting at the horse racing tracks and in Bangor, the Hollywood Casino and Raceway is a fully-fledged racino with slots and table games. This is also the only place with a poker room. There are only four tables open from 8am to 3am every day. Most games at these tables are low stakes.
The Oxford Casino offers blackjack, craps, roulette, slots, mini-bac, three-card poker, Spanish 21, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi stud, and crazy 4 poker.
Residents of Maine can also play charitable bingo and the state lottery.
Maine looks unlikely to pass online poker legislation anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that locals can’t enjoy the game. There are several offshore poker companies that service the state and with no laws penalizing players, there’s no chance that anyone playing online poker will get into trouble with the authorities.
That said, we’d just like to remind you that the information given or opinions expressed above do not constitute legal advice.