As most of Massachusetts gambling statutes are decades old, it should come as no surprise that there is no statute on the books dealing directly with the legality of online poker. The expansive interpretation of Chapter 271, Section 17 of the Massachusetts General Laws as formulated by the state Attorney General would seemingly encompass online poker if it could be proven that the bets were being registered within the state of Massachusetts, rather than on computer servers located outside of the state.
However, Massachusetts is considering explicitly legalizing and regulating online poker. An effort in 2011, spearheaded by State Rep. Dan Winslow (R-Norfolk), failed to amend the 2011 casino gaming bill to permit internet gaming prior to that bill being passed into law.
More recently, State Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) introduced a bill in February 2012 that would permit the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue internet gaming licenses to suitable licensees. That bill did not generate any significant forward momentum.
In April 2013, an amendment authorizing online poker was tacked onto a state budget proposal by the House Minority Leader, Bradley Jones (R-Middlesex). The amendment only authorized up to three licenses and restricted those licenses to companies that never have accepted wagers in the U.S. after October 13, 2006. The bill also called for a hefty licensing fee of $10 million, with monthly upkeep thereafter. The amendment was deleted from the version of the budget that ultimately was passed by the House. In late May 2013, however, the State Senate was considering a similar provision in its version of the budget bill.
2014 saw the introduction of a bill in the state senate (SB 101) that would expand the state’s lottery offerings to include an experimental period for online sales. So far the bill has gained very little traction.
Massachusetts did take what is becoming the typical “next step” in iGaming expansion, holding a comprehensive hearing on online gambling in March, which brought speakers from around the country and around the world. The tenor of the hearing was very upbeat and positive, giving many online gambling supporters a new hope that Massachusetts was in play; if not in 2014 than certainly in 2015.
The question of poker’s legality in Massachusetts is difficult to answer. The Massachusetts Attorney General would have you believe that Chapter 271, Section 17 of the Massachusetts General Laws prohibits all real-money poker play, public or private, by criminalizing the “registering of bets” on “the results of a game”. That interpretation, if accurate, would prohibit the operation not only of public card rooms but also private home games. Certainly, the public play of card games for money or property is criminalized under Chapter 271, Section 2, with a possible fine of $50 and imprisonment of up to 3 months.
Whether the Massachusetts Attorney General’s reading of Chapter 271, Section 17 is acurrate is largely irrelevant, however. As is the case with many other states, we are unaware of any prosecution ever being brought in Massachusetts against participants of a home game.
Currently there are no casinos or card rooms in Massachusetts. However, in 2011, Massachusetts enacted a law providing for three full casinos and one slots-only casino, all to be regulated by a new Massachusetts Gaming Commission. As of early 2013, no licenses for casino gaming had yet been issued, and the MGC had not yet issued final regulations regarding the number and types of games that will be permitted in Massachusetts casinos.
Tribal interests are also pressing their cases under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act now that Massachusetts has authorized casino gaming.
That being said, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a repeal of the 2011 Casino law can be placed on this year’s ballot as a referendum, allowing Massachusetts residents to vote on whether they wish to keep the law or repeal it. The measure was rejected in November 2014, by a 60/40 margin.