Like many other southern states, North Carolina has no laws directly on point with online poker or online gambling. The confused nature of how the state treats live poker only muddies the waters. For state law purposes, however, the game of poker is decidedly illegal and North Carolina is one of a handful of states that has criminal laws on its books that target players.
The likelihood of such a prosecution is impossible to predict, as is the argument that the online poker play doesn’t take place in the state but rather in the jurisdiction in which the computer servers are located. North Carolina’s relatively conservative anti-gambling faction may fight hard against such an interpretation of the law.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find legal live poker in North Carolina, but it’s there if you look for it.
North Carolina General Statutes Section 14-292 provides that “any person or organization that operates any game of chance, or any person who plays at or bets on any game of chance” shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
You’re probably asking whether poker qualifies as a “game of chance” under North Carolina law. Although the statute does not define “game of chance”, in 2007, the North Carolina Court of Appeals decided that poker is indeed game of chance.
In the case Joker Club v. Hardin, a businessman wanted to open a poker club and sought approval from the district attorney that such a business did not violate North Carolina’s gambling law. When the district attorney refused to provide that assurance and, in fact, said such a business did violate the law, the business owner sought a declaratory judgment from the courts.
On appeal from a judgment finding the business would violate the law, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that because “the instrumentality for victory is not entirely in the player’s hand”, and because the deal of the cards means “there must be unavoidable uncertainty as to the results”, “chance predominates over skill in the game of poker”.
Therefore poker is a game of chance in North Carolina. Because of that determination, the game is illegal under North Carolina law.
However, there is one tribe of Native Americans that has a casino on the far west side of the state. The Cherokee Tribe has partnered with Harrah’s to operate their Harrah’s Cherokee property in Cherokee, NC. The compact that the tribe signed with the state only permits the tribes to offer games that have an element of skill.
Guess what has an element of skill, for purposes of this tribal-state compact? Poker, of course. It’s a weird quirk that under state common law, poker is a game of chance, but under the state’s compact with the Cherokees, it has enough element of skill to be permissible. The tribe offers ten tables in a non-smoking section of the casino.
Home games, on the other hand, appear to be illegal under North Carolina law. There is no “social game” exception in the North Carolina General Statutes that deal with gambling.