Wisconsin Legal Poker

Last Update: March 20, 2015

Online Poker

Some people argue that the inclusion of a “transmission” crime in Wisconsin’s gambling statute at WS §945.03(g) renders online poker illegal in Wisconsin. The argument is that, no matter where computer servers are located, you can’t play online poker without using a “wire communications facility to transmit or receive information assisting the placing of a bet” in the state. A broad definition of wire communications facility at WS §945.01(6) would probably include computers, smartphones and tablets.

Certainly those arguments are a reasonable interpretation of the law, especially in a state in which the state constitution only authorizes four types of gambling and the question of whether poker is “gambling” remains unsettled.

WS 945.03 requires that the betting information transmission be used “for gain”, and in gambling statutes the phrase “for gain” is usually targeted at operators. Thus it may be illegal for operators to offer online poker in Wisconsin, and players could theoretically be penalized under WS 945.02 for making bets on online poker.

In practice, however, no such prosecutions have ever been brought.

Live Poker

If poker is gambling in Wisconsin, it is almost certainly illegal. The Wisconsin Constitution only permits state lotteries, bingo, certain pari-mutuel betting and some charitable raffles. All other forms of gambling are illegal.

Thus the question is how Wisconsin defines gambling. The state takes a different approach to gambling law than almost any other state. It does not seek to define gambling via statute. Instead, Wisconsin Statutes §945.01 defines a “bet” and a “gambling place” and all criminal statutes are keyed to those terms. The definition of bet in Wisconsin is “dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill”.

That sounds like the Dominant Factor test (chance is predominant in determining the outcome of the hand), which means there’s a chance that poker might not fall under Wisconsin’s anti-gambling law. However, the issue has never been put to Wisconsin courts.

For now, then, it’s probably safer to assume that betting on poker is a misdemeanor under Wisconsin Statutes §945.02. Note that there is no social or home game exception to be found anywhere in Wisconsin law. Whether you’re in an underground, for-profit game or in your buddy’s kitchen, if poker is “dependent on chance” for Wisconsin’s purposes then betting on the game is illegal everywhere in Wisconsin.

Interestingly, pub poker seems to be somewhat popular in Wisconsin. Whether that is because it is tacitly tolerated by the state or because it hasn’t created a high-enough profile for the state to target it for enforcement is unclear.

Although the state does not offer licenses to business to conduct casino gaming or poker, it does regulate tribal casinos through the State Division of Gaming’s Office of Indian Gaming and Regulatory Compliance. Those tribal casinos are allowed to offer poker subject to state rules. Roughly 30 tribal gaming halls operate in the state, although not all of them rise to the level of full-fledged casino gaming operations with poker rooms. All told there are about a dozen tribal poker rooms spread across the state.

In September of 2014 a group of poker players led by Mark Kroon, and assisted by the Poker Players Alliance, decided to challenge the state’s existing poker prohibition, and are now exploring their options to legalize poker in the state.

Legal Poker By State