Dear Ace: I know gambling is illegal in Virginia. Is online gambling O.K.? —Tex S. Holdem
Tex: Kenny Rogers’ rotisserie chicken chain may have gone belly-up, but his wisdom springs eternal: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. But if you’re playing online poker, are you gonna have to know when to run from the cops? Ace went to the law to find out.
The virtual showdown has so much less flourish, but online poker play has its advantages (and legality for now).
The Code of Virginia has a long, boring definition for gambling that boils down to placing a wager on anything that has the potential for profit based on chance. With a few exceptions (“contest[s] of speed or skill between men, animals, fowl or vehicles” and bingo), anything that falls under that definition makes the bettor guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor. But don’t start frantically deleting your Internet browser history yet, ‘cause there’s a big loophole.
Section 18.2-334 of the Virginia Code mandates that the law doesn’t apply to any “game of chance conducted in a private residence, provided such private residence is not commonly used for such games of chance.” The law does go on to say that if there’s a gaming operator in your house who “conducts, finances, manages, supervises, directs or owns all or part of an illegal gambling enterprise, activity or operation,” you’re in trouble. In the context of online gambling, however, that means you’d have to be running AlbemarlePoker.com to raise the Commonwealth’s suspicions. Clearly, the law was enacted to ensure that smoky five-card stud games played around a buddy’s kitchen table are kosher, but it should also set you in the clear as far as online gambling’s concerned. Right?
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Act of 2006 was Bill Frist’s pet project at the very end of last year’s Senate session. It ties the hands of banks in funding online gambling sites, but the law doesn’t explicitly apply to individual poker players. So you’re entering some murky legal territory, Tex. Provided you can find a legit way to pay to place your bets, however, and provided you’re playing a game like poker that involves some degree of skill (it’s the pure chance stuff that can get you in trouble), then game on. And hell, no individual has ever been prosecuted for online gambling, so Ace puts the odds of your arrest at, let’s say, 1 million to one. Any takers?