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Virginia Senate Passes Poker “Game of Skill” Bill, Future Unknown

In a highly contentious vote, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Senate voted to classify poker as a “game of skill.” The future of the Senate bill? That is unknown, but it opens the doors for a plethora of outcomes.

The vote in the Senate was as close as you can get. After the polling was complete, the issue garnered the same number of votes for each side, 19-19, meaning that Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam’s vote was necessary to break the tie. His “aye” vote for passage cleared the way for the bill to now be considered by the Virginia House of Delegates.

The Senate bill, S1400, was originally introduced by Senator Louise Lucas, who was sure that the bill would get out of the Senate chambers. “I had the law on my side,” Lucas commented before the hearing in the Senate committee that would end up passing. This was the third year in a row that Lucas had proposed such legislation, with the bill in previous years dying in the same committee that passed it in 2017.

The bill itself only changes the language in Virginia statutes regarding its definition of poker as a “skill” game and not illegal gambling. The full bill language is as such: Poker; definition of illegal gambling and charitable gaming; poker games authorized; regulation of poker tournaments. Provides that poker is a game of skill and therefore not illegal gambling. The bill also allows a qualified organization to conduct poker games in conjunction with its charitable gaming activities, but does not allow a charitable organization to conduct poker tournaments. The bill requires the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Charitable Gaming Board to regulate poker tournaments, defined in the bill as a competition organized for the purpose of conducting poker games at one or multiple tables where (i) competitors play a series of poker games, (ii) prizes are awarded to winning players on a fixed or proportional payout basis, and (iii) the total prize amount awarded to all winning players at the event is $ 50,000 or more. Finally, the bill requires poker tournament sponsors to obtain a permit before conducting a tournament and tournament managers and operators to be registered with the Department.

Nowhere in that definition change does it state the future of poker in the state. There are several paths that could be taken in the coming months.

The first is that there could be absolutely nothing done. The Virginia House of Delegates is a notoriously anti-gaming bunch, but of late there has been some changes that the body has allowed. The state offers a lottery, pari-mutuel betting and, in 2016, opened the doors for daily fantasy sports (DFS) inside the state. Whether the House is ready to allow for poker’s decriminalization, however, is unknown.

If the House were to vote through S1400 and Governor Terry McAuliffe (a Democrat) signs it, then several options are available. The opening of casino gaming could be in play as Virginia, with Delaware, West Virginia and Maryland located around it all having some form of casino gaming and/or poker, might be interested in keeping some Virginia residents’ money inside the state. There is also the potential for online poker to come to the fore for the Cavalier State.

Online poker would be the first foray into the industry for the state and they may have the population to make a difference. Virginia, with its estimated 8.4 million residents, is the 12th largest state in the country and is almost the equal of another state that has online casino gaming, New Jersey (8.9 million). Numbers from the barely three-year old New Jersey online casino gaming industry, where there has been over $ 476 million in revenues and $ 71 million in taxes paid by the operators, have been strong even though they were originally overestimated by the state’s Governor, Chris Christie.

This is critical as Virginia legislators look for an injection of funds into the state coffers. In 2014, the state estimated that there would be more than a $ 1 billion shortfall in the budget, with significant cuts potentially on the horizon. Online gaming (if the numbers were like New Jersey’s figures) and casino gaming could be something that Virginia legislators might by eying as a potential to offset the state’s financial woes.

This discussion is quite premature, however, as the bill still must get through the House and get the signature of McAuliffe. Currently there is no discussion planned for S1400 in the House, but that can change quickly. The move to make poker a “skill” game in Virginia may be nothing more than a legal clarification but, if passed, it would open the doors for quite a bit more for the state.

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