Massachusetts Poker Laws & Bills
Massachusetts law does not specifically mention whether it is legal or illegal to play online poker. Several forms of gambling are allowed in Massachusetts, such as charitable gambling and the lottery, the latter of which was legalized in 1971. Bingo was authorized in 1973, with keno legalized 20 years later. Pari-mutuel wagering is also legal, with licensed horse racing and dog racing on the books.
Casino gambling was approved by four regions in the state in 2011 via the Expanded Gaming Act. Technically, the law permitted three full-fledged casinos and one slots-only casino, with one establishment granted to each of the four regions. The slots-only casino opened in 2015 in Plainville, and two other casinos are nearing completion and scheduled to be opened in 2018 and 2019.
Per the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, the federal government bequeathed the right to operate casinos on Native American tribes around the United States. Per that law, the Mashpee Wampanoag and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes are currently embroiled in a court battle with the state due to resident complaints near the reservations and the state’s desire to build a casino on land that the tribes are disputing. The state still has no Indian-run casinos.
This section outlines the legal developments for Massachusetts gaming including online poker.
State Summary: Massachusetts 2018
Massachusetts has been considering online poker for a number of years, as its own gaming community strives for growth and neighboring states expand further to provide more levels of competition. Legislators began heavily pushing for online poker as a part of the state budget not long after Black Friday. As states like Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey legalized and regulated internet poker and casino games, Massachusetts lawmakers made efforts to include projected revenues into budget proposals.
That changed in January 2018 when State Senator Eileen Donoghue introduced a bill to legalize and regulate online poker and casino games, along with DFS, while also calling for a study of online sports betting to be addressed in more detail after the US Supreme Court reveals its decision in the New Jersey case in early 2018.
The future of Donoghue’s bill is unknown, but as New Jersey continues to report online gaming growth year after year and Pennsylvania intends to launch its online poker and casino games sites this year, the Massachusetts bill might garner more support than in the past.
In February 2018, it was reported the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s First Light Resort and Casino project in Taunton was still in limbo. The US Interior Department had told the tribe they would have a decision within 30 days, but the deadline passed with no announcement. A judge the previous year had ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs (in the Interior Department) to reconsider the tribe’s petition. Opponents of the First Light Resort say that, under terms of the Carcieri v. Salazar decision, tribes who want to use the lands-into-trust process to build a tribal casino need to have had their lands “under federal jurisdiction” by 1934 or before, but the Mashpee Wampanoag were not recognized at the federal level until 2007.
The US Department of the Interior under former Wyoming Rep. Ryan Zinke has given a series of negative decisions to Native American tribes. In Connecticut, Zinke’s department similarly suggested it would render a decision on the East Windsor casino near Hartford but has keep the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes waiting for a decision. In New Mexico, the Pojoaque Pueblo tribe had $10 million it had placed in escrow due to a 3-year dispute with the New Mexico administration over the tribe gaming compact.
State Summary: 2017 Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Special Commission on Online Gaming, Fantasy Sports Gaming, and Daily Fantasy Sports recommended regulating daily fantasy sports in Massachusetts. The commission had been created in 2016 after Maura Healey’s DFS announcement as a panel to study daily fantasy sports and other new forms of gaming. MGC Chairman Stephen Crosby and State Sen. Eileen Donoghue led a 9-member panel to study the issue, with the requirement they file a report by July 2017.
The Special Commission duly published their report in July 2017, which said, “At this time, the Special Commission recommends legalizing DFS as a subset of online gaming and enacting legislation that would put into law the proposed regulatory, governance, and taxation system described above. However, the Special Commission recommends not legalizing more expansive online gaming at present, particularly in consideration of the fact that two resort casinos are not yet open but urges re-evaluation in the near future and legislative oversight to continue to evaluate online gaming and activity at state and federal levels.”
James Chisholm, a spokesman for DraftKings, expressed his DFS company’s opposition to the Special Commission’s recommendation that daily fantasy sports be considered “sports gambling”. Chisholm stated, “DraftKings is proud to call Boston and Massachusetts home. We have more than 300 employees from 79 cities and towns across the state, and while we are committed to growing and innovating here, this provision, if adopted, could impact our ability to do that.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s First Light Casino in Taunton remained on hold, despite a US federal judge order the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider granting the tribe status to proceed. Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, nearly disallowed the casino in the summer of 2017, gave the tribe a copy of a draft decision that would have ended the tribe’s long fight to build a casino in Taunton. Since that time, the BIA and Interior Department said they were still considering the prospect and considered it a “top priority”.
State Summary: 2016 Massachusetts
Massachusetts voters were asked to vote on the “Expanded Gaming Initiative”, which was Question 1 on the November 2016 ballot in Massachusetts. The bill would have approved a second slots parlor for the commonwealth, much like the slots complex at the Plainridge Racetrack facility in Plainville. No details were given for where the slots parlor would have been added, though the closed-down Suffolk Downs racetrack in Boston was the expected location.
A variety of notables opposed the second slots parlor, including Gov. Charlie Baker, State Sen. Joe Boncore, State Rep. Adrian Madaro, Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville, and Mayor Brian Arrigo of Revere. Those opposed claimed the ballot question was an abuse of the referendum process, as it approved a single casino for a single operator. The “Expanded Gaming Initiative” failed in the 2016 referendum vote by a 60% to 39% margin.
Two groups sought to build a third land-based casino in “Region C” in Massachusetts. This third casino was approved by a statewide vote in 2011, just like the Boston-area and Western Massachusetts casino licenses. One of those groups was Mass Gaming & Entertainment, a joint venture between Massachusetts-based George Carney and Chicago’s Neil Bluhm, who petitioned for a casino on the Brockton Fairgrounds. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted 4-1 against the proposal. MGC Chairman Stephen Crosby criticized the proposal as shoddy.
A second group was planning for a casino: The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is the one depicted in Thanksgiving stories about the pilgrims and Native Americans. Their plan was to build a tribal casino: The First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton. The two groups (Mashpee Wampanoag and Mass Gaming) argued amongst one another, claiming their project would not be viable if the other project was approved. Perhaps inevitably, both casino projects fell through for different reasons.
Attorney General Maura Healey announced on March 25, 2016 a set of proposed regulations for daily fantasy sports. Coming at a time when other big states like New York, Illinois, and Texas were seeking to ban online daily fantasy sports altogether, Boston-based DraftKings and NYC-based FanDuel praised Healey’s proposals. The AG’s proposals included a ban on DFS employees playing in industry events; contestants being warned when they were playing against “grinders” (professionals); a ban on software which identifies casual players; a limit of DFS gaming to players 21 and over; age verification software requirements; parental controls; a ban on advertisements that target underage children; a ban on DFS gaming on college and high school sporting events; a limit of $1000-a-month in losses in DFS gaming (unless a player could verify they were a high roller); standard consumer protection laws; licensing fees for DFS operators; and a self-exclusion law.
State Summary: Massachusetts 2015
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe broke ground on the First Light Resort and Casino in the city of Taunton. The groundbreaking ceremony happened weeks after the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the US Department of the Interior approved the project in September 2015. Lawsuits continue to dog the First Light Casino, which as of 2018 awaits a new decision by the Interior Department, now led by Ryan Zinke.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in late 2015 she wanted to regulate the daily fantasy sports industry. Healey’s comments came at a time when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was moving to ban daily fantasy sports in New York state.
State Summary: Massachusetts 2014
In November 2014, a casino repeal referendum (Question 3) failed by the margin of 60% to 39.95% in a statewide vote. Those opposed to the 2011 casino gambling law which authorized the licensing of the new casino developments at Wynn Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield (and expansion of gambling at Plainridge Racetrack in Plainville) supported the bill.
The most vocal supporter of the casino repeal initiative was Steve Abdow of western Massachusetts, who was chairman of “Faith for Repeal” and “Repeal the Casino Deal”. WACM.org said the referendum lost because of a “casino industry-financed, multi-million dollar, tightly-focused campaign that highlighted the promise of thousands of jobs and revitalization in two economically depressed cities.” After the defeat of his referendum, Steve Abdow said his public policy group would act as a watchdog on the Massachusetts casino industry.
2014 gaming news in Massachusetts had been dominated by the coming decision to approve a casino license either for Wynn Resorts in the city of Everett or Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs in the city of Revere. In October 2014, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission chose the $1.6 billion Wynn Resorts plan over the $900 million Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs plan. The day after the announcement, the owners of the 70+ year old racetrack, Suffolk Downs, announced they were closing their facility.
Meanwhile, Attorney General candidate Maura Healey (D) promised a thorough review of Massachusetts’ gambling industry, if she was voted into office.
State Summary: Massachusetts 2013
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission announced that Wynn Resorts was “suitable to open a resort casino in Everett”. The MGC approved the sale of a parcel of land by a local ownership group in Everett, a suburb of Boston, to Wynn Resorts. The land once had been an industrial plant in the 1980s and would need a lot of environmental cleanup, along with the nearby Mystic River.
Steve Wynn, in his own inimitable style, said that the Everett casino would be a world class development: “This is a big investment for us here in Boston. This is not a box of slots. This is a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fancy hotel.”
As the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and Wynn Resorts went ahead with the Everett plans, Caesars Entertainment filed a lawsuit against MGC Chairman Stephen Crosby for a conflict of interests. Caesars and Suffolk Downs partnered on a casino plan for the Boston suburb of Revere, but it had been eliminated in the approval process. One of those who owned the land in Everett had given personal loans to Crosby decades before, so Caesars claimed the chief decided was paying back an old friend. The lawsuit would be tossed ultimately, but Stephen Crosby’s conflicts of interest became a perennial complaint.
Massachusetts Laws Pertinent to Online Poker
The primary part of Massachusetts laws that deals with gambling is Part IV, Title 1 (Crimes and Punishments). Title 271 is for crimes against public policy and deals with gaming and betting. Section 2 reads:
“Whoever, in a public conveyance or public place, or in a private place upon which he is trespassing, plays at cards, dice or any other game for money or other property, or bets on the sides or hands of those playing, except as permitted under chapter 23K shall forfeit not more than fifty dollars or be imprisoned for not more than three months… If discovered in the act, he may be arrested without a warrant by a sheriff, deputy sheriff, constable or any officer qualified to serve criminal process, and held in custody, in jail or otherwise…”
This all refers to live card games and gambling outside the scope of licensed venues.
Other types of gambling specifically outlawed include:
- Gaming or betting in public conveyance or while trespassing in private place.
- Keeping or suffering implements to be used for gaming.
- Gaming in inns and other occupied places.
- Keeping a lottery, pool, or betting house.
- Manufacturing, selling, transporting, selling, repairing, or possessing gambling devices.
- Possessing electronic machines for conducting or promoting sweepstakes.
- Gaming relative to cattle shows, military muster, or public gathering.
- Setting up or promoting skilo and similar games.
- Setting up or promoting a lottery for money or other property of value.
- Raffles and bazaars not conducted under permit.
- Permitting lotteries, raffles, and games of chance in buildings.
- Selling lottery tickets.
- Organizing or promoting gambling facilities or services.
- Keeping a place for registering bets or dealing in pools.
The list actually continues to include 50 sections, all similar to the items listed above, such as lotteries, wagering on events, slot machines, etc.
The closest that the statutes come to addressing internet gambling is Section 17A, which refers to using a telephone
“for the purpose of accepting wagers or bets, or buying or selling or pools, or for placing all or any portion of a wager with another, upon the result of a trial or contest of skill, speed, or endurance of man, beast, bird, or machine, or upon the result of an athletic game or contest, or upon the lottery called the numbers game, or for the purpose of reporting the same to a headquarters or booking office…”
Nothing in the section refers to the internet or card games.
The most interesting part of the new statutes is Part 1, Title 2 of General Laws, as Chapter 23K, Section 71 discusses annual research into gambling. Officially, it is the “development of annual research agenda in furtherance of understanding the social and economic effects of expanding gaming in the commonwealth.”
This orders a commission to research everything from the economic effects of gambling to the latest in scientific research. More specifically, the topics to be covered include problem gambling and rewards-based decisions; sociology and psychology of gambling behavior, technology, and marketing; impacts of gambling on the state, local, and tribal levels; prohibition of gambling versus legalization; any relationships to crime and enforcement; impacts on individuals, families, and businesses; revenue versus costs; and the impact of gaming establishments on the surrounding communities.
Ultimately, the study will lead to recommendations to House and Senate committees, which will then be considered in putting forward new laws. This research is the key to gambling expansion that will eventually lead to the legalization of online gaming.
In fact, a study was recently conducted under this statute by the Massachusetts Special Commission on Online Gaming, Fantasy Sports Gaming and Daily Fantasy Sports. The commission included names like Stephen Crosby, Chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. The results of the study were published in the summer of 2017 and suggested the state legislature legalize and regulate DFS as a subset of online gaming, and other subsets like online poker could be addressed in the future. However, there was also a recommendation that lawmakers work to “balance regulation with innovation and develop a robust framework as to how all online gaming should be governed, taxed, and regulated generally.”
Disclaimer: This is not written by an attorney and is not or should not be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for help interpreting these laws as they pertain to any given situation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Is online poker available to Massachusetts residents now?
Answer: Yes. There are a number of sites that cater to players in Massachusetts, including Bovada and Intertops. The current state laws do not specifically address the games, and players are in no danger of pursuit by law enforcement for playing online poker.
Question: What happens if Massachusetts does legalize online poker?
Answer: If the bill passes, it could take up to a year for the state’s regulator to put the framework together, accept license applications, and prepare sites to launch. Once those licensed poker sites launch, many offshore sites will likely bock players. But until that time, there are a number of sites still available to Massachusetts players.
Question: Can I use credit cards to deposit to poker sites?
Answer: The online poker sites we recommend here do accept credit cards for deposits only, though the ultimate decision is with the bank that issued the credit card. Some banks still decline online gaming transactions. There are several other options available on each site, however, if that does happen.