Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Poker has been around for an impressively long time, having arrived in America as early as the 18th century. It’s gone through many different iterations and has become a worldwide giant. Today, poker tournaments like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) have million-dollar prize pools, and the player base is well over a hundred million. 

The history of poker is an exciting topic, as its legality has shifted many times over the years. It has bounced back and forth between popular and banned, so today, we’ll take a deep dive into the complete history of poker’s legality, both online and physically. 

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Poker arrives in America

An early version of poker was a French betting card game known as poque. It came to America due to the Louisiana Purchase, and the English speakers in New Orleans renamed it poker. 

Thanks to riverboats carrying goods, poker spread through the Mississippi River and became a favorite in various port towns throughout the area. By 1834, the game had become very close to its modern-day iteration. Flushes and straights were added, along with a fourth betting round.

While poker had already taken root in America, it didn’t spread rapidly until the Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, poker was introduced to the Midwest and Northeast as soldiers brought the game home from the war. 

The Wild West era

After being spread across America, poker became popular among exactly one audience in the era of the Wild West: Criminals and gamblers. This lawless era made finding a clean game exceedingly hard. Everyone was armed, and they wouldn’t hesitate to act if they felt cheated.

Even if you did win, walking out with your earnings was difficult because of the abundance of thieves lurking around every corner. Poker may have been widespread, but its reputation became tainted due to its association with violence and criminals.  

Poker becomes legal

After the Wild West era, it took nearly a century for poker’s reputation to clear up. One of the things that kickstarted poker’s growth was the very first WSOP, all the way back in 1970. It wasn’t the huge competition we all know and love; it was a private gathering between seven renowned gamblers orchestrated by casino owner Benny Binion.

Tournaments like the WSOP did a lot to restore poker’s public image and make it more popular. Soon, government rulings helped poker even further, like California legalizing flop poker (Holdem and Omaha) in 1987 and Congress legalizing poker on Native American land in 1988 through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IRGA). 

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The poker boom

Poker steadily began growing, spreading across the US in the 90s. From the 80s until 2003, Seven Card was the most widely-played poker variant in the East, and Limit Holdem was the most popular one in the West.

In 2003, however, many factors combined for a surge in poker’s popularity. The game spread like wildfire until 2006, and this event was later termed “The Poker Boom.” 

The first catalyst was the steady development of online poker. Online poker games have been played for real money since 1998, but the digital format took off only when the second event happened in 2003.

This second event was, of course, Chris Moneymaker’s historic WSOP Main Event win. As an amateur winning the biggest event in poker, he showed the world that anyone can win big as long as they have what it takes, making poker incredibly appealing to all the spectators of the WSOP.

Moneymaker’s win also popularized online poker, as he had qualified for the WSOP through a series of satellite tournaments. WSOP entrants increased tenfold from 2003 to 2006, with a record 8,773 entrants in the latter compared to 839 in the former. 

All these factors combined to make poker hit a record high. For a while, poker was the most popular it’s ever been, with online being legal almost throughout the United States. Sadly, this wouldn’t last. 


The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) marked the beginning of the end of online poker’s dominance, at least in the States. Online poker had been unregulated as it was still a relatively recent development, but in 2006, everything changed.

The act classified online poker as internet gambling, forcing many publicly-traded companies to leave the States for their stakeholders. Many of the biggest poker sites like Paradise Poker, Pacific Poker, and Party Poker all left, but some privately-owned companies like PokerStars stayed, rising to fill the void left in the market. These sites shutting down even affected the WSOP, as the 2007 one had 6358 entrants, a 28% deficit compared to the previous year. 

Black Friday

While some sites like PokerStars chose to stay despite the UIGEA, they, too, would eventually have to face the government. On April 15, 2011, poker players across the US saw that the three biggest poker sites had all been seized by the government. 

The indictment began on June 2010 but was delayed until 2011. The government shut down the sites led to absolute chaos, as the frozen bank accounts meant players couldn’t withdraw. Black Friday became notorious in the poker community as the day online poker in the US was outlawed for good. 

Modern-day poker

Nowadays, online poker, at least in the US, is incredibly rare. Only six states have legalized it: Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Michigan. Only a few of those states have working poker sites, further limiting your options. 

Live poker’s doing a bit better, legal in most states in select land areas and entirely legal in Nevada and Louisiana. If you live in the US and want to try poker, physical poker is the way to go. 

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If you live outside the US, don’t miss the chance to try poker!

So, while poker’s legality in the US has had a lot of ups and downs, if you live outside the US, you’re in luck! Try online poker today and see its numerous benefits over physical poker! It’s faster-paced, lets you use tracking software, and offers exclusive promotions and bonuses.