Online Gambling For Real Money in Washington

States on the west coast tend to be more liberal overall, and as far as gambling goes, Washington tends to be similar to California in many respects, with their many small Indian casinos and their even allowing a considerable number of legal card rooms which offer real money poker.

Neither state have much of an appetite for expanding casino gambling beyond just allowing the Indians to handle it all, although California is much more eager to let their tribes get into online gambling, specifically real money online poker. Washington’s reluctance to do this has much bigger consequences, as Californians can already gamble online as much as they want, and Washingtonians have much more limited access to this market due to operators mostly avoiding serving it.

As important as it is to be in the know about the gambling scene in your state generally, this is even more the case in Washington due to the state’s rather unusual situation. We will help you understand and navigate Washington’s scene, as well as provide an outlook on where the state may be headed.

History of Gambling in Washington

Washington Online Casinos and SlotsWashington has historically been fairly opposed to gambling, at least everything other than betting on horses. We need only look to the state’s legislative declaration which still serves as the preamble to their gambling laws to get a feel for how they remain concerned about it to this day, which still does exert quite a bit of influence in their approach, as evolved as it may now seem to be.

Washington’s Gambling Act of 1973 may be understood by some as involving a crackdown on gambling, but gambling in Washington had been cracking down on gambling all along, and in spite of how comprehensive this law may be in prohibiting many forms of gambling, this law was actually created to enable certain forms of it, to re-assess the state’s changing view toward it.

The dividing line here has been one of commercialism, where commercial gambling remained banned, but operations run by non-commercial operations, charities and social gambling, became seen as more acceptable. Horse racing tracks could also be trusted presumably, and later, the state ended up putting their faith in Indian tribes as well as small commercial operators as long as they limited their operation to offering poker.

Washington’s Legislative Declaration does reveal not only the intent of the law but their preoccupation with the risk of criminal elements participating:

The public policy of the state of Washington on gambling is to keep the criminal element out of gambling and to promote the social welfare of the people by limiting the nature and scope of gambling activities and by strict regulation and control.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the legislature, recognizing the close relationship between professional gambling and organized crime, to restrain all persons from seeking profit from professional gambling activities in this state; to restrain all persons from patronizing such professional gambling activities; to safeguard the public against the evils induced by common gamblers and common gambling houses engaged in professional gambling.

This passage embodies Washington’s gambling history quite well by describing what has caused the state to be stuck in the past for so long, where for almost all of the state’s history all forms of gambling was deemed illegal, and all gambling that occurred was of necessity of the illegal variety. It also gives us a very good idea of what has stood in the way of more expansion and explains the road that they did end up taking.

It is ironic that by way of a concern that criminal elements will profit by legalizing and regulating commercial gambling, Washington has been so completely willing to turn the entire operation of gambling in the state to criminals, where those who are willing to break the law by offering illegal gambling are much more likely to engage in other criminal activities than operations that are vetted and tightly regulated by the state.

This is how states keep illegal gambling operations out, and nothing prevents them from continuing to seek to prosecute gambling outside of their regulatory purview should they decide to take an active role in promoting legal gambling offered by agents that have been found to be suitable by regulators. This would also serve to deflect people away from gambling run by criminals rather than to present no alternative and serve to maximize this engagement by way of neglect.

This is actually preferable to the motive that a lot of states have, where gambling in itself is wrong, where the goal is to protect the public from the evils of gambling itself rather than the sort of paternalism that Washington professes, to presumably protect people from unscrupulous operators, even though they still fail to realize that the only real way to do this is to go after unscrupulous operators and not just presume that entire categories of gambling operators are of this sort and in need of protection from.

The 1973 law was put in place after a 1972 amendment to the state constitution which allowed for further gambling to be approved with a 60% vote in the legislature and a 60% vote among the public. Up until this time, the only approved gambling in Washington had been horse race betting, which has been operating continually since 1872, and now the state had the means to legalize social and charitable gaming.

This paved the way for the approval of Washington’s Lottery in 1982, which was later than many other states, but unlike states that waited this long for the lottery, Washington already had tribal gaming by this point, well ahead of the rest of the country.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act wasn’t passed by Congress until 1988, but all the way back in 1976, Washington had their first tribal casino. This federal law did serve to force states to accept tribal casinos, but Washington did not need their arms twisted at all and had jumped in 12 years prior.

This makes sense since Washington wasn’t worried about gambling per se, they were worried about who was offering it, and placed enough trust in the tribes to offer honest gambling to allow them to do it.

Washington also ended up permitting and licensing card rooms in the state, similar to California but on a much smaller scale, mostly venues with just a few poker tables. There’s quite a bit of gambling that goes on in this state, even though they have far from opened up things completely, which will take some real time.

Washington Gambling Laws

It is not that unusual that states would have blanket provisions against gambling, including online gambling, but what makes Washington gambling law stand out is the harshness of the punishments handed out. Illegal gambling is a felony in Washington, punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years for gambling and up to 10 years for offering illegal gambling.

The lightest charge for gambling related offenses is a gross misdemeanor for working for a gambling company, which still comes with the potential for 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine. All other offenses, including being caught gambling online or even receiving gambling information, are all more serious felony charges.

Washington does not mess around in at least its maximum penalties, and being found guilty of a felony is considerably more serious than misdemeanor convictions as far as having a criminal record goes, and there are no asterisks telling them that you just played a little poker with one and two cent blinds.

With that said, Washington’s bark is intentionally loud, and this is not a state that has very many gambling convictions. The ones that they do get involve the offering of illegal gambling, called professional gambling in Washington, where professional here means not playing for a living but running operations such as bookmaking for a living.

It is surely not a good idea to run illegal gambling operations in Washington, and should you wish to gamble, there are plenty of places to visit to do this legally. Washington does also make participating in online gambling illegal as well, and technically you don’t even have to gamble to be guilty of this crime, a felony even, although like with their laws against land-based gambling, this is also a lot of barking, and the intention with this law is aimed at operators as far as enforcement goes at least, not players, which as broad as these laws are, aren’t really enforceable at the player level.

Washington defines gambling as “staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under the person’s control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”

That’s as broad of a prohibition in itself as you will ever see, and itself would prohibit all gambling, and therefore many may wonder why Washington had to later add another provision outlawing online gambling specifically. This wasn’t to prohibit online gambling though, even though that was the common view, it was to do something else, and the something else is to catch “professional gamblers,” and specifically, ones that offer bookmaking within the state on a personal level.

There are armchair legal commentators who will tell you things like Washington being the first state and one of the only states that outlaws online gambling, but states do not need to mention online gambling specifically for it to be illegal, and Washington is a perfect example of this actually. If the law already says you can’t wager any amount on anything period, this includes both land-based and online wagering, because it’s all wagering and it all falls under laws that ban all gambling, as Washington’s does.

The additional “online” provision makes it a felony for anyone who “knowingly transmits or receives gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphore, the Internet, a telecommunications transmission system, or similar means”

This provision is used to prosecute people like bookmakers who transmit or receive their bets through electronic means, whether it be the internet, by phone, or any other way. They leave nothing to chance here by including things like telegraph, in case that ever comes back in style, or by semaphore, in case someone wants to set up a bookie operation using a lighthouse taking bets from ships passing by.

This did scare a lot of online players when it was passed, although it was already against the law to gamble online in Washington the whole time online gambling has been around, but the state isn’t interesting in going after online players even if they could.

Land-Based Gambling in Washington

Washington has borrowed the idea of allowing for legal card rooms to be licensed and regulated outside tribal lands, but as far as tribal gaming goes, Washington is the clear leader, allowing its first tribal casino well before anyone else did.

By the time a California Indian tribe sued the state of California for the right to offer casino gaming on their land, which eventually got settled in the tribe’s favor by the U.S. Supreme Court, leading to new federal legislation permitting tribal gaming on Indian land, Washington had already been allowing this for over a decade, with their first Indian casino opening up in 1976.

All 20 tribes in Washington have compacts with the state to offer Class III casino gambling, Vegas style in other words, with both slots and table gaming, including poker. Washington tribes have now been given permission to engage in sports betting as well now, which is in the process of being rolled out.

There are a total of 35 Indian casinos in Washington, most of them on the small side, referred to as mini-casinos. There are several large ones among them though, especially in the Seattle area where most of the people in this state live.

The Tulalip Resort Casino, for instance, has 192,000 square feet of gaming space, a 372 room AAA Three Diamond rated hotel, 7 restaurants, and a 14,000 square foot spa. The Muckelshoot Casino is another large Indian casino with 3,000 slot machines and a full range of table games. The Ilani Casino Resort is Washington’s latest and greatest, within a short drive from Portland, Oregon, with their 368,000 square feet of gaming making it one of the biggest casinos in the country.

Washington also has 20 land-based card rooms, most offering a small number of tables, where players can play live poker against other players, just like they have in California. Having a total of 55 land-based gambling sites does serve to make gambling in Washington a short drive away for anyone in the state, and the industry generates a total of $2 billion a year in revenue.

People have been betting on horses in the state of Washington continuously since 1872, and the state still has 5 racetracks where you can bet on horses, although betting on dog races has never been legal in this state. Even though Washington is so famously opposed to online gambling, they have always had a special place in their heart for horse racing, which was for a very long time the only legal gambling in the state, and they have permitted online off-track betting since 2005.

Washington’s Lottery has been offered to state residents since 1982, and currently raises $700 million a year for the state’s coffers. Social and charitable gambling since 1973 with the passing of new laws permitting this, although the definition of social gambling, like elsewhere, refers to private non-banked games that do not involve third parties operating or profiting from the gambling.

Washington Online Casinos & Slots Gambling

The only true online gambling that is permitted in Washington is what they call advanced deposit wagering, which is placing bets on horse races within the state from remote locations, online off-track betting in other words.

Washington’s so-called online gambling law was essentially was just an update of the 1973 law which now included the internet as one of the channels that gambling information could not be transmitted legally with. It was always illegal to gamble online in Washington, but now you could be charged by running online gambling operations in the state, which was a gap that the previous law did not address.

What happened was that this misunderstanding caused almost all offshore sites to exit the U.S. market, and while offshore operators are not in any way subject to any U.S. law, they certainly could have been charged in absentia by violating this new provision of Washington law, even though they would have to be physically present in the state of Washington, or extradited from another state in the country, to be subject to the fines and imprisonment that this law threatened.

Contrary to what many may believe, offshore sites actually err on the side of caution when it comes to which states they choose to serve, and while the banned states vary by operator, Washington has long been at the top of this hit parade.

This wasn’t even done by being familiar with the law, as there are a lot of states where offering online gambling to its residents is a crime, but this Washington law got a lot of press and was more transparent than people going to the trouble to look up the laws of a particular state and obtain a legal opinion. Even lawyers get confused by some of the laws, many of which require at least some analysis, and even the very clear ones like Washington’s can get misinterpreted.

The Poker Player’s Alliance famously sued the state of Washington over their 2006 anti-gambling amendment to the law, claiming that it violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution by interfering with interstate commerce. This was a ridiculous argument but it still managed to make it to the state Supreme Court who mercifully rejected it.

There is an obligation for states to not interfere with interstate commerce, for instance if it blocked the transport of goods through their state without a valid reason. If, for instance, what is being transported is contrary to state law, like the transport of illegal drugs, state law takes precedence, and if gambling is illegal in Washington, they are entitled to do this even though the acts in question travel into their state from another state or country.

The Poker Player’s Alliance would have been wiser to spend their money to lobby offshore sites to not be so intimidated by this law such that they may refuse to accept players from Washington, as this is the real obstacle to people in Washington playing online poker or other real money online gaming, not any law that does not apply to people in other countries and is not really enforceable among those who actually are in Washington.

Washington has relented a bit as they now offer the potential for online gaming by tribal casinos, provided that they limit this gambling to only those physically located on their property. That is at least a step in the right direction, but surely one day these Indian tribes can be trusted to offer it beyond their reservations.

Future of Gambling in Washington

The only state where we could say that there isn’t a lot of opportunity to expand gambling would be Nevada, and it’s only because they have had the pedal to the metal there for some time. Washington may only have its foot fairly lightly on the gas, but they are at least moving in the right direction, even though there may be miles to go.

Washington still seems to be overly concerned with the risk of criminal elements participating if they open up land-based gambling more, where they trust the small operators such as their 20 tribes or these small poker rooms in restaurants and such, or the operators of their 5 racetracks, but still seem to be seeing ghosts of Bugsy Siegel when they ponder bringing in the big commercial guns.

It is not even rational to think that it is all right for someone to drive to an Indian reservation and gamble to their heart’s delight but not be able to do the same thing on non-tribal lands. They are also resisting even letting the Indians offer online gaming, as California has, even though California is fine with this if the Indian tribes could ever come to an agreement over this, which may take some time yet.

Washington is not one of the states where state online regulation doesn’t matter, and the reason is that this state has managed to scare the offshore operators away too much, where hardly anyone dares to accept players from this state and has not dared for many years now. When you look at a site’s list of banned states, they do differ by site, but Washington is included in just about every list.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t find any real money gambling sites that will take you if you live in Washington state, but the options are extremely limited. Washington finally opening this up and getting in on this game will therefore change the real money online gambling scene much more than it does elsewhere, in states that there are many good options. We’ll have to wait at least a few more years before this may happen.

Washington Online Slots & Casinos FAQs
  • What is the underlying principle behind Washington’s gambling laws?

    Rather than take the view that gambling is undesirable in itself like so many states still maintain, to one degree or another anyway, the state of Washington has never had much of a problem with gambling itself, and have had legal gambling since 1872. They have always been very protective of gamblers as far as the threat of commercial gambling goes, and have been especially concerned about turning over gambling to criminal elements.

  • How could Washington be so accepting of some forms of gambling and not others?

    We might want to assume that the state of Washington allowing betting on horse races for over 150 years but only fairly recently allowing other forms of gambling might be due to lobbying, but there’s more behind the story than just this. It turns out that the major issue behind Washington’s selective approach to gambling has been more due to their fear of criminals getting involved if commercial gambling was expanded, and they felt comfortable enough with the lottery, the Indians, and charities, and less so with big commercial gambling operators.

  • Does it still make sense for Washington to be so reluctant to expand gambling?

    Gambling operators have a history of being at least influenced by organized crime, which is not understandable considering criminals have been at the forefront of gambling during times it was not legal. When we legalize it, as Nevada did all those years ago, care must be taken to regulate it properly and keep out those who have a history of crime. That’s not hard to do though and the idea that legal gambling and crime go together is no longer the case anymore, provided officials don’t take bribes and act contrary to the public interest as a result.

  • What does Washington’s laws say about real money gambling?

    Washington bans all forms of gambling that they have not otherwise approved. Engaging in any form of betting not specifically permitted isn’t just a crime, it’s a felony. Washington is particularly concerned about illegal gambling operations though, and the law is only given meaning by the way it is enforced. Washington has the legal authority to go after players, but they instead focus their efforts on those running gambling operations.

  • Did Washington’s 2006 amendment to their gambling laws make online gambling illegal?

    A lot of people think that online gambling is only illegal if it is specifically prohibited. For instance a state’s law may tell you that all wagering in their state is illegal, and since online wagering is a form of wagering, it would be included along with all other forms. Online gambling has been illegal in Washington since online gambling has existed, and the 2006 update simply allows them to go after operators who use the internet as part of their illegal gambling promotion.

  • Is Washington’s so-called online gambling law constitutional?

    The Poker Player’s Alliance, who seek to promote the interests of poker players throughout the country, felt that this 2006 law was unconstitutional because it interfered with interstate commerce. This was a comedy of legal blunders though as even if this law was struck down, it wouldn’t matter as online gambling was already completely illegal before this was passed. Their legal claims didn’t have any merit though and their case got dismissed by the courts. States have the constitutional right to permit or prohibit gambling as they please, powers given to them directly by the Constitution, including their preventing illegal commerce entering their state.

  • What forms of real money gambling are legal in Washington?

    Washington has been offering people the ability to bet on horses for a very long time, and now even allow online wagering on them, the only online gambling that the state permits. They also have a state lottery, and permit both social gambling where no one makes a profit aside from their own winnings, and gambling offered by charitable organizations. They also have a total of 35 Indian casinos offering a full range of casino gambling, and 20 small card rooms scattered throughout the state. Land-based sports betting at the casinos is now on the way.

  • Why doesn’t Washington allow real money online gambling apart from off-track betting?

    It’s not really that clear why Washington is so harsh on online gambling, and gambling in general, but we do know that there has to be some significant bias against something to lose your sense of proportionality as this state has. You can play poker at one of their legal card rooms, but if you play online, Washington treats this as a felony. You could steal property and be charged with a lesser crime than playing a hand of poker online.

  • Can players in Washington play online at offshore real money gambling sites?

    While Washington authorities have arrested an individual for using the internet to take bets, the bust actually started with their obtaining a search warrant for his residence and finding paper betting receipts in his trash. He was investigated due to being an alleged operator, and no one has ever been arrested for gambling online. Most states criminalize online gambling, but that doesn’t stop anyone, provided that they can find offshore sites that accept them.

  • Why is it so difficult for Washingtonians to gamble online?

    Many offshore real money gambling sites will ignore the law of other countries such as the United States, given that they are located elsewhere and are governed by the laws of their own countries. However, they do look at certain markets in terms of profitability and how harsh the laws may be, which actually affects the size of the market with players more than anything. With so many players in Washington not daring to play offshore, there’s not enough people to make it worth their while to rock the boat. This has made it a lot harder for Washingtonians to find sites who will accept them.

Associate Writer: Geoff enjoys both live and online poker as well as casino games, and is particularly knowledgeable about the legal landscape of online gambling.