Alabama Poker & Online Gambling

Alabama is the twenty-third most populated state in the United States, consisting of approximately 4.8 million residents spread over sixty-seven counties, with a significant divide between the politics of cities (Republican) and rural areas (Democratic).

The State´s constitution was enacted in 1901 [1] – a relevant date for online poker and other gambling laws in Alabama, because the terminology of Article IV § 65 laid the foundations of how gambling in Alabama would be interpreted for more than 100 years:

The Legislature shall have no power to authorize lotteries or gift enterprises for any purposes, and shall pass laws to prohibit the sale in this State of lottery or gift enterprise tickets, or tickets in any scheme in the nature of a lottery; and all acts, or parts of acts heretofore passed by the Legislature of this state, authorizing a lottery or lotteries, and all acts amendatory thereof, or supplemental thereto, are hereby avoided.

Can I Play Online Poker if I Live in Alabama?

Technically – it is a grey area. Online poker was not a consideration back in 1901 when the constitution was drafted, and subsequent interpretations of the law have been influenced by issues that needed resolving at the time – none of which have concerned online poker.

In 1975 the Code of Alabama [2] defined gambling as the payment of (1) consideration, for the (2) chance to win (3) a prize, but this definition was muddied when the Alabama Supreme Court paved the way for pari-mutuel betting at the state´s horseracing and greyhound tracks by stating that picking a winner at the racetrack required a certain element of skill and not entirely attributable to luck.

The argument that online poker is a game of skill would certainly place poker outside of any legislation relevant to lotteries and games of luck and, if you are a skilled poker player, you would be welcome at any of these real money poker sites.

Is it Legal to Play Online Poker in Alabama?

Whether or not it is legal to play online poker in Alabama is another grey area. There is no statute making it illegal, and nobody has ever been prosecuted for playing online poker in Alabama; however there are a couple of sections in the afore-mentioned Code of Alabama which could give opponents of online gambling reason to claim that you – or the websites on which you are playing – are breaking the law.

§ 13A-12-27 prohibits possession of a gambling device to be used in the advancement of unlawful gambling activity and classifies such criminal activity as a Class A misdemeanor. The Code was introduced twenty-three years before the first online poker website opened its virtual doors in 1998 [3] so the argument that a computer is a gambling device in a strict interpretation of the Code would not be difficult to discredit.

More of a concern might be § 13A-12-22 of the Code – making it a Class A misdemeanor for an individual or business to profit from unlawful gambling activity otherwise than as a player, as this section could, in theory, affect poker sites that charge a rake or fee for providing an online service

However, as the maximum financial penalty for a Class A misdemeanor in Alabama is $6,000 [4] – and the courts are reluctant to fill Alabama jails with miscreants – it would cost more to pursue legal action against a player or an online poker site than the amount of the fine that would be recovered – so nobody bothers.

The History of Gambling Legislation in Alabama

The complexity of Alabama legislation is illustrated by the fact that the text of the State´s constitution is forty times longer than that of the US constitution, and this has contributed to a long and complicated history of gambling in Alabama.

Further complications exist due to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 [5] which allowed tribes to establish casinos on their own land so that the reservations could become more self-sufficient. The state´s Poarch Tribe took full advantage of the Act and opened three brick and mortar casinos – although they are only allowed to offer gambling on slots and bingo.

In more recent years, it has also been alleged that Indian Tribes in Mississippi have made significant contributions to the campaign funds of Republican Governors (most notably Bob Riley, Governor from 2003 to 2011 [6]) to suppress any attempts made to legalize gambling in Alabama and protect their own casino operations.

The following is a timeline of some other notable dates in the history of Alabama´s gambling legislation:

Post Civil War – Alabama allows residents to participate in state-sponsored lotteries and draws; however many residents are drawn to the more competitive lotteries of neighboring States, and Alabama fails to generate any significant revenue from its own efforts.

1901 – Alabama had already withdrawn its lottery charter in 1879 and took its revenge on residents who had failed to support the State´s public projects (through lottery funding) by prohibiting gambling altogether in its Constitution.

1930 – Phoenix City goes bankrupt and licenses operators (the mob) to financially rescue the city. The licenses were repealed 1954 when the Alabama National Guard was called-in following the assassination of Attorney General Albert Patterson, who had been voted in to clean up the city. [7]

1971 – Alabama allows pari-mutuel style betting at the State´s greyhound and horseracing tracks after the Supreme Court rules that picking the winner of a race requires an element of skill. Greyhound racing begins in 1973, and horseracing in 1987.

1980 – Jefferson County became the first county to authorize bingo for a limited number of charities [8]. Since then eighteen further counties or cities have permitted non-profit organizations to host games of bingo for charitable or educational purposes.

2011 – The first act of Alabama´s incoming Governor – Robert J Bentley – is to disband Bob Riley´s Task Force on Illegal Gambling and return the control of overseeing gambling legislation in Alabama to the Attorney General´s office. [9]

2012 – Republican representatives attempt to introduce a Bill [10] that would re-classify gambling in Alabama as a Class C Felony (up to ten years imprisonment and maximum $10,000 fine – the same penalty as for criminally negligent homicide). The Bill dies through lack of support.

The Current Situation Regarding Online Poker in Alabama

Currently the momentum to do anything about online poker in Alabama seems to have come to a stand-still. If ever a federal online gaming bill is passed, it is likely that the State of Alabama would exercise its right to opt-out of the legislation, and it is unlikely that the Poarch Tribe would be offered an exclusion to run their own games of poker.

None of the State´s racetracks have indicated any interest in expanding into poker (as they have in Delaware) and, with a limited population to provide a significant database of players (Alabama´s population is about a tenth of the size of Spain´s), it is not likely that too many online poker sites would be that concerned about it!

Poker´s Big Winners from Alabama

Alabama´s most successful poker player is Hoyt Corkins – who has almost $6 million in live poker career earnings [11] – and recently several poker players from Alabama have scooped gold bracelets at the World Series of Poker, including Herb Tapscott from Hartselle (winner of Event #8 in 2012 for $264,400) and Cory Harrison from Bessemer (winner of Event #24 in 2013 for $432,411).

Tapscott said in a post-victory interview that it was playing online poker that kept his skills sharp, while Harrison – who has a Ph.D. in cellular molecular biology and is a teacher at the Stillman College and Lawson State Community College – is a firm believer that successful poker is attributable to a balance of mathematics and skill [12].

The Chances of Alabama Online Poker being Regulated in the Future

Of the fifty States most likely to regulate online poker in the future, you would have to say that Alabama would feature in the bottom 10%. The State has an anti-poker history, it would not be financially viable for regulated poker sites to operate with such a limited database of players, and poker players in Alabama are already warmly welcomed by online poker sites in other jurisdictions.

While the situation remains as it is, we are fairly confident that players will be able to continue using the existing poker sites available to them without any realistic threat to their liberty!


[1] Alabama Constitution 1901
[2] Code of Alabama 1975
[3] First Online Poker Site Launches
[4] Penalties and Fines for Felony and Misdemeanor Offenses in Alabama
[5] Indian Gaming Regulatory Act 1988
[6] Choctaws Spent $13 Million to Elect Riley
[7] The Story of Phoenix City
[8] Alabama Charitable Gaming Laws
[9] Attorney General´s Memorandum to Alabama Law Enforcement Personnel
[10] Alabama House Bill 414
[11] The Hendon Mob Database – Hoyt Corkins
[12] Poker Playing Professor from Bessemer Going for Multimillion-Dollar Payday