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Florida Poker & Online Gambling Laws

Florida Gambling Laws

Florida may be only the 22nd state in size, but it is the fourth most populated state in the country and subsequently of significant interest when the regulation of online poker in the United States is discussed.

Due to its enviable climate, the Sunshine State is also a popular vacation destination – contributing to the state´s significant GDP and making it the fourth largest economy in the US [1]. It also has one of the oldest populations in the US – with the average age being 39.3 years [2] – but one of the lowest median household incomes, with the average being just $44,299 [3].

On first look, Florida´s gambling laws seem black and white and appear to state that all gambling is illegal unless it is expressly allowed by the state. However, the relevant statute (849.08 [4]) has not been updated since first written in 1895, and a subsequent statute (849.085 [5]) allows penny-ante games of poker provided the winnings of any player in a single hand do not exceed $10.00.

Can I Play Online Poker for Real Money in Florida?

According to the penny-ante statute, as long as you are at least eighteen years of age, play poker indoors and win less than $10.00 per hand, online poker for real money in Florida seems perfectly legal. Good news for micro-stakes players, but not so good if you wander around the streets of Miami playing online poker on a Smartphone!

If you get caught winning more than $10.00 (or stopped in the street playing online poker) you could be found guilty of a misdemeanor in the second degree – which is a non-criminal violation and comes with a maximum fine of $500.00 [6]. There is no statute relating to games of poker hosted outside of the Sunshine State, so you are at liberty to play poker for real money on sites that keep their servers outside of Florida.

The State of Florida has prosecuted small stakes poker players in the past, but is unlikely to do so again after the damming criticism received by the Pinella County Sheriff´s Office following the arrest and prosecution of eight retirees – the Largo Eight – who were playing for a total pot of $24.00. Each player received a $75.00 fine and put on probation for thirty days! [7]

Where Can I Play Poker for Bigger Stakes in Florida?

If you want to legally play poker for more than $10.00, the only option available to you currently are the brick-and-mortar casinos that allow table games. Fortunately there are dozens of tribal casinos and racinos throughout the Sunshine State – plus the cruise ships which run poker cruises off the Florida coast [8].

Currently, the biggest of them all is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, which has over 190,000 sq feet of action – making it the fourth-largest casino in the US and the sixth largest in the world [9] – but plans are in the air to eclipse the mammoth Tampa venue with Genting Casinos and the Las Vegas Sands Corporation both looking to develop mega-casinos in Florida in the near future [10].

The History of Gambling in Florida

The there is a long and colorful history of gambling in Florida dating back to 1888, when Henry Flagler opened the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine which featured the popular – but illegal – Bacchus Club Casino. During the following decades the citizens of the Sunshine State have been torn between the evils of gambling and the revenues it can generate.

By the 1930s, Tampa had developed the nickname Little Chicago such was the volume of mob-run gambling action, and the illegal Hialeah horseracing track made it through the Great Depression unscathed after being rebuilt following a hurricane in 1926. Indeed, the survival of the horseracing track contributed to pari-mutuel betting being legalized in 1932 to raise much-needed income for the state.

Other dates of note include:

1935: Slot machines were legalized in Florida for the first time. This law was repealed in 1973 but passed in the 2004 ballot.

1979: Tribal bingo halls were legalized in order that the tribes could support themselves rather than rely on state handouts.

1988: The first state lottery tickets went on sale to raise funds for education. To date more than $20 billion has been raised for the state´s schools and colleges.

1988: The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 [11] enables tribal Indians to open casinos on their own lands

2004: Florida voters vote in favor of brick-and-mortar casinos after three failed attempts to get proposals through the ballot in 1978, 1986 and 1994.

The Current Situation Regarding Online Poker in Florida

The current situation regarding online poker in Florida is that it is messy. Opposition to the regulation of online poker not only comes from those concerned about problem gambling and underage involvement, but also from the tribal casinos that would rather not have the competition. Ironically, one of the biggest opponents of online gambling in Florida is Sheldon Adelson – CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation – who, as mentioned above, is attempting to move his brick-and-mortar mega-casinos into the Sunshine State.

The situation was made more confusing in July 2013 when the Senate tried to crack down on gambling in Internet cafes. Stating that any device which could be used to enter games of chance or skill – and which could be activated by money, an account number, code or other object or information – was illegal, the Florida legislature effectively outlawed computers and mobile phones [12]. Needless to say, the law is being challenged [13], but it did result in subscription site ClubWPT withdrawing from the Florida online poker market.

Poker´s Big Winners from Florida

The all-time money list is packed full of multi-million dollar winners from Florida. At the top of the Florida list is Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi who has lifetime winnings of $14,580,000, three WSOP bracelets and two WPT titles. Closely behind Mizrachi comes PokerStars Team Pro Jason Mercier, who has $12,893,000 in lifetime earnings, and – in total – forty seven players have recorded more than $1 million from playing live poker tournaments [14].

Players from Florida have also enjoyed significant online success – albeit prior to Black Friday in 2011. Ashton “theASHMAN103” Griffin was one of the most notorious players involved in the high-stakes nosebleed games on Full Tilt Poker before its demise. It is estimated that – after going bust several times – Griffin was up $4.8 million in addition to the $1 million he won playing live poker events [15].

Will Online Poker in Florida be Regulated in the Future?

Most likely no. A 2013 study by the Spectrum Gaming Group prepared for the State of Florida legislature concluded that online gambling could be worth $800 million to the state within five years [16] but, despite the allure of much-needed tax dollars, any attempts to regulate online poker in Florida must get past Governor Rick Scott.

Scott is a staunch supporter of Sheldon Adelson´s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling and has written to Congress to express his backing for the Adelson-sponsored Restoration of Americas Wire Act [17]. While Scott remains as Governor (which will be at least until 2018), there is very little chance of online poker being regulated in Florida.

References

[1] Wikipedia – Florida
[2] Statemaster – Median Ages by State
[3] Wikipedia – List of US States by Income
[4] Florida Statute 849.08
[5] Florida Statute 849.085
[6] Florida Statute 775.03
[7] NY Times – “The Pokerless Twilight of the Largo Eight”
[8] Wikipedia – List of Casinos in Florida
[9] Wikipedia – Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa
[10] Bloomberg – Disney Battles Casino Operators over Florida Expansion
[11] Indian Gaming Regulatory Act 1988
[12] CNN: Did Florida Law Make Computers and Phones Illegal?
[13] Incredible Investments vs. Katherine Fernandez Rundle (PDF)
[14] Hendon Mob Database – Florida
[15] HighStakesDB – theASHMAN103 profile
[16] Spectrum Gaming Group – Gambling Impact Study (PDF)
[17] NatLawReview – “Internet Gaming: Has the Train Left the Station?”