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Georgia Poker & Gambling Laws

From the early days when Georgia gambling laws only allowed respectable gentlemen to gamble, to the current cruise casinos – who busiest night is Law Enforcement Appreciation Night [1] – Georgia has been a state that seems to really want to let its hair down, but is afraid of what it might do if it does!

As a state with more than ten million residents, Georgia is in a prime position to be a leader in online gambling regulation; but the Peach State still presents the same conservative anti-gambling face that was introduced in the early twentieth century by the progressive newspaper editor Thomas Lee Bailey [2].

Bailey and his supporters swayed public opinion against the illegal gambling that was taking place throughout Georgia, and the Spirit of Bailey still lives on through antiquated gambling laws in Georgia and a reluctance to change them(*). Currently, the only legalized forms of gambling in Georgia are bingo, the state lottery and charitable raffles [3].

(*) In March 2015, Republican Representative Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) introduced proposals to license up to six casinos in Georgia. If his resolution is approved by the State´s General Assembly, the proposals will be included in the 2016 ballot. An early survey suggests that 56% of citizens are in favor of the proposals, but they will ultimately need a two-thirds majority to be enacted.

Can I Legally Play Online Poker for Real Money if I Live in Georgia?

Until citizens vote for a change in the constitution, any player who plays and bets for money or other thing of value at any game played with cards, dice or balls is in breach of the Georgia Code (Title 16 § 16-12-21 [4]) and is guilty of the crime of gambling; which is a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year of jail time [5].

Under a strict interpretation of the existing laws, playing poker on the Internet would also be considered a misdemeanor; for, although servers providing online poker are located outside of Georgia, Title 16 § 16-12-21 of the Georgia Code defines a gambling device as any contrivance which for a consideration affords the player an opportunity to obtain money or thing of value, the award of which is determined by chance even though accompanied by some skill, whether or not the prize is automatically paid by the contrivance [6].

In legal terms, an interpretation of contrivance could mean a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet and although there is an element of doubt in relation to this interpretation (of whether a computer counts as a contrivance), we would suggest that it is not legal to play online poker for real money in Georgia. However, there are several real money poker sites that offer a service to residents of Georgia due to the fact that the state has no jurisdiction over what happens outside of its borders.

Is it Legal to Play Poker Anywhere in Georgia at all?

Not within Georgia´s state borders at present – but, as mentioned above, a couple of casino cruises run out of Brunswick and Savannah offering gamblers a Vegas experience aboard 300 foot vessels packed with slots machines, crap tables, poker tables, roulette and blackjack.

Casino cruise ships run 7-8 times a week (usually twice daily on Fridays and Saturdays) and include a buffet meal and a scenic cruise – at least until the boats reach international waters and the gambling can begin. Anybody over the age of eighteen can gamble of the casinos cruises, but you have to be at least twenty-one years of age before you can have an alcoholic drink [7]!

The History of Gambling in Georgia

The history of gambling in Georgia dates back to the early 1800s when the state held lotteries to fund education. Laws were passed in the 1830s that prohibited gambling in public places unless it was conducted by respectable gentlemen [8], but after the Civil War was legalized once again so that funds could be raised to rebuild the state.

However, many gamblers chose to play the more lucrative Louisiana Lottery instead of the one hosted by the Peach State and, in 1878, Georgia passed a law prohibiting the sale of Louisiana lottery tickets to protect its own interests. Sadly the interest in the lottery died out and – due to the anti-gambling preaching by Thomas Lee Bailey and his supporters – all forms of gambling were eventually criminalized.

Since those dark days for gambling in Georgia, the state has let its hair down a little – but just a little:

1976: A constitutional amendment legalized bingo for non-profit organizations. Currently there are 193 licensed bingo operators in Georgia who are limited to paying out no more than $3,000 each week in prize money [9].

1992: Another constitutional amendment allowed the state to resume its lottery operations after a century´s break [10]. Georgia´s Lottery Board approved the online sale of lottery tickets a decade later in July 2012 [11].

2012: Republican Representative Harry Geisinger introduced a bill to allow pari-mutuel betting at the state´s horseracing tracks [12]. The bill got as far as a second read through, but progressed no further.

2015: Ron Stephens introduces a resolution for consideration on the 2016 ballot which would allow up to six casinos to be licensed in Georgia. Optimistically, he also introduces the bill that would be debated if voters choose to allow state-sanctioned casinos.

The Current Situation Regarding Online Poker in Georgia

As you can see from the timeline above, there has been no rush to introduce gambling legislation in Georgia – indeed, the only other gambling-related action by the Georgia Assembly in recent years has been to close a loophole that allowed video poker machines to flourish in the state.

In 2011, a report commissioned by the Georgia Lottery Corporation recommended that licenses be issued to three proposed casinos in Atlanta, Savannah and on Jekyll Island [13]. The report forecast that the revenue from the three establishments would raise nearly $1 billion each year – 5% of the state´s budget. Unfortunately the report never gained any traction and in now sits on a shelf in Atlanta City Hall.

In respect of online poker in Georgia, no moves have been made to legalize it or specifically prohibit it; although most observers believe that if federal legislation was introduced to allow online poker throughout the United States, Georgian lawmakers would probably opt out of the legislation in order to appease its Bailey-esque citizens.

Poker´s Big Winners from Georgia

Despite not being legally allowed to play poker in their home state, there are plenty of big winners from Georgia. Biggest of them all is Josh Arieh, who picked up the first of his two WSOP bracelets when winning a $3,000 Limit Hold´em event back in 1999. Arieh has lifetime earnings from poker of $6,781,156 – a significant proportion of which came from his third place finish in the 2004 WSOP Main Event, for which he picked up $2,500,000 [14].

Six other poker players from Georgia have earned in excess of $1 million, including the incredible Billy Baxter, who was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2006 after winning seven WSOP gold bracelets – his first coming in 1975. Baxter also won a landmark legal battle against the IRS in which his earnings from poker were classified as “earned income” as opposed to “unearned income” which attracted a tax rate of 70% [15].

The Prospects for Georgia Online Poker in the Future

Despite the possibility of brick and mortar casinos being introduced into Georgia before the end of the decade, the prospects for Georgia online poker in the future appear pretty bleak. An anti-gambling governor and an ultra-conservative legislative chamber fight any expansion of gambling despite the economic benefits that could result, and even the Georgia lottery – which can be played online – has campaigned against any extension of gambling in Georgia because it feels it would affect its income

The best advice we gave give to players who want to play online poker in Georgia is to take their laptops on board one of the cruise ships and start playing once you hit international waters. At least you will get free beer while playing on the casino cruises!

References

[1] SavCasino Schedule
[2] Wikipedia – History of Georgia
[3] Georgia Bureau of Investigation – Bingo
[4] Georgia Code – Crimes and Offences – Title 16 Section 16-12-21
[5] Georgia Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentence
[6] Georgia Code – Crimes and Offences – Title 16 Section 16-12-21
[7] Emerald Princess Casino – FAQ
[8] Medscape – History of Gambling in the South
[9] Georgia.gov – Bingo Coordinator
[10] Wikipedia – Georgia Lottery
[11] AJC News – Online Georgia Lottery Sales Start Sunday
[12] Georgia General Assembly HB4
[13] GGBHR – 3 Georgia Casinos Could Raise $1 Billion
[14] Hendon Mob Database – All-time Georgia Money List
[15] Wikipedia – Baxter´s Poker Income Court Case