The state of New York has long been associated with poker, dating back to several nationally known 19th-century poker clubs. It extends through the 20th and 21st centuries and the famed underground games, such as at the Mayfair Club, which the Chesterfield in Rounders was based off.
When it comes to legal poker in New York, the history is not quite as long or colorful, although several poker rooms are popular among players in the state’s tribal and commercial casinos.
Meanwhile, legal, real money poker has yet to come to NY despite the efforts of lawmakers over recent years.
What follows is an overview of NY poker, including the state’s history, sweepstakes online poker sites and offshore sites. Furthermore, we review current New York poker laws and their relevance to home games, a list of card rooms in the state and a look ahead at poker in the Empire State.
No, not at present, although NY lawmakers continue to work toward that possibility.
NY online poker is hampered by current law that includes poker among its list of prohibited games of chance. The state’s constitution only allows a few exceptions for poker, including at regulated commercial casinos. Meanwhile, Native American-owned casinos can also spread live poker if they wish, per the applicable nation or Tribal Gaming Agency.
In early 2020, a bill was introduced in the state Senate that would remove poker from the list of prohibited games while authorizing up to 11 online poker licenses to operators. A similar bill was introduced in the State Assembly as well. In both cases, the bills failed to advance beyond committees the year before.
These are the latest among several attempts to legalize online poker in New York, ranging back to 2013.
Previous online poker bills that have been introduced have failed to garner adequate support to advance through the legislative process. Meanwhile, online sports betting has gotten much more attention among lawmakers lately thanks in part to gambling laws in neighboring states. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have launched online poker sites, casinos and sportsbooks.
If online poker were to become legal, the New York State Gaming Commission would be the governing body drafting regulations, issuing licenses and overseeing the integrity of online poker in New York.
In the absence of real money NY poker sites, there are sweepstakes poker sites that currently welcome players in New York. The most popular of these sites is Global Poker, where players from every US state except Washington can play.
Sweepstakes sites use virtual currencies rather than real money. Global Poker uses Gold Coins and Sweeps Coins.
Players can purchase Gold Coins to play “cash” games and tournaments. When they buy Gold Coins, they receive Sweeps Coins as a bonus. Sweeps Coins can be obtained in other ways as well, including via Facebook giveaways and even by writing to Global Poker directly.
Furthermore, players can use Sweeps Coins for sweepstakes-style cash games and tournaments. Players can win and accumulate more of them. Then, once they have collected a minimum required amount, players can redeem Sweeps Coins for real money and withdraw the cash.
There are online poker sites located outside the US — hence called “offshore” sites — that do accept US players. While New Yorkers don’t necessarily face legal obstacles to play on such sites themselves, they are, nonetheless, taking a risk when they do.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 restricts US banks and other financial service providers from allowing transactions with non-US gambling sites. That means rogue poker sites are forced to find other means via which to allow American players the ability to deposit and withdraw funds.
If that isn’t problematic enough, American players have to take a leap of faith when it comes to game integrity and the safety of their funds. There have been incidents of these sites suddenly closing and making off with players’ money, leaving Americans no legal recourse to recover their funds.
Also, if players suspect they have been victimized by cheating, collusion, ghosting, multi-accounting, or other types of fraud, they generally have to hope the sites respond to their complaints. Since again, they have no legal recourse to ensure they are protected.
Playing on a fully legal, licensed and regulated real money site is much more preferable. To be able to offer the games, operators must comply with rules to monitor and prohibit fraudulent activity, thus making the sites much safer for online poker players.
The New York Penal Code explicitly prohibits gambling, defined as staking or risking “something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance” or some other event not under a person’s control and doing so with “an agreement or understanding that he will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”
That prohibition includes types of gambling in which skill plays a part, too.
The way the law is written, “contests of chance” involve any game that “depends in a material degree upon an element of chance, notwithstanding that skill of the contestants might also be a factor therein.”
There are exceptions, foremost among them playing in the state lottery or gambling at a facility licensed by the New York State Gaming Commission, such as at the state’s commercial casinos. Also allowed are horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering operations, authorized video lottery terminal operators, and Class 3 Indian gaming facilities.
As is the case in many other states, home poker games are allowed in New York as long as no one is collecting rake or fees.
The relevant part of the New York Penal Code describes such a game as “a social game of chance… without fee or remuneration.”
There was a notable court case involving a home poker game in New York in 2011.
Lawrence DiCristina was hosting poker games out of a warehouse in Staten Island. DiCristina collected 5% rake in the game, which in and of itself, would run afoul of what the law says about hosting a “social game of chance.” However, DiCristina was found guilty of violating federal law, the Illegal Gambling Business Act (IGBA).
The case was appealed, and in 2012, the conviction was overturned in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Interestingly, on appeal, the US District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein ruled that Texas Hold’em was, in fact, a game of skill and thus not prohibited by the IGBA.
That ruling was reversed by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals. DiCristina tried to appeal again, but in February 2014, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Nevertheless, the most recent attempts to introduce online poker legislation have included mention of the DiCristina case, in particular Judge Weinstein’s ruling that poker is considered distinct from other gambling games thanks to its skill component.
New York is home to tribal casinos and commercial casinos, with live poker rooms found in each.
The first tribal casino opened in 1993, the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, operated by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. It continues to feature one of the biggest and most popular poker rooms in the state.
In 2013, commercial casinos were legalized and among them can be found some popular poker rooms as well, such as at Rivers Casino in Schenectady and Resorts World Catskills in Monticello.
No-limit hold’em is the primary game at all New York poker rooms, although the larger ones also spread pot-limit Omaha and stud games.
Meanwhile, both the Rivers Casino and the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel have hosted popular poker tournaments in recent years as well.
Here’s a list of live card rooms that players can find in New York casinos:
|Akwesasne Mohawk Casino||873 State Route 37, Hogansburg, NY 13655||5|
|Del Lago Resort and Casino||1133 Route 414, Waterloo, NY 13165||14|
|Resorts World Catskills||888 Resorts World Dr., Monticello, NY 12701||19|
|Rivers Casino & Resort at Mohawk Harbor||1 Rush St., Schenectady, NY 12308||16|
|Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino||310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls, NY 14303||23|
|Seneca Salamanca Casino||768 Broad St., Salamanca, NY 14779||8|
|Tioga Downs Casino||2384 W. River Rd., Nichols, NY 13812||6|
|Turning Stone Casino||5218 Patrick Rd., Verona, NY 13478||32|
Also, there are poker rooms in two casinos just across the Canadian border on the other side of Niagara Falls: Casino Niagara (with 26 tables) and Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort (with 16 tables).
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stories of poker games occurring in the underground poker clubs in New York City were frequently reported on in newspapers and given literary treatments by fiction writers.
Following World War I, one of the most famous poker clubs in the country regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club comprised many of the era’s most famous writers, actors, poets, playwrights, columnists and critics who kept the games going until the early 1930s.
As far as other types of gambling were concerned, New York first legalized and then banned pari-mutuel wagering before bringing it back again in 1940. Horse racing and off-track betting have been an important industry in the state ever since.
Meanwhile, after being the first US state to ban the lottery in the 1830s, New York was the second to bring it back in 1967.
Poker continued to be played, however, with regular underground games taking place in a variety of locations, such as bars and restaurants, office suites, high-rise condos, self-storage units, social clubs, private homes, and even in churches and synagogues.
Some of the Hungarian restaurants where such games took place were commonly referred to as “goulash joints” or “ghoulies.”
Despite their necessarily clandestine nature, a few of these poker clubs gained renown outside of New York City. This includes the Mayfair Club that began as a bridge club in the 1940s, then later became the site of high-stakes backgammon, gin rummy and poker games.
Famous poker players who passed through the Mayfair during the century’s later decades included Stu Ungar, Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, Howard Lederer and Mickey Appleman, to name a few. Band manager and music producer Brian Koppelman played there as well, and later with David Levien would use that experience as inspiration to write the screenplay for the 1998 film Rounders.
Clubs, like the Mayfair, began to be shut down, however, in 2000, thanks to then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s “Quality of Life” campaign to clean up New York City.
Games persisted nonetheless, with clubs reappearing in the 2000s and afterward, in particular during the “poker boom” when the game found new popularity on television and online.
In 1993, the state signed a compact with the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, resulting in the opening of the state’s first land-based casino, the Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, which featured a large and popular poker room. Eventually, other Native American-owned casinos opened as well.
In 2013, voters in the stated supported the New York Casino Gambling Amendment authorizing a limited number of commercial casinos to open in areas of the state other than New York City.
While the overall number of casinos in New York are small, many of them do provide live and legal poker to New Yorkers not wishing to brave the underground games.
As far as online poker is concerned, State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Assemblyman Gary Pretlow have each introduced multiple online poker bills over recent years, though none has gained needed support. Thus New York remains without legal, real money poker sites, unlike its neighbors, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to the south.
In early 2020, some momentum was starting to build around an online sports betting bill. However, the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the disease’s profound impact on New York state, including economically, understandably made the pursuit of such legislation a much lower priority among lawmakers as the state grappled with budgetary matters and other more urgent concerns.
With the country’s fourth-largest population of more than 19 million, New York would be a great candidate for online poker, given what would surely be a significant player pool. It would be especially good for online poker in the US if the state were to legalize online poker and join the multi-state compact to increase liquidity.