Social gambling is gambling that is not conducted as a business, and that involves players who all compete on equal terms.

In common parlance, social gambling refers to games played primarily for fun or social purposes. The event is usually held with friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers in a private location (for instance, in a participant’s home), not in a public area or commercial venue. This would include gambling in a private club to which you belong, provided that the club does not sponsor or run the gambling–for example, if you and your friends use the club’s card room.

Players must be at least 18 years old (in some states, 21 may be the legal age.) Many people play poker once a week or twice a month.

Can My Friends and I Play Poker?

It depends on the situation. Social gambling is legal or illegal in different states. All games are legal as long as they put everyone on equal footing and no one has an unfair advantage.

What Is the Difference Between Playing in a Social Context and Gambling?

A social gambling activity typically meets two closely related criteria:

  1. No one profits from organizing, setting up, or running the game: The “house” does not take a cut of the wagers. The organizer does not charge an entry fee.
  2. All players are on an equal footing: Everyone has an equal chance of winning (or losing) regardless of whether the “house” or any player has the odds stacked in their favor.

The above two-part test is not applied to social gambling in every state. The state may also add its own criteria if it recognizes social gambling.

For instance, Colorado requires “a bona fide social relationship” between the participants (basically, that you are friends or co-workers, etc., outside of gambling); Iowa requires a gambling license by any individual conducting gambling activities.

Is it Important Whether Something Qualifies as “Social Gambling” or Not?

You face risks under federal or state laws if a game is illegal. Poker games played at home (where players have a strictly social connection) are rarely prosecuted. However, to avoid being surprised, it is best to contact your local authorities to determine the laws.

Each state regulates a nearly infinite number of gambling activities, and the laws differ dramatically, especially when it comes to determining whether social gambling is legal. Two states’ laws – New Jersey’s and New York’s – illustrate the most common approach to legalizing the activity.

How Do I Determine Whether My Gambling Is Illegal?

Different factors are important in different states. To determine whether your game is legal or illegal, consider the following factors:

  • Where will you be playing? It is more likely to be legal to play a game at home than in a public park, bar, or restaurant.
  • Is there an advantage for any player? A game with house odds or house income is more likely to be illegal since one player has an advantage over the other.
  • What are the stakes? In some states, penny ante games are the only type of gambling allowed. The likelihood of your game being legal increases if the stakes are lower.
  • What is your bet? A bet on a game you are playing now is more likely to be legal than a bet on a future event like a race.
  • Are all your players over the age of majority? For your game to be legal, all players must be over the age of majority. Depending on your state’s laws, the age of majority is either 18 or 21.
  • Are you hosting or visiting the game? In states where social gambling is illegal, the punishment is usually more severe for the owner of the house where the game is held.

The Varying Positions of States on Social Gambling – More Confusion

Some states specifically define legal, social gambling as opposed to the above approach.

In Florida, for example, games where no more than $10 can be won at one time (e.g., poker) are legal. Connecticut says that gambling is legal if it is “incidental to a bona fide social relationship”-if you are friends or family outside of gambling, you can gamble.

Check your state’s specific laws on the subject.

Although you should check your state’s laws, the following summarizes social gambling’s legality:

  • Those states that allow social gambling with some restrictions are AL, AK, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, HI (an exception to its general ban on all other gambling), IO, KY, LA, ME, MN, MT, NV, NJ, NM, NY, ND, OH, OR, SC, TX, VA, WA, & WY.
  • It is unclear whether social gambling is allowed or not in several states, which probably means it is since prosecution is unlikely for small-stakes neighborhood games when the law is unclear: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

Some states criminalize social gambling, or rather, they do not make any exceptions to their general prohibition of unlicensed (i.e., not at a licensed casino, tribal casino, racetrack, etc.) gambling. The following states are exempt from the law: GA, ID, IL, IN, KA, MD, MI (with very limited exceptions), MS, MO, NB, NH, NC, OK, RI, SD, TN, UT, WV, and WY.

Even though social gambling is illegal, we all know it takes place. Breaking up a $50/night poker game in someone’s “man cave” is hardly a law enforcement priority. It can be compared to speeding in states where social gambling is illegal: many people do it frequently, but only a small percentage are caught or punished.

What You Need to Know About Poker

There’s no doubt that poker is the most common type of social gambling, especially these days since Texas Hold ’em and similar games are so popular. Despite its high degree of skill requirement, poker, because of its high degree of risk, is not considered gambling in some states, where something must have a “predominance” (or more than 50%) chance to be considered gambling.

What Are the Consequences of Illegal Social Gambling in My State?

There are different consequences for illegal social gambling in different states. The majority of states, however, consider violations of gambling laws to be misdemeanors. If you are charged with a misdemeanor for gambling, you may have to pay fines, do jail time, or do community service. It is possible to be accused of illegal gambling in some states, but use the fact that it was social gambling as your defense.

Also, if you are trying to enforce a gambling debt via your court system in a state where gambling is against the law, the chances of collecting are zero since the game was illegal in the first place. The courts will not enforce debts incurred through illegal activities. In states where social gambling is prohibited, don’t let your “friends” gamble on credit or IOUs-if they choose to dishonor their debt, you won’t be able to collect.

What Should I Do If I Have Questions About Social Gambling?

You may want to consult a lawyer specializing in gaming law if you have questions about the legality of social gambling. An experienced entertainment lawyer will be able to inform you of your state’s laws regarding gambling and will be able to advise you about your rights. A lawyer can represent you in court if you have been charged with illegal gambling.