When Americans think of high-profile gambling destinations in the US, they think of Nevada and New Jersey for their mass land-based casino operations, Kentucky for its prestigious horse racing events, or a long list of other states where tribal casinos are found in abundance. Unfortunately, Tennessee doesn’t cross the mind of anyone who knows just how much – or how little – gambling opportunities are available in the state. There are no merchant casinos, no tribal casinos, no race tracks, no poker rooms, even altruistic bingo games have been outlawed. If you live in Tennessee and you want to gamble, you’ll have to buy a lottery ticket, find a charitable gambling event (and even those are incredibly limited by law), or drive across the state line to place wagers elsewhere.
What if you want to play online poker in Tennessee? It’s a well known fact that online poker players have been logging onto offshore poker sites from every state in the Union to play for real money ever since the iGaming industry was berthed around the turn of the millennium. There are certainly enough respectable online poker operators out there acquiesce to deposits from players in this area. But what most Tennessean online poker enthusiasts want to know is whether or not they are committing any crime in the process.
Legality of Online Poker in Tennessee
Just because every other casino-style form of gambling is prohibited in the Volunteer State does not necessarily mean that online poker is outlawed as well. In order to determine the legality of online poker in Tennessee, we must thoroughly examine the laws of the state. There are a few US territories that have explicitly addressed the issue of online poker, but since the Volunteer State is not one of them, we must refer to the general gambling related statutes and interrupt their full range of inclusion.
Please note that we are not providing legal advice. We are not qualified to do so and in no way encourage anyone to take this information as 100% accurate. We merely attempt to decipher the laws and give our own opinion of their meaning. For precise legal advice, please contact a local, licensed attorney.
Tennessee Codified Laws – Gambling
The following gambling related laws are taken from the Tennessee Code as they may pertain to online poker. Please note that some text has been visibly condensed and/or annotated to maintain fluency without altering the meaning. Please use the provided links for references and full text.
Any person who commits the offense of gambling is guilty of a crime. [To convict,] the state must have proven beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of the following essential elements:
(1) that the defendant engaged in gambling; and
(2) that the defendant did so knowingly.
“Gambling” is contrary to the public policy of this state and means risking anything of value for a profit whose return is to any degree contingent on chance or any games of chance associated with casinos including but not limited to slot machines, roulette wheels and the like. Gambling does not include: (1) a lawful business transaction; (2) annual events [for charity] (3) organizations… authorized [by] two-thirds (2/3) approval of the general assembly… not prohibited by the Constitution; and (3) [an authorized] state lottery …
“Knowingly” means that a person acts knowingly with respect to the conduct or to circumstances surrounding the conduct when the person is aware of the nature of the conduct or that the circumstances exist. A person acts knowingly with respect to a result of the person’s conduct when the person is aware that the conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result… [person] acted intentionally.
1. Gambling is a Class C misdemeanor. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-502(b).
2. The term “profit” is defined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-501(6) as anything of value in addition to the gambling debt. “Gambling bet” is defined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-501(2) as anything of value risked in gambling. “Lawful business transaction” includes any futures or commodities trading. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-501(4). These definitions may need to be given in some cases depending on the factual situations.
“Gambling device or record” means anything designed for use in gambling, intended for use in gambling, or used for gambling.
“Possession” may be actual or constructive. A person who knowingly has direct physical control over an object at a given time is then in actual possession of it. A person who, although not in actual possession, knowingly has both the power and intention at any given time to exercise dominion and control over an object is then in constructive possession of it.
1. Possession of a gambling device or record is a Class B misdemeanor. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-505(c).
Class B misdemeanor: not greater than six (6) months in jail or a fine not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500), or both, unless otherwise provided by statute
Class C misdemeanor: not greater than thirty (30) days in jail or a fine not to exceed fifty dollars ($50.00), or both, unless otherwise provided by statute
What does it all mean? Is online poker illegal in Tennessee?
Put it all together and yes, online poker certainly appears to be illegal in Tennessee. The definition of gambling is so abstruse that it encompasses any and all forms of wagering where chance plays any role. Although the term internet or online is never used, the definition of a gambling device is, if possible, more ambiguous than that of gambling. A gambling device can be “anything designed for gambling, intended for use in gambling or used for gambling”, thus a desktop computer, laptop, mobile device or tablet that is used to gamble can, in fact, be legally construed as a gambling device. You can’t even go to a local library or internet café and use their computers to play online poker because simply using the device is defined as possession, whether it belongs to you or not.
Gambling is a Class C misdemeanor, but because online poker necessitates the use of a gambling device, the offense would be upgraded to a Class B misdemeanor, worthy of up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.
Is Tennessee working to regulate online poker?
The short answer – no. Tennessee is one of just a few states in the US that is thoroughly opposed to gambling. With such a staunch view against land-based gaming, there is no reason to expect Tennessee to legalize online poker any time in the near, or distant, future.