Overview

Iowa has some of the country’s most progressive gambling and poker laws, at least in terms of the exceptions that they have created.  The law here explicitly bans all forms of gambling not expressly and specifically permitted, and running afoul of this law brings some of the harshest penalties in the country.

While just about every state treats gambling offenses as misdemeanors, which are lesser criminal offenses, gambling charges in Iowa are all considered to be serious, either a serious misdemeanor or a felony. Even the simple act of “engaging in gambling” can result in first-time offenders doing jail time.  The law here may be gambling friendly but crossing the line and engaging in criminal gambling in Iowa is nothing to mess with.

The law, in Chapter 99 of the Iowa Criminal Code, makes all gambling illegal, participating in any game for a sum of money, or making any bet, and this gambling and betting is not limited to certain types, it is all inclusive, notwithstanding the exceptions contained within the chapter.

There are indeed plenty of exceptions though, but the state exercises full and complete control over what is considered legal and illegal, and the requirements are very specific.  Generally, legal gambling here must be licensed and regulated by the state, although there are other exceptions provided as well.  What it comes down to is that if you gamble in the state of Iowa, and it is not permitted in the law, it is a criminal offense.

The main forms of regulated gambling in Iowa are pari-mutuel wagering (first permitted in 1983), the state lottery (given approval in 1985), and regulated casino gambling on “riverboats,” which Iowa would be the first in the country to license and regulate in 1989.

Originally, these riverboat casinos were required to be actually moving upon riverways to offer gambling, but after Illinois, who also enacted riverboat gambling laws at around the same time, ended up relenting and letting them operate while docked on barges, the Iowa government ended up doing the same. Now, as long as these casinos are over water, they can operate provided they get approval for a license.

Like Illinois, land based casinos are not permitted, although Indian tribes operate outside the legal framework here, and there are 3 Indian casinos in addition to the 15 so called riverboat casinos the state has permitted thus far.

Social gambling is permitted here though, as is charitable gambling.

Is It Legal To Play Online Poker In Iowa?

Some people believe that online poker has somehow been made legal by the federal Department of Justice finally backing down on its claims that the Wire Act prohibited online poker.  This view is mistaken though because the federal government does not have the legal power to make poker legal, only the states themselves do.

Now the federal government can make illegal the transmission of gambling information across state lines, and given that this is something that is encountered when one plays online at sites outside the state, if this did apply to poker, that would indeed make things interesting, but this law has been decided by the courts as far back as in 2002 to only apply to sports betting and not casino gambling or online poker, and while it did take many years for the Department of Justice to finally admit this, they currently do.

So is it legal to play online poker in Iowa?  The playing of poker for money is illegal notwithstanding the provisions that allow it, which would really require it to be regulated.  It would be difficult to establish that the “Games Between Individuals” would exempt online poker players, due to among other things, the provision of their being a bona fide social relationship between the players, something you don’t really see playing online poker, at least not a relationship with all of the parties at the table.

Online poker is not legal in Iowa, although there is a movement afoot to change that.  However, as is the case in all states in the country, even though authorities in Iowa may be very disposed to want to break up any illegal poker game they can, even home games, it’s not that difficult to break up a home game, but it’s practically impossible to arrest someone for gambling online.

To date, no person in Iowa or in the United States for that matter has ever been charged with playing poker online, and it’s not because it’s not against the law, its due to the fact that such a law is virtually unenforceable.  Even in countries with far lesser privacy laws, where the government can spy on people’s online activities to their heart’s content, it is extremely rare to catch people gambling online, and in the very few cases where this has happened, the players did not take the proper precautions.

The laws in a particular state can cause some online poker rooms to exit the market of a given state though, and this is the case with a few states, like Washington for instance.  If an online poker room doesn’t accept you, you are simply out of luck, although Iowa isn’t one of the states that has been signaled out here.

Live Poker Options In Iowa

In terms of live poker, Iowa has a pretty vibrant live poker scene with a total of 13 different casinos that offer it.  These poker rooms are all small to modestly sized, ranging from a single poker table at the Wild Rose Casino to 18 tables at the Horseshoe Casino Council Bluffs.

The casinos here tend to be pretty well dispersed throughout the state, and Iowa isn’t that big of a state in the first place, so players who are looking to play live land-based poker can find some good options fairly close by no matter where in the state they live.

Home Poker Games in Iowa

Iowa does have a special exemption in 99.B.12 entitled “Games Between Individuals.”  Home poker games between individuals receive an exemption from the law provided a number of conditions are met.

So here are the ones that relate to home poker games.  There must be a bona fide social relationship between the parties apart from the gathering to gamble.  The game must not occur at a schoolhouse or at a location related to a school.  All participants must be playing as individuals and not agents for others.

The gambling must be “fair and honest.”  There cannot be an entry fee or other fee to participate.  Players must take turns dealing.  Finally, the amount won or lost by any of the players cannot exceed $50 in any 24-hour period.

So if all these conditions are met, and the only one that might be a problem at a home game is the $50 limit, then the game is legal, and poker is specified as one of the permitted games here.

Commercial establishments are also permitted to offer games between individuals under these conditions by applying for a license and paying the $100 licensing fee involved.  This of course takes home games to a whole new level as far as access is concerned, and in this case, no bona fide social relationship is required, aside from meeting and playing with people at these establishments.

While Iowa is quite permissive when it comes to poker and home games in particular, breaking the law when it comes to even home games is nothing to mess around with.  A private game at a business in Camanche was broken up by police in 2014 for example, and the stakes were found to be too high.

So all seven players were charged with a Class D felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.  While the actual sentences handed out aren’t anywhere near as severe, people do serve jail time for gambling here and having a felony record isn’t something people want either.  These are often first offenses as well and while the punishment does get more severe with further convictions, the penalties start out high and just get higher.

The Future of Online Poker in Iowa

Iowa is considered one of the most forward states in the country as far as the likelihood of their regulating online poker, and the Iowa Senate has already approved a bill to regulate it, but it ended up dying in the state House.  So that’s at least getting close, and more efforts are underway to look to get such a law passed, and the feeling is that within a couple of years, by 2017 or 2018, this could become a reality.

Online poker is still alive and well in Iowa though even now, and it never really left the state, although players are limited to only a few sites to play at, as the majority of online poker sites no longer accept Americans period.  Those that do though all accept Iowans.