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Washington Gambling Options Both Online and Offline


The state of Washington has a rather interesting land-based gaming landscape, one that has developed over the course of several decades. Today, there are both card rooms and Native American casinos dotting the landscape, a buffet that few other states can compete with.

But there is a dark side to the story here, and it is related to how our government looks upon online gambling. Sure, Washington doesn’t regulate the practice, but neither do 47 of the 50 states, so that’s hardly something to get worked up about. On the other hand, the extent to which the government here has gone to try to dissuade players from even trying such sites is perhaps the strongest anti-online gaming stance we’ve seen taken anywhere in the country.

Divide Between Native Americans, Non-Tribal Groups

Though the Washington State Constitution, drafted in 1889, prohibited all forms of gambling, that stance wouldn’t last forever. The first domino to fall was – as in many states – horse racing. Parimutuel wagering became legal in 1933, and racing continues to this day, with Emerald Downs (near Mount Rainier) offering the highest level of races in Washington.

In the decades to follow, illegal gambling certainly took place, but there was no push for legalization of even charitable gaming enterprises until the 1970s. In 1971, bingos and raffles were finally authorized, but our courts found that this move was unconstitutional. It wouldn’t be until voters approved a new method for gambling expansion – one that required either a 60% supermajority in the legislature or a yes vote in a straight referendum – that a Gambling Commission could finally be established, allowing for both classic fundraising games and “casino night” events for charitable purposes.

In 1974, the first card rooms begun to appear in the state. Initially, each location was limited to a maximum of five tables, and only non-banked games were allowed, such as poker and player-banked versions of some other options. Over the years, these rooms gained the right to host more tables, and in 1997, they were approved for house-banked games like blackjack and Spanish 21.

Over the years, however, the card rooms have repeatedly pressed for more options. In particular, they want to offer electronic gaming: slot machines, or at least some facsimile of them. With the increasing popularity of Native American casinos here – more on that later – the card rooms say that they need electronic games to compete.

So far, however, the dozens of card rooms remaining have been unsuccessful in their efforts. In 2004, for instance, voters shot down such a proposal by a wide margin, with over 61% of the population siding against the establishments.

On the other side of the equation are the many Indian casinos operating here. Following the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, several tribes began pursuing resorts on their lands. By 1992, the government had signed its first compact with the Tulalip Tribe. Today, there are nearly 30 Native American facilities here, operated by more than 20 different tribes. Since 1999, the Indian resorts have also been able to offer slot machines, a move that has given them a distinct advantage over the card rooms in the state.

Finally, Washington has also approved a lottery that is similar to most of the operations seen around the country. Founded in 1982 during a budget crisis, the lottery has since switched its revenues from the state’s general fund to educational initiatives. Now, the agency runs its own games while also allowing Washingtonians to play in multistate jackpots like Powerball and Mega Millions.

Online Play Faces Harsh Opposition

There are many states that have taken a hostile approach to Internet gambling, but few of them can hold a candle to the way Washington has chosen to handle the issue. If you’ve read some of our other state reviews, you know that it is common for us to say that while a state is not friendly to online casinos, they don’t have laws criminalizing individuals for playing at such sites.

Unfortunately, that is not the case here. In 2006, Washington took the unprecedented step of making playing poker online a Class C felony – the kind of crime that could be punishable by up to five years in jail or a $10,000 fine. Granted, there hasn’t been much enforcement of the statute, but it is still a stark reminder of how strongly the state stands against Internet gaming. There have been efforts to eliminate these penalties, or at least make them less severe. But so far, these proposals haven’t made it through the legislature.

Despite all of this, some online casinos in Washington are still open to our residents. These are mostly powered by Topgame software and include Spartan Slots and Black Diamond Casino. And while we can’t claim that it is completely legal to do so, there are definitely players who take part in the games. While the state may frown upon it, there are several reputable sites that offer real money play in Washington.

Tensions Between Card Rooms and Tribes Continue

The future of gaming in Washington is likely to be all about what the two major institutions in the state are allowed to do in the years to come: the Native American tribes that offer full resorts, and the more limited, privately-owned card rooms. Right now, neither side is entirely happy with how the government is treating them.

In recent years, many card rooms have closed, and more are afraid that the power of Indian gaming will simply overwhelm them. For instance, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe is planning to open a new resort near La Center, which is currently home to three successful card room operations – including The Palace, one of the most profitable rooms in the state. Owners are worried that customers will flock to the new casino, while town officials worry about reduced revenues, as taxes from the rooms make up the majority of their budget.

But the tribes aren’t all thriving, either. In December 2015, the Nooksack River Casino abruptly shut its doors, as the Nooksack Indian Tribe had been struggling with financial issues. They were just the latest Native American resort to close, one of a handful to do so over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the Spokane Tribe of Indians is hoping to build a resort near the city that shares their name, an off-reservation project that has received federal government approval but is opposed by many in the area. Governor Jay Inslee is expected to deliver the final word on the project by a June 2016 deadline.

While all of these land-based issues are likely to produce developments over the months and years to come, progress can be expected to be much slower in regards to Internet betting. With the current battles being more about reducing penalties than actually regulating virtual casino play, there’s a long way to go before Washington seriously considers launching their own Internet casino network.


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