Licensing Poker Sites

What Authorities License Online Poker Sites and Brick and Mortar Cardrooms?

This article covers the jurisdictions and authorities responsible for poker licensing. Most of the poker rooms you play at online will have a license. These are awarded by bodies created by national governments. Some will allow a poker room to operate worldwide – others in specific countries. All licensing authorities have rules and standards which the rooms must comply with.

Live poker rooms are controlled too. Individual states control the licensing of these – as well as bodies overseeing tribal lands. Worldwide, live poker is controlled at the country level.

This page gives you everything you need to know about licensing of poker rooms. Here is how the content is laid out:

Licencing Online Poker: What the Jurisdictions Do

Before I get into the list of the controlling institutions, here is an overview of the role of these bodies. As you read on your will notice that some licensing bodies are stricter than others. This makes is harder for rogue sites to operate.

First, licensing bodies create a code of conduct for the financial operations of the sites. This will involve;

  • Segregating player funds
  • A requirement to pay winning players within a reasonable time frame.
  • Advertising
  • Responsible gaming practises
  • Dispute resolution
  • Regular RNG audits

Advertising, including a code of conduct for how bonus deals and ‘free’ offers can be worded also comes under these bodies. Some are much stricter on this than others. For example, the UK Gambling Commission control the wording and disclaimers for offers, while other jurisdictions don’t cover this at all.

Dispute resolution can also be part of a jurisdictions’ responsibility. If you have an issue with a reputable licensing body, you can go to them if you feel you have been treated unfairly or not paid.

Responsible gaming is often part of the license terms. Again, the implementation of this varies widely. Some bodies require a page with links to help organizations, while others require self-exclusion controls and deposit limit capabilities.

Finally, licensing bodies require that poker rooms have a fair deal. This can be proven by using 3rd party auditing companies. Examples are iGaming Labs and Technical Systems Testing.

As you will see below, a license is a big plus when choosing an online poker room. This is not, however, a guarantee that your room will be completely legitimate. It is worth looking at other factors, including RNG Testing, payment history and overall reputation before you deposit at an unknown room.

Licensing for US Poker Rooms: Offshore Jurisdictions

Poker sites which currently welcome players from the US are located in nearby countries. These include Caribbean Islands and Central America. These are not known to be the strictest jurisdictions, making it worthwhile checking on the reputation of any poker sites licensed by them.

Here are the popular jurisdictions:

  • Curacao: Formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles, this Caribbean island is a popular licensing jurisdiction for US poker sites and online casinos. They are not known to be strong on dispute resolution – though will ensure poker rooms have a minimum standard of testing and safety.
  • Antigua and Barbuda: This jurisdiction is notable due to their clash with the US via the World Trade Organisation. They claim the US is restricting global free trade by trying to stop players accessing sites. This has been ongoing for many years – and the US are not backing down.
  • Panama: The big online bookmaker and poker room BetOnline are based here. This Central American tax haven is more popular with Sportsbooks than poker rooms.
  • Costa Rica: This country allows poker sites to operate, though does not have a distinct licensing body. If you see a site that claims to be licensed by Costa Rica, it means they have a business set up there only.
  • Kahnawake: This is a tribal reserve inside modern-day Canada. They license both online poker sites and casinos. Servers are located here for many big poker rooms with North American traffic. While not a recognised ‘state’ licensing body, this has been one of the stricter ones over the years.

Global leaders in online poker licensing for off-shore sites.

In-State US Poker Rooms

More recently, three states have started offering online poker to people located within their borders. These are New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware.

Their licensing is via the state government. In addition to advertising and safety controls, these bodies require that the licenses are held by a Brick and Mortar casino operating within each State. Examples include WSOP.com in Nevada, which is held by 888 and Caesars entertainment. Likewise, the Delaware and NJ poker rooms are partnerships between big software brands and live casinos.

Note that these online poker rooms are tiny compared to the offshore sites – which in turn are smaller than the big international brands.

Pennsylvania is in the process of licensing online gambling, though it remains to be seen how poker rooms will shape up. Many other states have discussed this, though no new laws have been introduced at the time of writing.

Global Licensing Jurisdictions for Online Poker Rooms

Island states around Europe are known for offering poker rooms and casinos global licenses. These jurisdictions do not offer sites the ability to accept US players. The individual countries licensing is required in addition to these global licenses.

Here are the most popular jurisdictions:

  • Gibraltar: This British protectorate is a hub for iGaming businesses, with many of the biggest names in the industry having headquarters there. They also offer licenses, which are considered among the most reputable worldwide.
  • Malta: Another hub for both online poker and casino operators. This is another respected jurisdiction, with strict terms of operation. They have been accused in the past of lapses, which occurred with MicroGaming skins operating there.
  • The Isle of Man: Some of the biggest names in poker are licensed in this island, located in the Irish sea. These include PokerStars.
  • Alderney: Another protectorate, which has a long history of licensing iGaming operators. Their move to withdraw the license of Full Tilt Poker, after it was found to be mixing player funds with operating money, led to the closure of that site after Black Friday.

Gambling commissions located within Europe for online poker and casino sites.

Country-Level Poker Licensing Bodies

These are the strictest of all. Individual countries set up their licensing bodies to benefit from the taxation possibilities of poker. They also protect problem gamblers and enforce advertising standards. Some countries have ring-fenced player pools (for example Italy and France / Spain). Others allow international sites, though tax play from their own country.

  • UK Gambling Commission: One of the most active jurisdictions, and very critical of the industry on the whole. Advertising is controlled up to the level of how free play bonuses can be worded, and player protection is high on the agenda. No poker room can operate in the UK without a Gambling Commission license.
  • ARJEL: This is the French body which oversees all gambling – including poker sites. They specify that servers must be physically located in France. Sites also need to be specific to French players. Recently, ARJEL agreed with the Spanish authorities that sites can share player pools with those located there.
  • Italian AAMS: Italy is a stand-alone country when it comes to all forms of gambling. Again, control is strict, and sites have to be Italy-specific to get a license there.

There are many other licensing bodies in smaller European countries. These tax and enforce rules on the poker rooms for player safety. They are not big enough countries to specify stand-alone rooms, and so allow the international operators to work in their countries.

Examples include the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium.

Voluntary and Industry Bodies

Poker rooms are keen to protect their reputation. To help with this, many have joined a voluntary code of conduct under the ‘eCogra’ name. To be a part of this group, player protection, rigorous testing of deal fairness and prompt pay-outs are required. If you see a room with eCogra accreditation, this is a positive sign that the site is reputable. It does not replace an operating license.

Licensing and Control of Brick and Mortar Poker Rooms

In the US, states have authority over casinos inside their borders – with the exception of Tribal reserves. Examples include the Nevada Gaming Commission. The requirements for operating a real-money poker room are the same as holding a casino license. While you might think of Nevada as a gambling haven, the financial and other controls for casinos are among the strictest you will find anywhere.

States which do not have casinos often have stand-alone poker rooms. These include California (which also has tribal casinos) and Washington State (poker rooms are allowed below a certain size). Again, the State authorities control these operators. The rules vary from betting limits / maximum buy-ins, though to specifics like the maximum bet on each street (as was the case in Florida until recently).

Outside of the US, live poker room licensing varies. The normal setup is that this is included in casino licensing agreements – and controlled at the national level.

Should You Ever Play at an Unlicensed Poker Site?

If you see a new poker room, and find out they do not have an operating license, I recommend you stay away. While a license is no guarantee in the event of a dispute, it is never a good sign that an operator does not have one. Offshore licensing bodies provide very little in the way of dispute resolution or oversight, though at least you know that poker rooms have met minimal compliance standards.

The exception is a poker room with a long-standing reputation and good track record of fast pay outs. An example is Bovada, who have a great reputation, and since they gave up their Kahnawake license in 2016, remain unlicensed.

If you are outside the US, then there are no examples of online poker rooms without licenses I would recommend. With so many excellent, reputable brands having licenses from both global and country-specific jurisdictions, there is simply no need to take the risk.

Throughout this guide I have said that a license is a necessary, though not sufficient reason to choose an online poker room. While reputation is top of my list, there are some other things to look out for. These include valid testing of deal fairness by a known auditing organization. You should also look for a thorough responsible gambling policy, which includes links to help for problem gamblers.