Tennessee Gambling Laws

Tennessee Poker Laws

Is Online Poker / Gambling Legal in Tennessee?

The state government of Tennessee allows a tiny bit of legal gambling outside the state lottery, but these laws are begrudging ones. In fact, as late as 2011, the only form of gaming allowed under Tennessee law was the education lottery. I'll discuss the gambling which is legal, the agency used to enforce laws, and why 2011 saw changes to the law.

Tennessee State Laws on Poker

Tennessee has what can accurately be described as one of the least hospitable environments for poker players of any state in the U.S.. Most states - South Dakota and New Jersey come to mind - have generally strict gambling laws but provide a number of exceptions for acceptable gambling. Tennessee has few of those exceptions, and fewer still that apply to poker.
The state's definition of gambling is one that seems to quite clearly include poker. Refer to Section 39-17-501 of the Tennessee code for the definition, which covers games that are reliant on chance "to any degree" and any game "associated" with a casino. Poker seems to check both boxes and is almost certainly gambling in the legal sense in Tennessee.

Here's where the news turns even worse for poker players. In California, you can play poker at card rooms and tribal casinos. Neither exist in Tennessee - there's no such thing as a legal live poker room in the state.
In states like Illinois, poker is allowed as part of a charitable gambling event. There are a few exceptions for charitable gambling in Tennessee law (see Section 3-17-101 et seq for the regulations governing charitable gambling in Tennessee), but poker doesn't make the cut.

That leaves us with one last hope: the so-called social gambling exception that is often built into state laws to permit gambling conducted among friends in private. Tennessee lawmakers must not have gotten the memo, because no language in the state code provides anything resembling an exception for such activity - meaning your home game is, sadly, illegal by the letter of Tennessee law. 

Tennessee Lottery Laws

Of all the US states which allow lottery gaming, Tennessee is one of the last to vote in a lottery. The state lotto is seen as being beneficial to the entirety of the people of Tennessee. The main public relations initiative was to call the Volunteer State's lottery gaming the "education lottery", a common tactic to assure citizens that gambling isn't immoral when the revenues are raised to educate children.

The Tennessee Legislature enacted laws in 2003 which allowed for a Tennessee State Lottery. In early 2004, the first lottery drawings took place. Soon enough, Tennessee joined the Powerball and Mega Millions multi-state lottery associations. Until 2010, the state had Pick 5 lottery games, but switched to Tennessee Cash in that year.

Tennessee Charitable Gaming

Until 2011, no form of gambling was legal in Tennessee. Operators could not run casinos or gambling machines. Horse racing wasn't legal. Even charity organizations couldn't have bingo nights or poker nights. Even today, few people can run a charitable gaming operation. One set of events in 2010 got the state government to budge on their longstanding anti-gambling laws.

Those events were the flooding of 2010, which struck cities as large as Nashville and Memphis and affected millions of citizens. Tornadoes in the eastern part of the state also concerned many politicians. To help those affected by these natural disasters, Tennessee lawmakers in early 2011 moved to allow charitable gambling under restricted circumstances.

Learn About Other State Laws

Tennessee Secretary of State

The Secretary of State's office in Tennessee enforces existing gambling laws, authorizing the Tennessee Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming to do so. Punitive measures are taken against those who abuse the laws. While it doesn't directly involve gambling, the Division of Charitable Solicitations & Gaming highlights on its website the best example of their punitive measures, in which $720,000 in fines were leveled against Xentel, Inc. These abuses of Tennessee charitable solicitation laws amounted to calling people and asking for a contribution to a state trooper fund without mentioning they were raising money for charitable causes. Each of 144 cases of wrongdoing upped the fines an extra $5,000. 

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