Editor's note: The name of Mary Kay Bean, spokesperson for the Michigan Gaming Control Board, was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
The painfully slow rollout of legal, regulated internet poker in the U.S. took an important step forward recently when Michigan, one of just six states that has legalized online poker, applied to join a compact that effectively broadens the universe of potential players.
The Michigan Gaming Control Board posted on its website guidance to gaming operators and internet gaming platform providers on preparing for the possibility that the state may someday offer interstate online poker. At the moment, Michigan online poker is of the intrastate variety.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the online interstate poker bill into law in late December 2020.
The Multi-State Interstate Gaming Agreement (MSIGA) brings together states who join the compact to share games among customers in those states. So far, just three states have joined the compact —New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware. Nevada and Delaware were the first two in 2014 and were joined by New Jersey in 2017.
Michigan’s inclusion in the MSIGA would be significant in that it would add a state with a population of about 10 million to the current three-state compact group that has a combined population of 13.4 million.
‘Liquidity’ Needed in Poker
While MSIGA covers most internet games, poker is most affected by a shared pool of players, enhancing what is referred to as “liquidity” in poker. (As an aside, it appears Michigan’s interstate gaming would be limited to poker.)
In poker, the old saw of “the more the merrier” is usually true, both for cash games and tournaments. In a poker tournament, having more players means larger prize pools. In poker cash games, having more players means being able to offer more variants more frequently at more price points.
The recent Michigan online notification both announced the state’s application to join MSIGA and provided detailed guidance to its own in-state operators for conducting business in the interstate environment. So far, Michigan has just two operators offering internet poker: BetMGM Michigan is connected to the commercial MGM Grand Detroit casino, and PokerStars, in association with the tribal Odawa Casinos.
How long it would take before Michigan online casino players are joining poker games with players from other states is anyone’s guess.
“The timeline will be dictated by the compact members,” said Mary Kay Bean, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Gaming Control Board. Assuming Michigan’s application to MSIGA is accepted, the existing multi-state compact would have to be amended.
Wire Act Clarity
For several years, it appeared that state agencies and online gaming operators were hesitant to go ahead with meaningful exploration of interstate gaming, poker included, because of legal murkiness surrounding interpretations of the federal Wire Act of 1961.
The Department of Justice rendered an opinion in 2011 that the Wire Act only applied to sports gambling, a good thing for the prospects of larger-scale online poker. But in 2018, the DOJ pivoted from that opinion and more broadly interpreted the Wire Act’s reach, which made some gaming companies pump the brakes on plans for interstate poker.
However, in a case brought by the New Hampshire Lottery, a U.S. Court of Appeals validated the earlier narrower interpretation of the Wire Act in 2021, a key ruling that should have relieved hesitancy about going ahead with plans for interstate poker.
Still, progress on online poker has been slow.
One of the most notable examples of legal multi-state online poker was the COVID19 pandemic-affected 2020 World Series of Poker summer series and the Main Event later in the year, which were mostly online. During the WSOP’s summer series and Main Event in 2020, poker players who were geo-located in New Jersey and Nevada could compete against each other online since both states were in the compact and WSOP/888 was licensed in both states.