The southeastern quadrant of the United States is rooted in societal and political conservatism, and South Carolina is no exception. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that historically, the Palmetto State’s overwhelmingly right-wing populace has frowned upon gambling expansion, fearing that it would invite social ills such as poverty and crime.
But as times changed, so did the people of South Carolina. In recent years, there have been signs that the state’s denizens are starting to abandon their anti-gambling positions. What was once a state devoid of gambling proponents now has champions such as SC House Democratic Leader and his followers, who argue that the construction of casinos will create much needed jobs and generate new tax revenue to repair the state’s roads and bridges .
Don’t get us wrong, gambling advocates still face a long uphill battle, but the prospect of a casino industry in the Myrtle Beach area is no longer just a pipedream. As far as expansion into other gambling arenas, such as online poker, well, that’s a bit more far-fetched – at least for now.
Can Players from South Carolina Play Real-Money Online Poker?
Although online poker is not regulated by South Carolina, it is surprisingly easy to register and fund an account on an unregulated site. However, with regards to legality, playing online poker resides in a murky grey area.
In most European countries, real money poker players generally don’t have to worry about law enforcement agencies hunting them down, as there has been a strong movement towards regulation.
Is Online Poker Legal in South Carolina?
South Carolina’s gambling laws have undergone little alteration since 1802, nearly 200 years before the first online poker site went live. So it follows that the statutes make absolutely no mention of Internet gambling.
However, they do offer an indirect and broad definition of gambling. Essentially, the law states that participating in
any game with card or dice, or any other game mentioned thereafter, in any location (public or private) is illegal. The law is so rigid, that even players who wager no money on these games are deemed in violation of the law.
The law classifies a
house as one of the locations where gambling cannot take place. Taken together with the prohibition on card games, the law clearly implies that poker cannot be played in a social setting.
However, in 2010, Assistant Attorney General Sonny Jones suggested to the State Supreme Court that his office reads the law a bit differently:
It is out position that this statute does not encompass the Friday night poker game or the penny ante poker game. So it appears as if social poker (defined loosely as a game where the house does not reap a profit or pay employees) is legal after all .
Well, at least they were until a 2012 ruling offered by the South Carolina Supreme Court deemed home poker games illegal, thus reversing a 2009 ruling in favor of a group of 20 home poker players, who were arrested for participating in a low stakes game where the house only took enough money to cover the evening’s costs .
One thing is for certain, the law is in dire need of an amendment.
Players caught gambling may have their funds seized, and spend a maximum of 30 days behind bars. Additionally, the fine for gambling as a player is capped at $100. This almost laughably low cap clearly reveals the law’s age.
As is often the case, gambling operators are subject to loftier fines and longer jail sentences. An additional fine is levied to those who keep
any gaming table or permit any game of games to be played in his house on the Sabbath day. Engaging in unregulated lotteries, keeping books and selling pools are also indictable crimes punishable by
a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the law. Section 16-19-130
For more on South Carolina gambling law, please refer to the “References” section .
South Carolina Gambling History
Despite its generally conservative culture, South Carolina has been home to a variety of gambling activities. Before state legislators penned anti-gambling laws in 1802, South Carolina’s residents gambled freely on sporting events, dog and cock fights, and card games such as poker. The new laws didn’t entirely prevent gambling enthusiasts from satiating their appetites for action, or at least they didn’t until the mid-1900s, when law enforcement agencies started cracking down.
By the 1970s, a few would-be operators began devising clever ways to circumvent the law. Most notably, they installed video machines where the winnings were not paid out by the machine, but by the venue itself. In 1991 the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of this apparent loophole, but for the duration of the decade, machine owners were hit with increasingly higher tax rates.
In 2000, the Court reversed its stance on video terminals, and within a year nearly 33,000 machines were shut down. On a somewhat brighter note, that same year gambling advocates won their first victory, as the ban on lotteries was removed.
Today there are still no commercial or tribal casinos in South Carolina, nor is pari-mutuel wagering permitted. Furthermore, law enforcers remain fairly proactive (as we’ll soon see, maybe too proactive) in the hunt for illegal gambling rings.
Regulated Gambling Options in South Carolina
There aren’t many. The state hosts a statewide and multi-jurisdiction lottery, as well as a few select commercial gambling cruises.  Charitable bingo is also permissible, although casino nights are not.
Other recent headlines
As part of the June 10, 2014 Democratic primary, voters were asked if they would approve a change in South Carolina’s gambling laws to allow the construction of commercial casinos. In unexpected fashion, 80 percent of voters approved . The decision paved the way for possible casino legislation in 2015. Unfortunately, the bill may fall on deaf ears, as a spokesman for Governor Nikki Haley stated that the governor does not
support casino gambling and will never take action to allow it to be legalized in the state. Haley was recently reelected into office. Her term will not expire until 2019.
In other news, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled against the state’s only federally recognized tribe, the Catawba Indian Nation, in their plea to open a casino on its New York County reservation.  The Catawba based their argument on the premise that if commercial gambling cruises are permitted, they should be able to offer the same games on their reservation.
The Court responded by stating that the tribe voluntarily ceded their right to a casino as part of a 1993 agreement that granted the tribe permission to open two bingo halls, and host gambling games permissible by the state. The problem is video poker, slot terminals and table games are all prohibited under South Carolina law.
Finally, in one of the most absurd gambling raids in recorded history, law officials cracked down on retirement age locals caught playing Mahjong and other casual games. As a result, Sen. Tom Davis
asked the Legislature to update the law, which prohibits all forms of gambling – even non-betting games. Until then, be wary of playing checkers with Grandpa Joe.
The Future of Regulated Online Gambling in South Carolina
South Carolina has a ways to go before it’s ever in a position to legalize online poker. First, the law must be amended to unequivocally allow non-wagering games. Secondly, a casino must be built. Otherwise any prospective iGaming operator will not have a land-based partner to latch onto. Unfortunately, in so long as Gov. Haley has a say, this is not going to happen.
Not helping matters is the fact that SC Courts do not classify poker any differently than any other card game. So while some of South Carolina’s faithful have seemingly changed their tune regarding gambling expansion, the state’s conservative powers are still too influential for a major push to be made.
Maybe we’ll see a land-based casino in SC by the end of this decade, but unless a federal bill passes, online poker is off the table for at least another five years.