Tennessee Poker Laws

In 2003, a 28-year-old accountant from Nashville, Tennessee won an online satellite into the WSOP Main Event, proceeded to navigate a field ripe with seasoned pros, and went on to become the tournament’s most unlikely champion. His victory inspired swarms of amateur to take up arms against poker’s elite, and the modern poker era was born.

Ironically, Moneymaker’s home state doesn’t look too favorably on online poker and gambling in general. Actually, that’s an understatement. Truth is there isn’t a single legal poker room – live or online – in the Volunteer State. We guess they’re not kidding when they say the best poker game in Tennessee is in Tunica, Mississippi.

That’s not to say strides aren’t being made to expand the state’s gaming industry, only that the pro-gambling contingent in Tennessee is growing very incrementally, and hasn’t generated the kind of support necessary for a casino bill, let alone an online gaming act, to pass. It’ll take liberals more than a few years to unravel centuries of Southern thinking regarding gambling.

Which means the next Moneymaker probably will hail from somewhere other than Tennessee.

Can Players from Tennessee Play Real-Money Online Poker?

The legality of playing online poker in Tennessee is very much in question. However, unlike in Kentucky and several other U.S. states, offshore sites willingly accept players from the Volunteer State, their logic being that since they don’t operate within Tennessee’s borders, they’re free to offer their services.  So technically, yes – players from Tennessee have a limited number on online poker playing options available to them.

The United States is on a shrinking list of countries that have not fully regulated online poker. Take Europe for instance, where swarms of are readily, and legally accessible.

Is Online Poker Legal in Tennessee?

With regards to gambling, Tennessee boasts some of the strictest preventative laws we’ve encountered. And law enforcement agencies appear more than willing to enforce them. In 2014 alone, 175 gambling related arrested were reported [1] – far more than in most other states.

Alright, so we’ve determined that Tennessee takes gambling as serious as any other second-tier crime. But what constitutes illicit gambling? We start by taking a look at how gambling is defined, Section 39-17-501:

Gambling is contrary to the public policy of this state and means risking anything of value for a profit whose return is to any degree contingent on chance, or any games of chance associated with casinos, including, but not limited to, slot machines, roulette wheels, and the like.

Although poker is not mentioned by name, the clause any degree contingent on chance almost certainly applies to all games featuring a random element, poker included. A 2005 court case, where the State Attorney General opined that paid entry Texas Hold’em tournaments are in violation of the law, offers all the confirmation we need [2].

The penalty for knowingly committing the act of gambling as a player is a Class C misdemeanor. However, players that either own a gambling device (such as a deck of cards or poker table) or who receive a referral bonus, or anything of monetary value, for promoting a gambling game, can be slapped with a Class B misdemeanor.

As we’ve come to expect, operators face far more severe penalties, Section 39-17-504:

A person commits an offense who knowingly invests in, finances, owns, controls, supervises, manages or participates in a gambling enterprise. The offense of aggravated gambling promotion is a Class E felony.

This facet of the law varies from that of most other states, where the gravity of the crime typically hinges of the size of the operation.

There does not appear to be a social gambling exception built into Tennessee’s gambling statutes.

For a more comprehensive look at Tennessee’s state code, please visit the “References” section [3].

Tennessee Gambling History

Tennessee gambling scene was as bustling as any other state’s during the late-18th and 19th centuries. Back then, gambling houses and saloons were an accepted, albeit begrudgingly, facet of Southern culture. But by early-1900’s, Tennessee’s haughty sense of morality began to win out.

Although horse racing remained legal, the state did not possess the resource to maintain the tracks. But the last nail in the coffin was when U.S. Senator and Tennessee native Estes Kefauver set out to ban gambling in as many states as he could. Ultimately, he only succeeded in blocking it from his own state. This was back in 1949, and since, not much has changed.

In 2004, the Tennessee Charitable Gaming Implementation Law allowed authorized sponsors to host raffles. The year prior, the Tennessee Education Lottery was created to help with education funding. Since, it has grown to encompass multi-jurisdiction lotteries such as Powerball, and has generated more than $3 billion for education programs since inception. [4] One would think, with all the money generated from the lottery, Tennessee legislators would at least discuss further expansion, but such is not the case.

Regulated Gambling Options in Tennessee

What regulated options? Tennessee is one of the few US states that doesn’t feature any of the following: commercial casinos, tribal casinos, pari-mutuel wagering, charitable casino nights.

What residents are left with are the occasional raffle and the lottery.

Other recent headlines

In 2013, liberal Memphis lawmakers Rep. Larry Miller and Sen. Reginald Tate, filed bills that if passed, would see the formation of a special House-Senate committee. Their mission: to study the merits and detriments of a casino gambling industry [5]. Unfortunately, the bills never garnered much attention from the state’s increasingly conservative officials.

That’s too bad, especially considering that a 2004 estimate places the amount Shelby County residents spend at casinos in nearby Tunica, Mississippi at $336 million per annum.

The Future of Regulated Online Gambling in Tennessee

In order for a gambling expansion act to be ratified in Tennessee, a constitutional amendment must be passed first. That amendment would require both the approval of voters and legislators. And even if the majority were on board, which they’re not, the earliest an amendment could be up for a vote is 2018.

Typically, states that do not already tout a thriving live casino industry are not considered candidates for online gaming regulation, and Tennessee is no exception. So, despite having a big enough population (6.5 million) to support a modest iPoker environment, Tennessee is on our list of states least likely to regulate online poker.


  1. Jump up ^ 2014 Crime in Tennessee
  2. Jump up ^ Office of the Attorney General – Legality of Texas Hold’em Poker Tournaments with Jackpot Prize
  3. Jump up ^ Tennessee Code Unannotated
  4. Jump up ^ Tennessee Education Lottery Quick Facts
  5. Jump up ^ Two Memphis lawmakers want to know if casinos are feasible in Shelby County