Gambling in Rhode Island: Online Gambling, Live Venues and Laws
- Casino Gambling: Legal
- Tribal Gambling: Legal
- Poker: Legal
- Horse Racing Betting: Legal
- Dog Racing Betting: Not Legal
- Lottery: Legal(State-Owned)
- Daily Fantasy Sports: Pending(Attorney General Opinion states DFS is legal under state law; recent efforts to enact legislation have been stalled amidst debate with the Rhode Island Lottery)
- Charitable Gaming: Legal(only in approved formats)
- Social Gambling: Pending(2016 bill introduced to exempt home games and other social gambling is still under consideration; social games are not subject to active prosecution)
- Online Gambling: Not Specified(Players can use unregulated sites without fear of penalty)
The information in the box below provides a comprehensive overview of Rhode Island’s tangled web of gambling laws.
As an Eastern Seaboard state and one of the original 13 colonies, Rhode Island is steeped in the complex history of puritan religious rule.
But not in the way one might suspect, as founder Roger Williams constructed his new colony after being expelled by puritanical leaders in Massachusetts for spreading “dangerous opinions.”
Seeking a land where citizens could be free to live their lives according to personal conviction, Williams founded Rhode Island to provide a bastion of personal liberty.
As such, the area soon became home to a thriving lottery industry, as towns and villages used the collected profits to fund building projects and trade missions.
Much of Rhode Island’s early colonial development throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, at least on the municipal level, was funded by lotteries supervised by the Masonic lodge and other community organizations.
Eventually, the passage of a state constitution in 1843, and associated General Laws in 1896, saw Rhode Island’s political class move to ban lotteries, and gambling in any form.
Section 11-19-1 of the state’s General Laws outlines the parameters of “forms of gambling prohibited,” using the following language to ban lotteries and games of chance:
“Every person who shall, directly or indirectly, set up, put forth, carry on, promote, or draw, publicly or privately, any lottery, chance, game, or device of any nature or kind whatsoever, or by whatsoever name it may be called, for the purpose of exposing, setting for sale or disposing of any money, houses, lands, merchandise, or articles of value, or shall sell or expose to sale lottery policies, purporting to be governed by the drawing of any public or private lottery, or shall sign or endorse any book, document, or paper whatsoever, for the purpose of enabling others to sell, or expose to sale, lottery policies, except as authorized in this chapter and in title 41 and chapters 61 and 61.2 of title 42, shall be deemed guilty of a felony and shall be imprisoned not exceeding two (2) years or be fined not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000).”
Curiously, while the General Laws direct citizens to abstain from certain forms of gambling, they don’t specifically define “gambling” in any way.
Despite the state’s desire, at least at the turn of the 19th century, to impose widespread prohibitions, the gambling industry there has slowly and steadily expanded over the last 100+ years.
In what was generally led by voter referendum, with the occasional assist from law makers using the budgetary process to change the law, Rhode Island ushered in pari-mutuel wagering on horse races in the 1930s and a state lottery in the 1970s.
Eventually, devices that mimic slot machines were added to the mix, effectively turning the state’s two racetracks into “racinos.” From there, Rhode Islanders did put a halt to the industry expansion, voting to reject outright casino table gaming in 1994.
The march of progress continued unabated though, and with the state losing millions of dollars in revenue to neighboring Massachusetts and its massive Foxwoods Casino, table games were approved in 2012.
Today, the country’s smallest state maintains a fittingly quaint, but quite active, legal gambling industry. Online play and daily fantasy sports (DFS) aren’t in the mix quite yet, but essentially every other form of gambling aside from greyhound racing can be enjoyed in the Ocean State.
- Age Requirements
- 18 (for all types)
- Number of Commercial Casinos
- Number of Racinos
- Number of Racetracks
- 0 (none active)
- Number of Tribal Casinos
- Casino Regulatory Body
- Rhode Island Lottery and Division of Gaming & Athletics
- Racing Regulatory Body
- Division of Gaming & Athletics
- Lottery National Rankings
- A+ with 100% true lottery drawings (per Lottery Post’s State Lottery Report Card)
Legal Status of Gambling in Rhode Island
Fittingly enough for a state founded on the concept of religious freedom, Rhode Island allowed residents to wager on lotteries during its early colonial era, using the funds to support infrastructure projects and social development. Between 1744 and 1843, placing bets on local lotteries was considered to be customary part of civic duty.
Eventually, the state’s conservative political elite sought to outlaw all forms of gambling, beginning with the passage of a state constitution in 1843.
By 1896, a series of General Laws were passed which specifically listed several forms of prohibited gambling, including any game of chance, lottery drawing, or bookmaking operation.
The tide had turned by 1934, when voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse races. Within months, construction on Narragansett Park was complete, paving the way for a new era of legalized gambling throughout Rhode Island.
By 1947 the state opened its second racetrack, Lincoln Downs, and the industry thrived there until the mid-1970s when both tracks were shuttered.
Lincoln Downs was eventually converted into the Twin River Casino residents of Rhode Island know today.
The state’s gradual shift from anti-gambling bastion to a more permissive stance took a leap in 1973, when voters once again made their voices heard. This time, they passed a ballot initiative calling for the creation of the Rhode Island Lottery, and within a year, tickets were being sold statewide.
More games were added to the legal list, as “pull-tab” scratch card lotto games and bingo for senior citizen homes were permitted in 1983 and 1987, respectively.
Voters pushed back against the gambling expansion craze in 1990, rejecting a measure to allow off-track betting on races held outside the state. Even so, lawmakers took things into their own hands one year later, passing a budget which included provisions for certain off-track betting activities at Newport Jai Alai and Lincoln Greyhound Park.
When the inclusion of video lottery terminals (VLTs) – a fancy name for slot machines – was passed in 1992, both facilities took the leap from racetrack to full-fledged slot parlor “racinos.”
These VLTs were made more acceptable to Rhode Islanders – politicians and the public alike – after the opening of Foxwoods Casino began siphoning players across the state border.
The ebb and flow between lawmakers and voters continued in 1994, as citizens rejected a referendum which would’ve allowed full-scale casino table gaming. It would be 18 long years – the number of Rhode Island’s gambling consent age coincidentally – before voters would lend their support to table games like blackjack, baccarat, and roulette being spread within their state.
The 2012 passage of table gaming at Twin River Casino and Newport Grand Casino officially ushered Rhode Island into the modern age of gambling. Today, Twin River’s collection of more than 4,500 slot machines makes it’s the seventh largest slot provider in the entire country, rivaling many of the largest venues on the Las Vegas Strip.
Twin River Management wound up acquiring its rival, and in 2016 voters narrowly approved a pair of ballot measures which will see the Grand Newport’s operations moved to Tiverton, a town situated along the Massachusetts border which can better compete with Foxwoods.
Like many American states, Rhode Island has gradually cast aside its historical aversion to gambling, partly in recognition of religious shifts towards tolerance, with a bit of tax-related revenue thrown in.
Gamblers here can feel comfortable playing their favorite games without running afoul of the law, and almost every form of gambling is permitted in one way or another. The exceptions to that are online gambling and daily fantasy sports, but legitimate progress has been made on both accounts, and in all likelihood both segments of the industry will be fully legalized and regulated within the next 1-2 years.
Where Can I Gamble in Rhode Island?
**Twin River scheduled to open in Summer 2018
Online Gambling Options in Rhode Island?
Residents of Rhode Island are emblematic of the majority of Americans when it comes to online gambling.
The state’s original laws include no specific mention to online gambling, or even the terms “internet” and “electronic,” and no amendments or bills addressing the industry have been introduced.
As such, no examples of a player being punished for gambling online in the state can be found.
Of course, access to the world’s major online casinos, poker rooms, and sportsbooks is still largely restricted there. Due to the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, business participating in online gambling related activities is banned under federal law.
The UIGEA forced established, regulated operators to depart the U.S. market, leaving a handful of “rogue” sites to serve American players who still enjoy real money wagering over the internet.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a revised opinion on the Wire Act of 1961 – the federal law used as the basis for the UIGEA – stating that it only applied to sports betting, and not poker or casino gaming. That paved the way for states to authorize their own online casinos and poker rooms, but to date only Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware have done so.
Players there can access online gambling sites that are fully regulated and linked to land-based casinos in the jurisdiction. Agreements to share player pools are in place between Nevada and Delaware, and the latter has even publicly floated the possibility of linking with Rhode Island – suggesting that online gambling regulation may be in the works there down the road.
That’s still a long ways off, however, and today Rhode Island players rest in the same legal “grey zone” as 47 other states.
As for operators of illegal online gambling sites, the state doesn’t mess around in that regard.
Rhode Island state police made headlines in April of 2016, following a raid which netted 16 arrests of individuals accused of running an illicit bookmaking scheme over the internet.
Rhode Island Gambling FAQ
It’s A Free Country, So I’m Free To Host A Poker Game At My House, Or Engage In Some Other Forms of “Social” Gambling, Right?
We’d all love to believe that about America, but restrictive laws go hand in hand with apple pie.
In the case of Rhode Island, section 11-19-20 of the state’s General Laws – which covers “Inducing others to visit gambling place” – expressly forbids private citizens from gambling amongst themselves.
And as the law’s strict penalty demonstrates, Rhode Island is rather serious about dissuading residents from getting together for a weekly poker game:
And sure enough, state lawmakers were expressing their concern over the potential for social gaming laws to infringe on civil liberties as recently as 2016.
In January of that year, Rep. Gregg Amore (D-East Providence) introduced House Bill 7141, which sought to protect ordinary people from the state’s harsh anti-gambling penalties. As Rep. Amore described the situation in a press release announcing the bill, many activities already enjoyed by millions of Rhode Islanders technically made them criminals:
A group of friends in a workplace organize an NCAA March Madness pool — the individual picking the greatest number of games correctly winning the whole pot.
They, too, are breaking the law, and it doesn’t matter that President Obama fills out an NCAA bracket [on live TV] or that the governors of Massachusetts and Washington engage in a friendly wager over the Patriots-Seahawks game.”
If passed, House Bill 7141 would amend the state’s General Laws to include protections for social gaming, specifically exempting games where players maintain a prior social relationship, and are not acting as professionals.
Rep. Amore’s efforts ultimately languished in committee, with the House recommending House Bill 7141 for “further study” in March of 2016.
Is It True That One of the World’s Largest Slot Parlors in America Can Be Found In the Nation’s Smallest State?
Oddly enough, this is true, as Twin River Casino is home to more than 4,500 video lottery terminals (VLTs) – which are simply slot machines by another name.
That puts Rhode Island’s gambling crown jewel in 7th place on the global rankings, sitting slightly ahead of Maryland Live Casino’s 4,200+, and just behind the 4,600+ machine lineup at 6. Hipódromo Argentino de Palermo in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Twin River Casino also spreads over 100 live dealer table games and 16 poker tables throughout its 160,000 square feet of gaming floorspace. This massive operation generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, while sending millions to state coffers each year in taxes and licensing fees.
In July of 2015, Twin River Management company completed its acquisition of rival Grand Newport Casino. Soon afterward, Rhode Island’s leading casino operator embarked upon an ambitious plan to move the Newport Grand’s operations to a newly built casino resort complex in Tiverton, with project completion scheduled for the summer of 2018.
Will Online Gambling Ever Be Authorized, Either By Voters or Lawmakers?
You never really know when it comes to state legislators and online gambling… just ask California after online poker fell apart yet again for the 10th year and running.
But even considering the difficulty of the task, one can imagine the progressive political climate in the “Ocean State” paving the way for a regulated iGaming industry sometime soon.
Rhode Island’s political class has already shown a propensity for following, rather than leading, when it comes to gambling issues. And on the same note, local leaders appear to be intent on closely guarding the state’s small population of gamblers from regional neighbors.
For these reasons, Rhode Island sought to expand its gambling industry during the 1980s and 1990s, following the debut of Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. With the local racetracks reporting heavy losses as locals headed across the border, Rhode Island authorized video lottery terminals (VLTs) to give players thousands of reasons to stay.
Fast forward to 2017, and a similar trend has emerged within the iGaming space.
Atlantic City, New Jersey is just a few hours away from the capital of Providence, so players who want to enjoy the modern online casino craze have a viable outlet. And when they head down the coast, Rhode Island loses potential gaming revenue.
As longtime casino rival Massachusetts actively considers its own iGaming legislation, along with regional powerhouses New York and Pennsylvania, the state of Rhode Island has every incentive to enact its own online gambling laws in the near future.
With that said, any move in that direction would likely come only after one of these other states has already set the precedent.
History of Rhode Island Gambling Laws
Daily Fantasy Sports in Rhode Island
As of now, daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites like DraftKings and FanDuel can be accessed from Rhode Island, and neither platform lists the state as restricted.
That’s because Attorney General Peter Kilmartin issued an opinion February 4, 2016 which held that DFS contests do not fall under the “game of chance” classification, and thus aren’t prohibited by state law.
As stated by Kilmartin, the dominant factor test used to determine chance-based gambling from other skill-based pursuits puts DFS in the latter category:
Recognizing that although the outcome of some games are purely based upon chance and others entirely on skill, it is clear that DFS, like most games, is a mixture of these factors. … The Supreme Court of Rhode Island has adopted the ‘dominant factor’ test to determine if chance exists in a lottery scheme.
Applying the ‘dominant factor’ standard, I do not believe that daily fantasy sports constitute a ‘game of chance’ and therefore, daily fantasy sports games to not constitute a lottery under Rhode Island law.”
Kilmartin closed his opinion by urging state lawmakers to author legislation which would expressly legalize and regulate the DFS industry.
One day later, Rep. Raymond Gallison (D-Bristol) heeded that call, introducing House Bill 7492 to allow DFS operators to apply for a license through the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation.
A month after that, Rep. Jean Philippe Barro (D-Pawtucket) introduced his own DFS-related bill, which would require payments of $10,000 from licensed DFS operators.
Both bills were referred to the House Finance Committee, but Gallison’s was never given a hearing, while Barro’s was “held for further study.”
As of today, the legislative momentum to officially regulate DFS in Rhode Island has stalled. On the other hand, no efforts to ban the contests, or otherwise reverse Kilmartin’s opinion, have been launched.
One organization which has aligned itself against DFS in the state is the Rhode Island Lottery. Despite previous suggestions that it may enter the DFS space itself should the state begin regulation, Division of Lotteries lawyer Marilyn Shannon McConaghy penned a letter to the House Finance Committee on May 11, 2016 which stated that DFS should be considered gambling:
Rhode Island law defines ‘gambling’ as any ‘game’ played for the purpose of ‘disposing of money, and also prohibits bets, wagers or pools sold ‘upon the result of any trial or contest of skill, speed or power of endurance of man or beast.’”
As the Rhode Island Lottery contends, any effort to change state laws on gambling – which it contends DFS is – must be approved by voters via ballot referendum, and not through legislative means.
The input provided by the Lottery was enough to dissuade Governor Gina Raimondo and her administration from backing the DFS bills, which explains their sudden lack of support among legislators.
Currently, DFS remains stuck in state of quasi-legality throughout Rhode Island. The state has no laws on the books to ban it, and its Attorney General is on the record with an official opinion supporting DFS as a legal pursuit under the state’s constitution. Accordingly, the major DFS sites operate in Rhode Island, and lobbyists representing the industry have testified that an estimated 170,000 residents – roughly 1/10 of Rhode Island’s population – plays DFS for real money.
Even so, one cannot accurately list Rhode Island as a locale where DFS is technically legal, and it’s definitely not regulated by any state agencies. And until lawmakers there successfully collaborate with the Lottery to find equal ground, that may remain the status quo for the foreseeable future.
The small state of Rhode Island has two casinos and a third scheduled to open in 2018. Though the original settlers were of the Puritan religion, this hasn’t carried over into the gambling options in the state today.