Technically speaking, online poker became legal in Rhode Island alongside online casino gaming, but the odds of it becoming a reality are effectively zero under the current law. Much of the discussion about Rhode Island online poker has focused on its small population and the need for traffic sharing to make poker economically feasible. However, there’s a more fundamental problem. Online table games in Rhode Island will be live dealer only, and live dealer poker doesn’t currently exist.
Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee signed the state’s new iGaming law on June 20. However, it wasn’t the same bill that Senator Dominick J. Ruggerio originally introduced. House legislators made a set of amendments to the bill on June 15 before passing it.
These included changing the definition of “online table games” to resolve a constitutional issue raised in May by Republican Senator Elaine J. Morgan.
The amended bill removed language allowing for random number generation (RNG) for table games. Meanwhile, it added the phrase “where such games are conducted by one or more live persons.”
That is to say, in the final bill, RNGs are only permitted for slots, while anything categorized as a table game requires a live dealer. Although it mentions poker among the allowable casino games, the need for a live dealer will make it impossible to launch an online poker product in practice.
The one ray of hope for Rhode Island online poker is that lawmakers could try adding RNG table games at a later date. That would require new legislation, however.
Why ‘Live Dealer Poker’ is a Non-Starter
The live dealer requirement presents a multi-layered obstacle to hypothetical online poker in Rhode Island.
Firstly, the state has created a monopoly market where the sole Rhode Island online casino operator will be a partnership between the state lottery, Bally’s, and IGT. None of these entities has either live dealer capabilities or an online poker product.
Presumably, they intend to offer some live dealer products, such as blackjack and roulette. IGT might attempt to develop that technology in-house as it would also be helpful in other markets. Among other things, it would create a new way to leverage IGT’s exclusive rights to the Wheel of Fortune brand. Alternatively, the partnership could subcontract to yet another company, like Evolution, to set up and run a studio at one of Bally’s two retail casinos in the state.
Either way, the idea of live dealer multiplayer poker is probably a non-starter. No existing live dealer company has such a product. Developing one would be extremely expensive, and it’s not clear that there would be much demand. For many players, online poker’s high speed and multi-table capability are its main advantages over live play. Introducing a live dealer and physical equipment would only slow everything down.
Even in the unlikely event that Rhode Island attempted to introduce a first-of-its-kind live dealer online poker product, it would be incompatible with RNG-driven poker in other states. That would create additional problems for traffic sharing.
Rhode Island does not have the population to sustain even a conventional online poker room on its own. So, not only would Rhode Island need to join the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement, but Bally’s would have to launch live dealer poker in a larger iGaming state or convince one of the established operators to do so.
Not Enough Money in Online Poker to Be Worth It
All of that for what would, in all likelihood, amount to less than $3 million in annual gross revenue1.
The math doesn’t even come close to working out. Consider that West Virginia has not launched online poker, despite having:
- More population than Rhode Island
- No live dealer requirement
- An established operator with an online poker product (BetMGM Poker)
Why Does RI Require Live Dealers for Online Casinos?
Rhode Island’s constitution requires a ballot measure to introduce any new form of gambling. Voters approved the legalization of Class III retail casino gaming in the state in 2012. Proponents of the iGaming bill believed this could include online casino gaming so long as the servers hosting the games were located at one of the two retail casinos.
Sen. Morgan and others, including the Rhode Island Lottery, disagreed.
The live dealer requirement was intended to help the law’s chances of surviving any potential constitutional challenge, though not everyone involved with the bill believed it was necessary.
Greg Pare, Director of Communications for the Rhode Island Senate, told Bonus on behalf of Senate President Domnick Ruggerio:
There is not consensus about whether the RNG games would require a new referendum. Rather than litigate that dispute now, we decided to take the incremental step of passing the “live dealer” games now. Faced with disagreement regarding the constitutionality of the RNG games without referendum, we pursued the “live dealer” games in this session.
Retail slots use random number generators to produce their results, even those using old-fashioned mechanical reels to display them. Therefore, online slots differ only in their delivery channel.
Conversely, the conventional definition of games like blackjack and roulette in a retail environment involves physical randomization equipment (cards, a wheel, etc.) and a human dealer to use them.
There’s an argument to be made that this makes an RNG-based digital replacement a different game. The rules for the player might be the same, but courts and gaming regulators care deeply about how results are generated. For instance, that’s what makes historical horse racing, video lottery or electronic bingo machines legal in some jurisdictions where slots are not, even though they all feel very similar to the player.
Restricting online table games to live-streamed versions with a human dealer makes them more similar to what voters already approved. That, in turn, shuts down one possible avenue of legal attack on the new vertical. Unfortunately, it has killed the chances of Rhode Island online poker in the process unless a separate bill later allows for RNG table games (and survives the potential legal challenge).
A Note on Projected Revenue
The estimate of $3 million in annual online poker GGR for Rhode Island was calculated by Bonus News Managing Editor Alex Weldon and reflects a hypothetical best-case scenario. It assumes that a Rhode Island online poker market would resemble that of New Jersey or Pennsylvania in per capita terms. Realistically, actual revenue would likely be even lower than this due to the low population and a single operator.