Gambling in Florida: What's legal, what's not

The Palm Beach Post
Gambling in Florida: What's legal, what's not

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An upcoming special legislative session on gambling may result in online sports betting becoming legal in Florida. The session will focus on a new, proposed 30-year gambling agreement, known as a "compact," recently negotiated between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state's Seminole Tribe.

The compact would legalize online sports betting in Florida, to be controlled exclusively by the Tribe, with profit-sharing opportunities to negotiate with pari-mutuels such as jai alai frontons, horse tracks and cardrooms to participate in the new venture. (Don't know what those are? Keep reading.)

But what is the status of gambling in Florida right now? What's allowed, and what isn't? Can you be arrested for your Friday night poker game? It's complicated, but we've got answers.

Is gambling allowed in Florida?

Some of it is.

Florida defines gambling as playing or engaging in any card game or game of chance, at any place, by any device, for money or another thing of value. Most forms of gambling are prohibited, but there are specific exemptions. The Florida Lottery, for example.

Florida 2020 Statutes: Chapter 849 - Gambling

What forms of gambling are currently legal in Florida?

Broadly speaking, Florida allows some pari-mutuel gambling including horse racing and cardrooms licensed by the state, casino gambling on lands belonging to Native American tribes, state-run lotteries and interstate games such as the Powerball, and small social games.

What is pari-mutuel gambling?

Pari-mutuel gambling is a system where all bets are put together in a pool, the "house" takes a cut, and the final payout isn't determined until the betting is closed and payoff odds are calculated. Pari-mutuel betting is used for jai alai, horse racing, and sporting events when participants finish in a ranked order.

What is jai alai?

Jai alai is a fast-paced dangerous game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and thrived in Florida after the first professional fronton (stadium) opened in Miami in the 1920s. The sport is played with two teams of two players, each with elongated, curved, handheld baskets (cestas), who catch and hurl a small, hard ball (pelota) in one continuous motion to whip across the fronton and bounce off three walls and the floor. Imagine four-person handball that's been weaponized.

Since one of the ways to lose points is to hold the ball, the game never stops moving and jai alai pelotas easily reach speeds over 100 mph, making the game exciting ti watch and occasionally dangerous to play. The sport once held the world record for ball speed with one reaching 188 mph.

Jai alai -- and betting on jai alai -- was extremely popular in Florida through the 80s but interest waned when tribal casinos and other forms of gambling became popular. The Florida State Legislature, in a bid to prop up the sport, passed HB 1059 to allow poker games (cardrooms) in pari-mutuel facilities such as jai alai frontons and horse and greyhound racing tracks, which helped the locations stay afloat but didn't help the sport. There are now only three jai alai frontons in the U.S.: two in Miami and one in Dania Beach. But amateur teams still play. St. Petersburg opened the nation's first public jai alai court in 2008.

Is horse racing legal in Florida?

Yes. Off-track and inter-track betting on thoroughbred racing, quarter horse racing, or harness racing is allowed, but only if you place your bets onsite.

Is greyhound racing legal in Florida?

No. Greyhound racing ended when a statewide referendum passed in 2018 that banned the sport as of Jan. 1, 2021.

What is a cardroom?

A licensed, pari-mutuel facility where Florida allows games of poker (and, oddly,  dominoes) to be played for money.

The state does not consider this casino gambling, according to the statutes, because "the participants play against each other instead of against the house."

Cardrooms can be found at Tribal casinos and racetracks. Several are in former racetracks where greyhounds were raced before that practice was banned. Others are in former jail alai frontons. Some prestigious poker tournaments are held in Florida alongside regular cash games. Online poker is not permitted.

Are slot machines illegal in Florida?

Slot machines are only legal at tribal casinos.

Not only are slot machines illegal elsewhere, you are not permitted to own one or even part of one.

Can my friends and I play cards for money in Florida?

Yes, as long as you keep the pot small.

Gambling for big bucks in games of chance at unlicensed locations, such as your kitchen table, are a second-degree misdemeanor. But the state does allow penny-ante games. Penny-ante games are defined as "a game or series of games of poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes, or mah-jongg in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value."

Also, the person running the game can't charge for it and the game must be held in a home owned or rented by one of the players, or the common recreational area of a college dormitory or a publicly-owned center.

Is my church's bingo game legal?

It is! With a boatload of restrictions on who can do it, where they can do it, how the game is played and even what the cards have to look like.

Florida permits bingo games where you pay to play and win a prize, but they must be held by "charitable, nonprofit, or veterans’ organizations engaged in charitable, civic, community, benevolent, religious, or scholastic works or other similar endeavors" and those organizations must have been in existence for three years or more. Also, all proceeds after business expenses must be donated to the endeavors listed above.

Raffles are also legal, with many of the same restrictions.

What is the legal age for gambling in Florida?

The minimum gambling age is 21 for casino games and 18 for lottery games, poker, bingo, and pari-mutuel betting such as horse racing and jai alai.

Can I bet on the Super Bowl in Florida?

Not legally. It is a second-degree misdemeanor to bet on "any trial or contest of skill, speed or power or endurance of human or beast." It's even worse to be the person taking the bets, which is a third-degree felony.

There's some argument over where offshore betting websites fall here, but Florida bans all betting on sports.

Except, for some reason, bowling. Bowling tournaments are exempted from this and are perfectly welcome.

Are internet cafes legal in Florida?

Sort of, if you can still find one. Florida permits sweepstakes, and internet cafes advertise themselves as essentially sweepstakes parlors that offer game "promotions," and try to work around the state's definition of "games of chance," often comparing their electronic games to something closer to McDonald's Monopoly ghame.

Aside from a 2013 law banning them from using slot-machine-like computer games, attempts to ban or regulate internet cafes haven't gotten much traction. But many local governments have banned them due to the high rates of illegal activity and crime that often happen in and around them.

Are casino cruises legal in Florida?

Not in or near Florida, no. But since the 1980s cruise ships operating out of Florida ports have taken people three miles out into international waters to gamble. These cruise ships may not be out overnight, or they run afoul of federal laws against "gambling ships."

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