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Contracts and Poker: Gambling Law In Montana

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Jun 29, 2022

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In recent columns, we have been looking at laws for home games in various states, since gambling laws are up to each state and differ dramatically. In this column we will look at my home state of Montana.

Curiously, Montana has no laws addressing home games. This might be bad news, for most states start their gambling laws by prohibiting all gambling, and then creating exceptions. So, if there is not an exception for a home game, it is likely prohibited.

Montana, however, does not start by prohibiting all gambling. Instead, it prohibits “all forms of public gambling.” The implication is that private gambling is not prohibited. (To find out if this should be implied you might ask the state Attorney General. But if I were offering a home game, I would not ask and, if challenged, would assert that I had read the law and it appeared to be clear.)

The Montana rules on legal card games are interesting. The permitted card games are “bridge, cribbage, hearts, panguingue, pinochle, pitch, poker, rummy, solo, and whist.” Interestingly, the definition of gambling excludes “social card games of bridge, cribbage, hearts, pinochle, pitch, rummy, solo, and whist.” Note that poker and pan are on the list of permitted games, but not on the list of permitted social games, so they can only be offered in licensed card rooms.

It used to be that you could find a card game in most bars in Montana, such as the Stockman’s Bar in Missoula, which famously had a sign stating, “Liquor Up Front; Poker In The Rear.” The conjunction of drinking establishments and card rooms is no coincidence. Montana law requires that an establishment have a liquor license in order to offer card games. This is probably less to make sure that players have their drinking needs met than for the administrative convenience of vetting applicants for licenses.

Montana allows anyone over 18 to play, so you can get an early start. In order to protect players from themselves, however, Montana has always had a pot limit. When I started playing, this was $100. That was generally not a problem for the $3-$6 limit games that were spread before the poker boom, but once no-limit became the norm, the limit was absurd. If a player went all-in, and got two callers, then each player put $33 in the pot. The limit was first raised to $300, and now stands at $800.

Montana loves to enact detailed laws, and the poker laws and regulations are no exception. Just to make sure there is no argument, the rank of cards and hands is codified in the statute. And for rules of play, the late Card Player columnist Bob Ciaffone’s Robert’s Rules of Poker serves as the official Montana rule book, supplemented by The Tournament Directors Association (TDA) Rules for tournaments.

But Montana was not content to leave it at that, and adopted a number of other rules, many of which differ from what is customary. For example, under “Decks – Shuffle and Cut of the Cards,” the rules provide that, “Any player may request that the dealer change decks. If such a request is made, the dealer must switch the use of decks at the end of that hand.” This is contrary to TDA Rule 26, which bluntly states, “Players may not ask for deck changes.”

Another rule provides that, “A player may not remove any of his or her chips from the table until the player quits the game. However, a player may use chips to pay for other goods or services in the premises.” This is contrary to Nevada law, which prohibits the use of chips other than for play and tokes at the table.

Finally, a rule states that, “A player who has a protected hand taken in by the dealer or fouled by discards through no fault of the player is entitled to be refunded from the pot all the chips the player put in the pot on that game.” This is also contrary to TDA Rule 65, which states that, “If the dealer kills a hand by mistake … the player has no redress and is not entitled to a refund of called bets.”

If you ever play in Montana, you shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the state’s rules. There is a rule requiring that many of the rules be posted conspicuously in the card room. This rule states:

POSTING OF RULES
(1) At least the following rules must be posted in a clear, legible manner at each card table or in such a conspicuous location that the player at a card table can readily read such rules.
(a) Games to be played.
(b) Betting limits of the games.
© Ante or blind bets (if any).
(d) Number of raises.
(e) Minimum and/or maximum buy-in limits (if any).
(f) $800 pot limit.
(g) Rake percentage or set fee.
(h) Check and raise (yes or no).
(i) Designated wild card(s).
(j) No side pots (except in cases of all-in bets).
(k) No credit.
(l) No passing chips.
(m) No checks.
(n) Maximum number of players in each type of game.
(o) Players must be 18 years old.
(p) House players identified upon request.

I’m not sure what they intended by stating “No side pots (except in cases of all-in bets.)” If anyone can explain to me how there can be a side pot other than in an all-in situation, I would be glad to hear it.

Meanwhile, enjoy your play in Montana or wherever your poker travels take you. Perhaps you’re even reading this at the WSOP! ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at profburnham@yahoo.com.