Arkansas Casinos and Gambling

Arkansas casinos exist – two of them, to be exact – but they’re very limited in terms of what casino games they offer. The state has an interesting history when it comes to gaming, but modern citizens of Arkansas have few legal options when it comes to betting.

Arkansas is one of many American states where confusing language in the sections related to gaming in the state’s penal code and a “pick and choose” approach to law enforcement have made it difficult for people living in Arkansas to determine which forms of gaming are legal and which aren’t.

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Arkansas Gambling Law

By any reading of Arkansas law, almost every form of wagering is illegal within state lines.

I’m not a lawyer or a legal professional, and this isn’t intended as legal advice – but read Section 5-66-106 of the state’s penal code for yourself.

“It is unlawful for any person to bet any money or other valuable thing or any representative of anything that is esteemed of value on any game prohibited by state law.”

Arkansas legislators control gaming by outlawing all forms of wagering not explicitly made legal in other parts of the law. But the trouble with the way The Natural State (and other conservative US states) attempt to police gaming in their penal code is that the language is simply not clear enough.

The law clearly prohibits “any game of chance and any game at which any money or property may be won.” It then gives exceptions – over the past few decades, the state has added exceptions for limited pari-mutuel betting as well as charitable bingo and raffle games. An exception for private or social betting is made, with the only restriction being that the host must not earn any form of profit by hosting the game.

That’s it – no additional exceptions are made for the games currently allowed at the state’s two casinos. What’s that all about? First, let’s look at the two Arkansas casinos for an idea of what they really are.

Oaklawn Jockey Club – This Hot Springs institution is primarily a thoroughbred racing track that underwent renovations in the 2000s to include electronic machine games. No table games are available, and the Instant Racing, slot, and video poker terminals that are available are low-stakes affairs, few in number and not all that impressive. It’s these machines that make Oaklawn a “casino,” though most people would probably use the word “racino” instead.

Southland Greyhound Park – Southland, in West Memphis, Arkansas, is a huge greyhound racing complex with a few machine games scattered about. Like Oaklawn, it’s not exactly a traditional casino. No table games, live poker, or any of the other trappings of the casino industry are present. Instead, you can find a few slots, video poker, and Instant Racing terminals at the north and south ends of the track.

To understand why these games are allowed at Oaklawn and Southland, but not anywhere else in the state, you have to understand a bit of state history.

The History of Arkansas Gambling

It’s not well-remembered today, but The Natural State was once home to the notorious types of mobsters and other organized crime figures that we associate with cities like Chicago and Las Vegas today. How’d it get that way?

Hot Springs was probably the first gambling Mecca in America, experiencing a huge rush of gaming tourism beginning immediately after the Civil War. Financial troubles during Reconstruction pushed local authorities to allow gaming, as did a good deal of corruption on the part of elected officials. Al Capone even had a small role to play in the gaming scene in Arkansas in the 1920s.

You might think that Arkansas was pro-gambling at that time, but you’d be wrong. The state had laws against all forms of betting in its law books even then – but we know for a fact that no arrests related to gaming were made in Hot Springs until the year 1967. Unregulated gaming took place there for some fifty years until Governor Winthrop Rockefeller sent in squads of state troopers to shut down all casino operations and burn all the gaming machines, tables, and other props.

Enforcement has been fairly strict in the state since 1967 – except for Oaklawn Park and Southland Park. In part due to decades-old bribery arrangements, and in part because they made the bulk of their money on race betting and not casino gambling, these sites are simply exempt from state law, apparently by fiat. What started with the addition of a few Instant Racing games in 2003 is expanding, little by little, to the point where some are predicting that the state could allow table gaming within the next five years or so.

More Facts about Arkansas Gambling Law

Arkansas is one of just a few US states where gambling authorities enforce the state’s strict anti-gaming laws. The most recent case I can find that’s worth point outcomes from 2010 – after an operation performed in concert with the FBI, Arkansas State Troopers found a large group of citizens guilty of “operating an illegal gambling business.” This charge is a class C Felony with a maximum charge of five years’ imprisonment and fines as high as $25,000.

Planning to gamble over the Internet while living in Arkansas? Be careful – while there is no specific prohibition against online betting, the state code’s prohibition against any form of betting not explicitly made legal could put you in dutch with authorities.