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Not so fast. Here's a short (yet necessary) preface:
Americans have to pay attention to two kinds of laws: federal and state laws. Only paying attention to one while ignoring the other is no good - online gambling laws (and gambling laws in general) are good examples of why that's the case.
If you've read any internet articles on this matter, you must have seen claims to the style of "online poker is legal in the U.S." or "the U.S. law doesn't prohibit online poker." While those claims are true on a federal level, they're probably not true for you because of state laws.
Why "probably not true?" For example, while no federal law prohibits you from playing online poker, most state laws likely do, either directly or indirectly. Many states prohibit all types of gambling unless specifically approved, and gambling of any kind except for bingo and lottery is rarely approved.
In fact, only New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware have specifically legalized online poker and some other forms of online gambling (although not all). States have the right to legalize and regulate online gambling within state boundaries, however, the vast majority have decided against it. Several states still have gambling laws that were created more than a 100 years ago, way before the internet, and when the world was a different place.
Online poker in particular has been a hot topic in the United States gambling world because there's no clear stance on whether poker is or should be considered a game of skill or luck, and from a legal point of view, that makes all the difference in some states. If poker is predominantly a game of skill, perhaps general gambling laws should not apply to it?
To my knowledge, nobody in the U.S. has been prosecuted for playing real-money gambling games online. Prosecution for playing online, therefore, is rare (even non-existent if my information is correct). But just because laws haven't been enforced doesn't mean they won't be. "Lack of prosecution" is not the same as "legal."
There have been gambling-related prosecutions but they've targeted US gambling sites, payment processors and advertisers - not gamblers. It's clear that operating a real-money online gambling service in the U.S. is a criminal offense unless you've been licensed to do so, and you can only be licensed in a few states at the moment.
Several states are looking into the possibility of legalizing and regulating US online gambling sites (or at least some forms of online gambling). California is the name on everyone's lips due to its population, and it will have the most potential influence on the U.S. internet gambling market. If California were to share their online poker player pool with the other states that offer legal online gambling (again, New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware), combined states would create a healthy and attractive poker ecology, unlike what's available now.
Every state wants additional income and many states are known for turning to gambling in times of financial trouble. Lottery, for one, has been allowed and prohibited several times throughout America's history - allowed when there's a need for an increase in tax dollars, and prohibited when the public outcry is too much to ignore.
Some states feel strongly against gambling on the internet for a number of reasons. The most obvious is a general dislike for anything gambling-related, as depending on which studies you believe, gambling has negative effects on the society. Another just as significant reason is casino lobbying: brick & mortar casinos would prefer if their customers stayed away from the internet.
Yes. Regardless of which state you live in, there are US gambling websites willing to accept your business, and there are payment methods that work as long as you're above the limit of legal gambling age. Even if traditional payment methods - such as credit cards and money transfer services - didn't work for you, you could always use Bitcoin, which is already available at tens of gambling websites that accept U.S. customers.
But should you play online? That's a completely different question, and one I don't have an answer to. It's legal to partake in certain forms of gambling if you live in one of the three states mentioned on this page, but regarding the legality of gambling on the internet in other U.S. states, it would be best to contact a local gaming lawyer. So far, people haven't gotten in trouble for gambling online in the USA, but that doesn't mean they won't.