What stays in Vegas: how Nevada’s online gambling law will — and won’t — change social gaming

Nevada became the first state in the country this week to allow online gambling with a new law that gives the green light to poker and other games. The law is intended to keep Nevada out in front of rival New Jersey but will not do much for social game makers like Zynga(s znga) that are counting on gambling to change their fortunes.

Nevada’s governor signed the law on Thursday with bipartisan support and described it as a “new frontier” for the gambling industry. The law came about after the federal government in late 2011 decided to change its policy and permit online gambling to take place in states that explicitly permit it.

The new policy is significant in light of research that predicts online gambling will be worth $100 billion worldwide on mobile devices alone by 2017. This potential market has attracted the established casino industry as well as tech companies that are vying to make gambling games or process back-end betting operations.

The new U.S. gambling rules are also a potential lifeline to social game maker Zynga which has seen its titles like Farmville and Mafia Wars stutter. And since being cast adrift by Facebook(s fb) last year, Zynga has seen its shares fall around 80 percent.

The Nevada law, however, is unlikely to change Zynga’s fortunes anytime soon as it only applies to internet users in the state. The law is also primarily intended not to help social gaming sites but to ensure that Vegas casinos have a first-mover advantage in providing operational support when — and if — other states follow suit. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports, the Nevada law is written to keep out companies that already have existing player data. The story in question refers to “illegal operations” and those who “operated online gaming with U.S. patrons” — it’s unclear if this refers to organizations like Full Tilt Poker who broke the law in the past or to any company with gaming data.

The upshot is that the U.S. will, at best, have a patchwork of states in the foreseeable future where online gambling is permitted. If big states sit it out, it will not be easy for companies to guarantee that online poker tables are full. It also means operational headaches and potential criminal penalties for the game makers which must ensure, for example, that a player in Colorado doesn’t slip into a Nevada-based poker game.

The bottom line is that full-scale online gambling is still far on the horizon as the U.S. regulatory process shakes out. In the meantime, the winners and losers among Zynga and other tech companies like Big Fish are likely to be determined in the U.K. and elsewhere.

This story was updated at 12pm PT to clarify how the law may favor Nevada companies.

(Image by Beto Chagas via Shutterstock)