The Most Popular Gambling Games In Prison


The Most Popular Gambling Games In Prison


A pair of dice sitting inside a pair of handcuffs on a gambling table.

The Most Popular Gambling Games In Prison


A pair of dice sitting inside a pair of handcuffs on a gambling table.

Indulging in card gambling games is a regular pastime behind bars. Prison life is tough, entertainment is in short supply and gambling is one of the few ways inmates can enjoy themselves and cope with the boredom. It’s a way to relax and have some fun in a place where enjoyable activities are few and far between.

Some card-based prison games are more authentic than others, with a designated live dealer as well as rules and etiquette to follow. But gambling is banned in all prisons, so participants always have to play in secret. Any game that’s easy for the guards to discover will be shut down, which means there is only a handful of casino games that offer a suitable level of discretion when you’re locked up.

Naturally, the games inmates play are not only discreet but can also be played via signals and code words, making it that much harder for guards to catch inmates in the act. The simple truth is that people who enjoy casino games will find a way to play, especially when there are like-minded people close by. 

The following casino games have become popular in prisons around the world thanks to their ease of use, low profile and, of course, the potential to win money. 


Blackjack is easy to learn and doesn’t draw unwanted attention, making it one of the most popular prison card games. It’s an effective format for quick games with minimal fuss, offering easy entertainment without attracting unwanted attention from the guards.

Interestingly, playing blackjack games behind bars rarely involves money. Wagers are far more common in other games, such as poker, for example, and it seems as if prisoners often play blackjack purely for the enjoyment of it.


Kaluki, otherwise known as Jamaican Rummy, is one of the more recent prison games to have grown in popularity. Essentially, it’s a version of rummy where the jokers are used as wilds, with the aim being to get rid of your cards before your opponents do.

As the name might suggest, the game rose to prominence in the Caribbean. It requires strategic thinking to walk away as the winner, engaging players through the need for subtle tactics and forward-thinking moves.

Pai Gow

Originating in China, Pai Gow has grown into a worldwide favorite among prison populations. It’s a straightforward casino game based on classic dominoes, but there’s a lot of freedom when it comes to the rules on how to play.

Some prisoners use table markings to keep track of scores and player positions, whereas others prefer to leave no physical evidence. Moreover, you don’t need actual dominoes to play Pai Gow. A pack of cards is all you need, making the game that much more convenient.


Five cards including a six, seven, eight, nine and 10 of hearts, sitting next to a pair of handcuffs.

Is poker the most popular casino game? Life in prison reflects as much, with poker being the most played game by far. It’s the ideal game for beginners and veterans alike, with tips and strategies that apply to any player’s skill level.

Prisoners playing cards don’t have the luxury of being able to enjoy online poker, so they have to come up with code words, hand signals and secretive betting techniques. Each prison has its own poker language, which is a running theme for all jail card games.

Sports Betting

Card games in jail aren’t the only forms of gambling found in prison. Sports betting is immensely popular as well, but it’s the only form of prison gambling that needs someone on the outside to provide the sports odds for the week. 

Once the message is passed to an inmate, news travels quickly across the prison. It’s easy to get caught when you’re making pools and spreading news of the odds, so there’s usually an informal agreement between prisoners and guards to keep things running smoothly.

Problems with prison gambling

A man in handcuffs with his hands behind his back in a prisoner’s uniform.

In a recent study, half of all the prisoners in an English prison admitted to playing card games in prison. Two-thirds of them saw gambling as a normal activity in jail, with the most common motives being entertainment, excitement and a sense of challenge.

The trouble is, card gambling games in prison are completely unregulated. Unrestricted gambling is dangerous for addicts and prisoners with financial trouble, not to mention the fact that games with high tension often lead to conflict.

Conflict can be detrimental for convicts. Combining that with the perils of addiction and financial strife is a recipe for disaster. Passing the time is extremely challenging when you’re faced with a lack of engaging activities, and being in jail means that you’re often willing to take risks to have some fun.

Studies show that, in order to alleviate the problem of illegal gambling, prisons need to provide worthwhile alternatives for mental stimulation, such as education, media entertainment and other recreational activities. Regulating gambling in prison could also be a way to indirectly control inmates’ compulsive gambling habits during their incarceration.

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