Draft regulations proposed by the California Bureau of Gambling Control would prohibit blackjack-style games at California cardrooms.
The Bureau of Gambling Control (BGC), which operates under California Attorney General Rob Bonta, issued draft language to promulgate regulations concerning blackjack-style games and rotation of the player-dealer position at California cardrooms.
Most significantly, the BGC draft regulations assert that “any game of blackjack shall not be approved for play.”
The proposed regulations are meant to resolve a longstanding dispute with California Indian tribes on traditionally house-banked games offered at California cardrooms.
“We’re pleased that the second attorney general in a row has put forward regulations intended to bring these unlawful banked games into compliance,” Jacob Mejia, vice president of public affairs for Pechanga, told PlayUSA. “The blackjack prohibition is notable, though it should have also addressed other games.”
Kyle Kirkland, president of the California Gaming Association, provided PlayUSA with the following response to the proposals:
“It’s dramatic change that, if implemented as drafted, would create significant hardship for the thousands of California families and dozens of California communities that rely on cardrooms. We’re carefully researching the legal, process and economic implications, and in turn our response options. The California cardroom industry has never been shy about giving feedback on proposed regulations and defending our proven legal right to offer table games.”
The BGC asked parties to submit suggested changes to the concept language in writing by Oct. 26.
Permitted alternatives to blackjack
Through Proposition 1A (2000), tribes have an exclusive right to offer house-banked games in the state. Penal Code 330 prohibits other gambling establishments from offering games that involve a “bank” or “percentage,” specifically referencing the game of “21.”
Cardrooms implemented a system to partner with third-party proposition players to serve as the bank at tables. This allows games to play nearly identically to traditional blackjack.
The BGC allows cardrooms operating previously approved games containing the word “blackjack” to continue offering the games for one year following finalization of the regulations.
The regulations establish parameters for cardrooms to create a permissible blackjack variation. Such a game must do all of the following:
- Not have a “bust” feature.
- Do not prescribe a target point count of 21.
- A player will not immediately win by receiving an ace with a card valued at 10.
- In the event of a tie between the player and player-dealer, the player wins.
“Our complaint was that they are playing blackjack, not rotating and playing banked games,” Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation general counsel Jeff Butler told PlayUSA. “Those have been our complaints forever and they’re still doing it. These regulations do a good job of stopping them from playing blackjack.”
Draft regulations on player-dealer rotation
The other issue Indian tribes have with how cardrooms operate table games is the rotation of the bank between third-party proposition players and regular players at the table.
Currently, rotation is offered but doesn’t usually happen as regular players prefer not to take on the risk of the bank.
New proposed draft regulations require that the player-dealer position rotate at least twice every 40 minutes or the game shall end.
That is a far cry from the BGC’s last draft regulations on the topic in 2019, which required rotation every two hands.
“It’s almost like saying we know the speed limit is 65 but you can drive 100 miles per hour for 40 minutes and you’re OK,” Mejia said. “And in fact, if you exit the freeway and get back on, you can do 100 mph again for 40 minutes.”
Since blackjack would be prohibited, the player-dealer rotation rules would apply to baccarat and any permissible blackjack variation.
Legislation on issue did not pass in 2023
Tribal interests submitted a bill in the California legislature this session asking the state to give it standing to sue cardrooms over the issue of house-banked games.
Tribes have attempted several lawsuits against the cardroom games in recent years only to have them rejected at the procedural stage. With SB 549, they asked lawmakers to facilitate a lawsuit to resolve the dispute with cardrooms.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing on and passed the bill. Interestingly, it was Asm. James Ramos, the only California tribal member in the state legislature, who stalled the bill in the Rules Committee.
Ramos didn’t respond to requests from PlayUSA to explain why he held the bill up. But Ramos brokered a temporary truce between tribes and cardrooms earlier this year to re-establish a moratorium on cardroom expansion.
And in the final weeks of the session, Ramos focused his attention on another tribal matter in AB 389. The bill required the California State University to comply with various requirements regarding the handling, maintenance and repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural items. It passed Sept. 14.
California’s legislative session ended Sept. 15. However, SB 549 will continue next year.
“The good news is it’s still alive,” Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians Attorney General Tuari Bigknife told PlayUSA. “We’re not going away. We are going to be moving again with our bill when the session restarts in January. We’re very optimistic that there will be movement on our bill early next year. We have strong support from 70 tribes, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and all the other legislators who have signed on.”
Rulemaking will be a long process
Bigknife contended that the BGC issuing these draft regulations proves that the attorney general does not agree with how cardrooms operate. But he believes the legislation is a cleaner and quicker way to resolve the issues between tribes and cardrooms.
The 2019 proposed regulations never went anywhere, perhaps because the pandemic hit soon after their release and then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra left to take a position in President Joe Biden’s administration.
This regulatory process could take years before ultimately ending up in the courts. Bigknife explained:
“It could result in years of regulatory work being completely undone by a judge’s procedural ruling, not to mention it would certainly result in considerable additional time delay as it moved through the courts solely on procedural grounds. In short, we could be here 5-7 years later in the same position.
“While SB 549 will also take time to move through the courts, it will ultimately answer the questions of game legality and violation of tribal exclusivity in a definitive manner. That is why SB 549 is the preferred solution.”