California is both the most populous state and the state with the most poker rooms. In fact, America’s favorite card game has a long, storied history in the Golden State. It reaches back to the mid-19th century gold rush, an era of gaming dens, and continues through the famous Gardena card clubs of the 20th century and the explosion of card rooms following the state’s legalization of Texas Hold ’em poker and stud in the 1980s.
With nearly 40 million residents and a huge number of poker players among them, California has long been looked upon by online poker proponents as an obvious and attractive choice for legalization. However, despite the numerous bills proposed by lawmakers since the late 2000s, an inability to satisfy the priorities of rival factions, including the state’s multiple tribes with gaming interests, has prevented legal online poker in California.
What follows is an overview of California poker. We start with a short synopsis of the current debate on real money online poker in California. Then we cover the consideration of alternatives like sweepstakes poker and offshore poker sites. We continue with a review of current California poker laws, including what is OK when it comes to home poker games. Next, we share a comprehensive list of the state’s many card rooms and a detailed timeline of poker in the CA, including online poker legislation. Lastly, we look ahead to the possible future of online poker in California.
No, real money online poker is not legal in California; however, that’s not due to a lack of trying.
There is a long list of California lawmakers who have introduced bills that, if passed, would legalize online poker in the state (see below, “California poker timeline”), with such efforts dating back more than a decade.
An attempt was made in 2014 when the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel tribe tried a different path by attempting to launch real-money online gambling on its own. The tribe is one of the more than 100 federally recognized Native American tribes in the state. The federal government filed an injunction, and the site was shut down. After a lengthy legal battle, the Ninth District Court of Appeals in December 2016 ruled the poker site to violate the UIGEA for allowing access to those not located on the reservation.
That ruling made it clear that tribes in the state would not be able to launch online poker rooms without some sort of statewide legislation. Alas, California lawmakers have been unable to reach that milestone.
The push to legalize and regulate online poker in CA has recently slowed as attention has shifted to the possibility of introducing online sports betting.
In May 2018, the US Supreme Court removed the federal prohibition against states other than Nevada offering sports betting. By the following year, California lawmakers began holding hearings to consider the viability of bringing legal sports betting to CA, including online sports betting.
Like other states, however, the legal environment for gambling in California is complicated significantly by the competing interests of the state’s commercial gambling properties and its many tribal casinos. That same conflict has presented obstacles in the past for those who have previously tried to legalize online gambling, including online poker. No doubt that it will continue to be the case going forward when the issue arises again.
The California Bureau of Gambling Control currently regulates gambling in the state and would potentially serve as the regulatory agency overseeing online poker if it became legal. The California Gambling Control Commission also plays a vital role in licensing card rooms and casinos within the state. Both of these state agencies work together with California tribes to regulate gaming on tribal lands as well.
With no real money online poker available, players in California do have an alternative in sweepstakes online poker sites. The most popular example is Global Poker, a site that legally welcomes players from every state, aside from Washington.
Rather than play with cash, those who play on sweepstakes sites do so with virtual money. In the case of Global Poker, there are two different virtual currencies: “gold coins” and “sweeps coins.” Players can purchase the gold coins to play cash games and tournaments. When buying gold coins, players also receive sweeps coins as a bonus, which they can use to play specific cash games and tournaments.
Players can purchase sweeps coins other ways as well, including through Facebook giveaways or by writing to Global Poker and requesting them. Players can also win more sweeps coins in the cash games and tournaments. Once they’ve accumulated a minimum amount, players can exchange them for dollars that can be redeemed.
Some poker players choose to play online poker in CA on “offshore” sites located outside of the US that permit Americans to play. Are players who play on these sites breaking the law? That’s a question that gambling law experts continue to debate.
The California Penal Code includes a section on illegal gambling that specifically prohibits games “with cards, dice, or any device, for money, checks, credit or other representative of value.”
The section goes on to say that anyone doing so is committing a misdemeanor and can be fined between $100 and $1,000 and imprisoned for up to six months. While no players in California have ever faced such penalties for playing on offshore online poker sites, they are, nonetheless, still taking risks by doing so. Since such sites are not regulated in the US, they don’t necessarily have to adhere to measures like fraud prevention and ensuring the security of players’ funds the way legal, regulated US sites do.
In fact, there have been instances of such sites closing and making off with players’ money, and in which case, the players don’t have legal recourse to help them recover their funds.
Players who use such offshore poker sites and suspect cheating, collusion, ghosting, multi-accounting, or other issues affecting game integrity simply have to trust the sites will respond to their complaints and take appropriate action. That’s because if the sites don’t, there’s little the players can do about it.
While online poker is not legal in California, live poker in brick-and-mortar card rooms is legal in the state, with players fortunate to have more card rooms to choose from than in any other state.
Charitable, nonprofit organizations are also allowed to host “poker nights” along with bingo games and raffles, but only once per year.
In December 2019, the California Bureau of Gambling Control proposed new rules for the state’s card rooms. However, many CA card room operators objected, saying the new rules would have a negative impact on their businesses and even force some rooms to close.
Because of the compacts between the state and its tribes, Native American-run casinos have the exclusive right to offer “house-banked” games. As a result, commercial card rooms must employ someone other than the dealer to act as the “banker” (or the “house”). This person represents a licensed third-party business since the rooms aren’t technically allowed to have a financial stake in the games. The banker collects from the losers, pays the winners and takes a fee from each of the players.
The new rules being proposed would do away with the third-party banker and force the players to take turns performing that role. Players refusing to do so would not be allowed to participate, and if no one wants to be the banker, the game would have to stop. The card rooms are understandably unhappy with the idea of instituting such an arrangement, pointing out how playing the games will become more complicated and that many players will be loathed to have to take on the banker’s role.
More hearings will need to be held as well as a study conducted measuring the financial impact should the new rules be adopted.
Yes, home poker games are legal in California, as long as the host of the game doesn’t take a rake from the pots or require any sort of fee from the players.
The California Penal Code is quite clear in the way it describes home poker games as excluded from “controlled games” for which operators need licenses. The law states that a “controlled game” does not include “games played in cards in private homes or residences, in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player.”
California has more places to play poker than does any other state in the country. There are around 100 rooms, ranging from tiny two-table establishments tucked away in strip malls to massive 200-plus table poker palaces like The Commerce in Los Angeles and The Bicycle nearby in Bell Gardens.
The small rooms generally only spread low limit ($1/$2) no-limit hold’em, whereas the medium and larger rooms also feature other variants like pot-limit Omaha, seven-card stud and different mixed game formats. All but the smallest rooms host regular daily and/or weekly tournaments, while the largest venues are often the site of major tournament series such as the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker Circuit.
|The 19th Hole Casino & Lounge||2746 W. Tregallas Rd., Antioch, CA 94509||3|
|500 Club Casino||771 W. Shaw Ave., Clovis, CA 93612||18|
|Agua Caliente Casino||32-250 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA 92270||10|
|Artichoke Joe's Casino||659 Huntington Ave., San Bruno, CA 94066||17|
|The Aviator Casino||1225 Airport Dr., Delano, CA 93215||6|
|Bankers Casino||111 Monterey St., Salinas, CA 93901||6|
|Barona Resort & Casino||1932 Wildcat Canyon Rd., Lakeside, CA 92040||15|
|Bay 101 Casino||1788 N. First St., San Jose, CA 95112||30|
|Bear River Casino||11 Bear Paws Way, Loleta, CA 95551||5|
|The Bicycle Hotel & Casino||888 Bicycle Casino Dr., Bell Gardens, CA 90201||185|
|Black Oak Casino||19400 Tuolumne Rd. North, Tuolumne, CA 95379||6|
|Blue Lake Casino||777 Casino Way, Blue Lake, CA 95525||5|
|Cache Creek Casino||14455 Highway 16, Brooks, CA 95606||14|
|California Grand Casino||5988 Pacheco Blvd., Martinez, CA 94553||14|
|Capitol Casino||411 N. 16th St., Sacramento, CA 95811||10|
|Casino 99||175 E. 20th St., Chico, CA 95928||5|
|Casino Chico||968 E. Ave., Chico, CA 95926||3|
|Casino Club||1885 Hilltop Dr., Redding, CA 96002||5|
|Casino M8trix||1887 Matrix Blvd., San Jose, CA 95110||16|
|Casino Marysville||515 4th St., Marysville, CA 95901||3|
|Casino Merced||1459 Martin Luther King Jr. Way #5, Merced, CA 95340||2|
|Casino Monterey Marina Club||204 Carmel Ave., Marina, CA 93933||4|
|Casino Pauma||777 Pauma Reservation Rd., Pauma Valley, CA 92061||5|
|Casino Real||1355 N. Main St., Manteca, CA 95336||6|
|Central Coast Casino||359 W. Grand Ave., Grover Beach, CA 93433||4|
|Chumash Casino Resort||3400 CA-246, Santa Ynez, CA 93460||12|
|Club One Casino||1033 Van Ness Ave., Fresno, CA 93721||51|
|Colusa Casino Resort||3770 CA-45, Colusa, CA 95932||3|
|Commerce Casino||6131 E. Telegraph Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90040||210|
|Coyote Valley Casino||7751 N. State St., Redwood Valley, CA 95470||6|
|Crystal Casino||123 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, CA 90220||12|
|Diamond Jim's Casino||118 20th St. W., Rosamond, CA 93560||10|
|Diamond Mountain Casino||900 Skyline Dr., Susanville, CA 96130||4|
|The Deuce Lounge & Casino||30435 Road 68, Visalia, CA 93291||4|
|Eagle Mountain Casino||681 S. Tule Rd., Porterville, CA 93258||3|
|Elk Valley Casino||2500 Howland Hill Rd., Crescent City, CA 95531||6|
|Empire Sportsmen's Association||5001 McHenry Ave., Modesto, CA 95356||3|
|Feather Falls Casino||3 Alverda Dr., Oroville, CA 95966||12|
|FLB Entertainment Center||511 E. Bidwell St., Folsom, CA 95630||3|
|The Gardens Casino||11871 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, CA 90716||110|
|Garlic City Club||8630 San Ysidro Ave. #100, Gilroy, CA 95020||6|
|Golden West Casino||1001 S. Union Ave., Bakersfield, CA 93307||40|
|Graton Resort & Casino||288 Golf Course Dr. W., Rohnert Park, CA 94928||20|
|Harrah's Resort Southern California||777 Harrah's Resorts Southern California Way, Valley Center, CA 92082||12|
|Hollywood Park Casino||3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90303||51|
|Hotel Del Rio & Casino||209 2nd St., Isleton, CA 95641||3|
|Hustler Casino||1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247||50|
|Jackson Rancheria Casino||12222 New York Ranch Rd., Jackson, CA 95642||6|
|Jamul Casino||14145 Campo Rd., Jamul, CA 91935||10|
|Kings Card Club||6111 W. Lane Suite 103, Stockton, CA 95210||3|
|La Fuerza Billiards||175 E. Antelope Ave., Woodlake, CA 93286||2|
|Lake Elsinore Casino||20930 Malaga Rd., Lake Elsinore, CA 92530||16|
|Larry Flynt's Lucky Lady Casino||1045 W. Rosecrans Ave., Gardena, CA 90247||24|
|Limelight Card Room||1014 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95816||3|
|Livermore Casino||3571 First St., Livermore, CA 94551||9|
|Lucky 7 Casino||350 N. Indian Rd., Smith River, CA 95567||4|
|Lucky Chances Casino||1700 Hillside Blvd., Colma, CA 94014||29|
|Lucky Lady Card Room||5526 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92115||5|
|Magnolia House Casino at Sheepherders Inn||11275 Folsom Blvd., Rancho Cordova, CA 95742||5|
|Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa||49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, CA 92230||13|
|Napa Valley Casino||3466 Broadway St., American Canyon, CA 94503||7|
|Oaks Card Club||4097 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville, CA 94608||35|
|Ocean's 11 Casino||121 Brooks St., Oceanside, CA 92054||50|
|Oceanview Casino||709 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060||3|
|Old Cayucos Tavern & Card Room||130 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, CA 93430||1|
|Outlaws Card Parlour||9850 E. Front St., Atascadero, CA 93422||4|
|Paiute Palace Casino||2742 N. Sierra Hwy., Bishop, CA 93514||2|
|Pala Casino||11154 Hwy. 76, Pala, CA 92059||13|
|Palace Poker Casino||22821 Mission Blvd., Hayward, CA 94541||11|
|Parkwest Casino 580||968 N. Canyons Pkwy., Livermore, CA 94551||2|
|Parkwest Casino Cordova||2801 Prospect Park Dr., Rancho Cordova, CA 95670||2|
|Parkwest Casino Lodi||1800 S. Cherokee Ln., Lodi, CA 95420||7|
|Parkwest Casino Lotus||6010 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95824||5|
|Parkwest Casino Sonoma||5151 Montero Way, Petaluma, CA 94954||9|
|Paso Robles Central Coast Casino||1144 Black Oak Dr., Paso Robles, CA 93446||6|
|Pechanga Resort Casino||45000 Pechanga Pkwy., Temecula, CA 92592||54|
|Pete's 881 Club||721 Lincoln Ave., San Rafael, CA 94901||4|
|Pinnacle Casino Bar & Grill||955 Front St., Soledad, CA 93960||4|
|Players Casino||6580 Auto Center Dr., Ventura, 93003||16|
|Poker Flats Casino||1714 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Merced, CA 95340||4|
|Quechan Casino||525 Algadones Rd., Winterhaven, CA 92283||8|
|Red Hawk Casino||1 Red Hawk Pkwy., Placerville, CA 95667||6|
|Rogelio's Dine and Sleep Inn||34 Main St., Isleton, CA 95641||4|
|San Manuel Casino||777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, CA 92346||38|
|San Pablo Lytton Casino||13255 San Pablo Ave., San Pablo, CA 94806||2|
|Seven Mile Casino||285 Bay Blvd., Chula Vista, CA 91910||9|
|Stars Casino||775 W. Clover Rd., Tracy, CA 95376||4|
|The Saloon at Stones Gambling Hall||6508 Antelope Rd., Citrus Heights, CA 95621||17|
|Sundowner Card Room||15638 Ave. 296, Visalia, CA 93292||2|
|Sycuan Casino||5469 Casino Way, El Cajon, CA 92019||19|
|Table Mountain Casino||8184 Table Mountain Rd., Friant, CA 93626||10|
|Tachi Palace Casino Resort||17225 Jersey Ave., Lemoore, CA 93245||7|
|Thunder Valley Casino||1200 Athens Ave., Lincoln, CA 95648||24|
|Tortoise Rock Casino||73829 Baseline Rd., Twentynine Palms, CA 92277||2|
|Towers Casino||115 Bank St., Grass Valley, CA 95945||5|
|Turlock Poker Room||2321 W. Main St., Suite C, Turlock, CA 95380||7|
|Twin Pine Casino & Hotel||22223 CA-29, Middletown, CA 95461||3|
|Win-River Resort & Casino||2100 Redding Rancheria Rd, Redding, CA 96001||7|
During the gold rush of the mid-19th century and afterward, hundreds of gaming houses were in operation up and down California, with poker among the most popular gambling games.
During the century’s later decades, prohibitions in various locations led to the closure of many houses, although stud poker continued to be especially popular. That led to more explicit laws against what was described as “stud-horse poker,” and it was that specific targeting of stud that later provided a kind of legal loophole for California card games.
In 1931, Nevada legalized gambling and, over the subsequent years, game the eventual building of casinos and card rooms. A little later in 1936, in California, a businessman named Ernie Primm opened a gambling club in tiny Gardena (not far from Los Angeles), where draw poker was a featured game.
There was a legal challenge, but Primm was able to point back to the earlier law that outlawed stud but said nothing about draw poker. The law specified that draw poker card rooms, like Primm’s, could operate as long as the community did not object, and thus over the following years, Primm and others opened more card rooms in Gardena, all of which again spread only draw poker.
The legal battles never really ceased, but over the middle decades of the 20th century, and to the start of the 1980s, Gardena became known throughout the country as the only legal alternative to Las Vegas and other rooms in Nevada for poker. The small city advertised itself as the “Poker Capital of the World,” and it wasn’t a total exaggeration.
The situation began to change in the 1980s when other communities started legalizing poker themselves, thus taking away Gardena’s special status.
By then, Texas Hold’em had started to become better-known thanks to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. California lawmakers interestingly argued over hold’em’s legality in part by raising the question of whether hold’em was a variant of draw poker (and legal to play) or a variant of stud poker (and, therefore, prohibited).
Finally, in 1987, both Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties settled the issue by legalizing stud and Texas Hold’em, a development that heralded the introduction of Vegas-style poker rooms to replace the smaller card clubs in terms of popularity. Soon those variants were made legal throughout the state as well.
The state’s first Native American casinos opened shortly thereafter, and by the time of the “poker room” of the mid-2000s, there were already about 100 legal card rooms operating in the state.
By the late 2000s, California lawmakers began introducing online poker legislation regularly. While the bills generated a lot of interest and hope among the state’s many poker players, none managed to garner enough support to move up the legislative ladder.
It was in early 2008 that Assemblyman Lloyd Levine introduced AB 2026, a bill that would charge regulators with studying the feasibility of California introducing intrastate online poker. The California Assembly Governmental Organization Committee passed the bill and was amended by both the Assembly and Senate, but stalled after that.
Near the end of 2009, Sen. Roderick Wright made known his intention to introduce an online gambling bill, and SB 1485 or the Internet Gambling Consumer Protection and Public-Private Partnership Act of 2010 appeared early the following year, though was withdrawn after encountering pushback from various groups.
Later in 2010, a couple of different alliances of California tribes formed the California Online Poker Alliance and the California Intertribal Intrastate Poker Consortium. While representing those groups’ interests, State Sen. Lou Correa introduced a new bill, SBSB 40, known as the State Funding, Job Creation and Online Gaming Accountability Act. Correa’s bill was revised and reconsidered during the following year, but it, too, eventually stalled.
Sen. Wright tried again in 2012 with SB 1463, also proposed with the tribes’ backing, but it failed as well, and by the end of the year, the tribes’ online poker alliance dissolved. New online poker bills from both Wright (SB 51) and Correa (SB 678) followed over the next year, though neither advanced.
In 2014, Correa introduced SB 1366, an online poker bill with a “bad actor” clause that would prohibit online poker sites that had served American players after 2006 from operating in California. Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced the similar AB 2291, though, in his bill, the bad actor question was left open. The California Assembly Governmental Organization Committee did hold a hearing to discuss the topic, but nothing further came from it.
In 2015, multiple online poker bills came from the state assembly, then a similar “shell” bill (AB 431) was co-authored by Assemblyman Adam Gray and Sen. Isadore Hall, though, it also stalled.
The “bad actor” question became a central sticking point over the next couple of years. The tribal coalition emerged to argue that PokerStars (that had served Californians post-2006 through Black Friday in April 2011) and its then-parent company Amaya be banned from operating in the state for 10 years. Meanwhile, PokerStars had established partnerships with other tribes in CA as well as some commercial rooms. The operator was lobbying for a shorter five-year ban or the payment of a cash penalty to enter the state.
Amid this furor, a new online poker bill from Assemblyman Gray made it out of committee, one including a five-year ban for “bad actors” but potentially worded in a way that could close such operators out permanently. It was understandably unfavorable for PokerStars and its partners. In any case, that bill never went further, and another legislative session ended with no online poker law.
Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer tried again in 2017 with AB 1677, a bill that left out the bad actor issue entirely. But it failed to move, and by year’s end, PokerStars’ partnership with California tribes ended.
In 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), thus bringing sports betting to the foreground and pushing online poker to the side. The continued divisions between interested parties lessened the momentum for online poker legislation even more.
For the first time in a decade, 2019 came and went without any online poker bills being proposed, and 2020 began without much interest being shown from lawmakers or other potential stakeholders.
After years of discussion over online poker, the prospect of legalizing sports betting has drawn attention away from the subject, meaning California poker players will likely be unable to play real money poker online in California in the near future.
Player liquidity would not be a problem for California, a state with more than three times the population of Pennsylvania and more than four times that of New Jersey — two states where online poker has been legalized. That said, until California can come together to legalize sports betting, including online sports betting sites, the prospect for legalizing online gambling, including online poker, will remain dim.
As noted, poker players have no shortage of live options in the state, as well as other forms of gambling like pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, casino-style games in the state’s many tribal casinos and the CA lottery. But for the near term at least, online poker sites will not be among those choices.