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California Online Poker

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.

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Is online poker legal 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.

Will California regulate online poker?

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.

How to play online poker in California

With no real money online poker available, players in California do have alternatives in sweepstakes online poker sites and social online casinos. 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 casinos a sweeps poker 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.

What about offshore poker sites? Are they safe?

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.

California poker laws

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-bankedgames. 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.

Are home poker games legal in California?

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 card rooms

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
500 Club Casino
771 W. Shaw Ave., Clovis, CA 93612
Agua Caliente Casino
32-250 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
Artichoke Joe's Casino
659 Huntington Ave., San Bruno, CA 94066
The Aviator Casino
1225 Airport Dr., Delano, CA 93215
Bankers Casino
111 Monterey St., Salinas, CA 93901
Barona Resort & Casino
1932 Wildcat Canyon Rd., Lakeside, CA 92040
Bay 101 Casino
1788 N. First St., San Jose, CA 95112
Bear River Casino
11 Bear Paws Way, Loleta, CA 95551
The Bicycle Hotel & Casino
888 Bicycle Casino Dr., Bell Gardens, CA 90201
Black Oak Casino
19400 Tuolumne Rd. North, Tuolumne, CA 95379
Blue Lake Casino
777 Casino Way, Blue Lake, CA 95525
Cache Creek Casino
14455 Highway 16, Brooks, CA 95606
California Grand Casino
5988 Pacheco Blvd., Martinez, CA 94553
Capitol Casino
411 N. 16th St., Sacramento, CA 95811
Casino 99
175 E. 20th St., Chico, CA 95928
Casino Chico
968 E. Ave., Chico, CA 95926
Casino Club
1885 Hilltop Dr., Redding, CA 96002
Casino M8trix
1887 Matrix Blvd., San Jose, CA 95110
Casino Marysville
515 4th St., Marysville, CA 95901
Casino Merced
1459 Martin Luther King Jr. Way #5, Merced, CA 95340
Casino Monterey Marina Club
204 Carmel Ave., Marina, CA 93933
Casino Pauma
777 Pauma Reservation Rd., Pauma Valley, CA 92061
Casino Real
1355 N. Main St., Manteca, CA 95336
Central Coast Casino
359 W. Grand Ave., Grover Beach, CA 93433
Chumash Casino Resort
3400 CA-246, Santa Ynez, CA 93460
Club One Casino
1033 Van Ness Ave., Fresno, CA 93721
Colusa Casino Resort
3770 CA-45, Colusa, CA 95932
Commerce Casino
6131 E. Telegraph Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90040
Coyote Valley Casino
7751 N. State St., Redwood Valley, CA 95470
Crystal Casino
123 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, CA 90220
Diamond Jim's Casino
118 20th St. W., Rosamond, CA 93560
Diamond Mountain Casino
900 Skyline Dr., Susanville, CA 96130
The Deuce Lounge & Casino
30435 Road 68, Visalia, CA 93291
Eagle Mountain Casino
681 S. Tule Rd., Porterville, CA 93258
Elk Valley Casino
2500 Howland Hill Rd., Crescent City, CA 95531
Empire Sportsmen's Association
5001 McHenry Ave., Modesto, CA 95356
Feather Falls Casino
3 Alverda Dr., Oroville, CA 95966
FLB Entertainment Center
511 E. Bidwell St., Folsom, CA 95630
The Gardens Casino
11871 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, CA 90716
Garlic City Club
8630 San Ysidro Ave. #100, Gilroy, CA 95020
Golden West Casino
1001 S. Union Ave., Bakersfield, CA 93307
Graton Resort & Casino
288 Golf Course Dr. W., Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Harrah's Resort Southern California
777 Harrah's Resorts Southern California Way, Valley Center, CA 92082
Hollywood Park Casino
3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90303
Hotel Del Rio & Casino
209 2nd St., Isleton, CA 95641
Hustler Casino
1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247
Jackson Rancheria Casino
12222 New York Ranch Rd., Jackson, CA 95642
Jamul Casino
14145 Campo Rd., Jamul, CA 91935
Kings Card Club
6111 W. Lane Suite 103, Stockton, CA 95210
La Fuerza Billiards
175 E. Antelope Ave., Woodlake, CA 93286
Lake Elsinore Casino
20930 Malaga Rd., Lake Elsinore, CA 92530
Larry Flynt's Lucky Lady Casino
1045 W. Rosecrans Ave., Gardena, CA 90247
Limelight Card Room
1014 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95816
Livermore Casino
3571 First St., Livermore, CA 94551
Lucky 7 Casino
350 N. Indian Rd., Smith River, CA 95567
Lucky Chances Casino
1700 Hillside Blvd., Colma, CA 94014
Lucky Lady Card Room
5526 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92115
Magnolia House Casino at Sheepherders Inn
11275 Folsom Blvd., Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa
49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, CA 92230
Napa Valley Casino
3466 Broadway St., American Canyon, CA 94503
Oaks Card Club
4097 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville, CA 94608
Ocean's 11 Casino
121 Brooks St., Oceanside, CA 92054
Oceanview Casino
709 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Old Cayucos Tavern & Card Room
130 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, CA 93430
Outlaws Card Parlour
9850 E. Front St., Atascadero, CA 93422
Paiute Palace Casino
2742 N. Sierra Hwy., Bishop, CA 93514
Pala Casino
11154 Hwy. 76, Pala, CA 92059
Palace Poker Casino
22821 Mission Blvd., Hayward, CA 94541
Parkwest Casino 580
968 N. Canyons Pkwy., Livermore, CA 94551
Parkwest Casino Cordova
2801 Prospect Park Dr., Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
Parkwest Casino Lodi
1800 S. Cherokee Ln., Lodi, CA 95420
Parkwest Casino Lotus
6010 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95824
Parkwest Casino Sonoma
5151 Montero Way, Petaluma, CA 94954
Paso Robles Central Coast Casino
1144 Black Oak Dr., Paso Robles, CA 93446
Pechanga Resort Casino
45000 Pechanga Pkwy., Temecula, CA 92592
Pete's 881 Club
721 Lincoln Ave., San Rafael, CA 94901
Pinnacle Casino Bar & Grill
955 Front St., Soledad, CA 93960
Players Casino
6580 Auto Center Dr., Ventura, 93003
Poker Flats Casino
1714 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Merced, CA 95340
Quechan Casino
525 Algadones Rd., Winterhaven, CA 92283
Red Hawk Casino
1 Red Hawk Pkwy., Placerville, CA 95667
Rogelio's Dine and Sleep Inn
34 Main St., Isleton, CA 95641
San Manuel Casino777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, CA 92346
San Pablo Lytton Casino
13255 San Pablo Ave., San Pablo, CA 94806
Seven Mile Casino
285 Bay Blvd., Chula Vista, CA 91910
Stars Casino
775 W. Clover Rd., Tracy, CA 95376
The Saloon at Stones Gambling Hall
6508 Antelope Rd., Citrus Heights, CA 95621
Sundowner Card Room
15638 Ave. 296, Visalia, CA 93292
Sycuan Casino
5469 Casino Way, El Cajon, CA 92019
Table Mountain Casino
8184 Table Mountain Rd., Friant, CA 93626
Tachi Palace Casino Resort
17225 Jersey Ave., Lemoore, CA 93245
Thunder Valley Casino
1200 Athens Ave., Lincoln, CA 95648
Tortoise Rock Casino
73829 Baseline Rd., Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
Towers Casino
115 Bank St., Grass Valley, CA 95945
Turlock Poker Room
2321 W. Main St., Suite C, Turlock, CA 95380
Twin Pine Casino & Hotel
22223 CA-29, Middletown, CA 95461
Win-River Resort & Casino
2100 Redding Rancheria Rd, Redding, CA 96001

California poker timeline

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.

Birth of the California card club

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.

Hold’em and stud made legal; poker explodes in popularity

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.

Early online poker battles

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.

More bills and a tribal alliance

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.

Further conflicts including over the ‘bad actor’ issue

In 2014, Correa introduced SB 1366, an online poker bill with a “bad actorclause 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.

Focus is taken away from online poker

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.

What does the future hold for California online poker?

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.

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Bart Shirley

Bart Shirley is the managing editor of evergreen content for PlayUSA. He’s been writing and reporting on the gambling industry since 2013. Prior to working for PlayUSA, Shirley was a feature writer for QuadJacks, a site covering issues in poker. He also writes for BonusCodePoker, a poker satire site that lampoons the lighter side of card games. Shirley is a graduate of the MBA program at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business and has a degree in English from Texas A&M University. He grew up in Houston, TX, and lives in Katy, just west of Houston. Shirley is also a former high school teacher. He is married, has one daughter, and practices Brazilian jiu jitsu in his spare time.

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