It’s no surprise that the golden state, being the most populous, as well as renowned for its liberal ways, is home to more licensed card rooms than any other state, including Nevada. These card rooms are not officially designated as casinos, and there are fewer of them than there were.

A number of years ago the state boasted over 150 card rooms, their number whittled down by 2013 to just eighty-eight. These rooms continue to play a vital role in a state where gambling is controlled but not suppressed.

There are also over fifty Indian casinos on reservation land, spread out across the state. These range in scale from small local operations, to full-blown Sin City style affairs with all the bells and whistles. Live poker has been legal here for over 100 years, and licensed since the mid-eighties.

Poker legend Antonio Esfandiari grew up in California, currently holder of the record for winner of the biggest prize in poker tournament history, beating 47 other players who each put up $1 million vying to win the $18 million first prize, in the Big One for One Drop back in 2012.

Is Online Gambling Legal in California

The only kind of licensed wagering one can partake in online within California at the present time is horse racing, with a number of sites such as TVG and Youbet offering options on this. But your options most likely won’t remain so limited for very much longer.

Things are changing pretty fast in California and there is widespread expectation that the state will move towards legislating online poker in the near future.

It’s not yet certain exactly how soon the state might move on this, or whether legislation will extend to online casinos as well as poker, but the word is that various parties within the state are following events in New Jersey with extremely close interest.

There have indeed been several failed attempts to legislate for online poker in the state. Competing interests from the card clubs and tribal casinos have been amongst the stumbling blocks to this legislation passing.

In the current climate, with changes afoot in New Jersey, Delaware and of course Nevada, there is fairly widespread expectation that the next effort may have better prospects. Some believe that within a little year, we could see state licensed online poker games in California. One noted lobbyist, David Quintana, has declared it as a coin flip, as to whether legislation passes this year.

The latest effort from State Senator Lou Correa [2] contains provision only for intrastate poker, and would only allow existing card rooms and Indian casinos to run online poker sites. This is the first proposal with backing from a large unified group of tribal casinos.

Anyone over 21 would be allowed to play within Californian borders under this proposal, while unlicensed play would qualify as a misdemeanor [3] , both for players and sites. This relatively minor punishment of a range of unlicensed online gaming would seem to open the doors to unlicensed operators of sports betting and casinos.

New licensed sites would also have to pay a $5 million licensing fee, which would be offset against later taxes taken on wagered monies.

There is no angle available for major sites such as Pokerstars in this proposed legislation, a bad actor clause similar to that enshrined in Nevadan law limits all new license holders to those who have never taken an illegal wager from a US citizen.

The question of whether gambling online in California is at the current time an illegal act is a somewhat complicated one, occupying a fuzzy area of the law. However, with a liberal approach governing gambling in the state, it appears unlikely that an individual caught wagering online would face prosecution. That does not equate to the activity being technically legal. In addition, such activity does of course contravene federal legislation such as the UIEGA of 2006.

Earlier initiatives to legislate have included proposals governing more widespread gambling, and this would likely occur in the fullness of time, in the wake of more limited legislation over poker play.

Read More State Laws

The Letter of the Law

First of all, anyone hoping to open a new physical venue for licensed gambling is likely to make slow progress; there is a moratorium on new card rooms until 2020. (As of 2021, no new card rooms have been added.)

For those keen legal minds amongst you who wish to scrutinize the fine print, the whole body of existing state law on gambling can be found here [4] .

Certain forms of gambling are illegal in the state, including craps, although as usual the Indian casinos have found workarounds. Greyhound racing is also not allowed in California, although pari-mutuel horse-racing is.

A state lottery exists, with over 20,000 retailers distributing tickets.

A state code revision from 2003 makes legal all home card games which are played, “in private homes or residences, in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player.” So provided you don’t take a rake or any other consideration, you should be fine on running a quiet little home poker game too.

Indian casinos have been allowed since a constitutional amendment was passed by popular vote in 2000. In the wake of this decision, individual tribes have applied for “compacts” with the state government. These govern the amount of tax payable, and determine a sharing of profits across tribes who do not possess casinos.

Some casinos have developed ingenious alternative forms of craps and roulette which fall within the letter of the law through utilizing cards for play, rather than the traditional dice and wheel associated with these two games.

Types of Legal and Regulated Card Clubs in Cali

While the card rooms specialize in poker, many of them do host other games such as California 21 (a player-as-bank version of blackjack), Pai Gow poker and others. Alterations such as California 21 are necessitated by a ruling outlawing games where the house pays and takes players’ bets. However, these games take a service fee per hand for running the game, and this novel form of rake can severely limit the profitability of such player banked games.

For a full list of licensed card rooms across California, look no further than this map-based guide [5] . One of the glitzier options, Casino M8trix in San Jose, certainly models itself after the Las Vegas casinos, and offers an impressive variety of Texas Hold’em, Omaha Hi/Lo and others including a version called “double hand” poker in which each player must form two “best hands”, one using five cards and one using just two, and must win both hands to rake the pot.

A twoplustwo thread from 2009 [6] debates the best options in Los Angeles, but far and away the best known and largest is the Commerce. This “card casino” can boast of being the biggest card room in the United States, as well as offering more Baccarat tables than any other venue in California. The Commerce offers an impressive variety of poker games, including Razz, Pot Limit Omaha and various forms of Stud Poker as well as Texas Hold’em.

For a venue outside of Sin City, the Commerce offers a great range of poker tournaments [7] , running the full gamut of buy-ins all the way up to a $10,000 buy-in with around a $6 million prize pool each year, the main event of the LA Poker Classic series.

Nowhere really lays it on as heavy as the Commerce for sheer action, with its 200 tables enough to keep every kind of player occupied. In case you do fancy a change of pace, or ambience, there are in fact another eight card rooms within a short drive. LA really is the place to be for poker.

The summer of 2013 has seen the card rooms close ranks in an effort to prepare for a significant shake up if and when legislation for online poker goes through. Austin Lee, spokesman for the newly formed “Communities for California Cardrooms” has allegedly already hired two notable LA lobbying firms, and commented in explanation that the anticipated legislation will bring with it “competitive issues” .

For a comprehensive list of the day’s poker tournaments, you have the people at to thank for this helpful guide.

Regulated Tribal Casinos

As for the rich selection of full-blown casinos to choose from on tribal land, just take a look at the scattering of red dots on this map [9] . There is certainly an abundance of options for reservation gaming across the state.

One of the top options amongst these must be the Barona Casino Resort [10] , featuring a hotel, fine dining and golf as well as over 2,000 slots and video poker machines, and 80 table games running up to $2 – $5 No Limit cash games. Players may call in by phone up to 90 minutes before arrival to reserve a seat at a game.

Barona has actually already set up its own online poker service [11] , providing strictly free roll play at this time. This is clearly an effort to build a user base now, in the hope of converting with its existing traffic into a real money site once the legal framework is in place.

Busts and Arrests

Venues masquerading as ordinary internet and copy shops periodically get shut down across California for functioning as online gambling havens, such as these three locations in Carson. These venues offer a form of sweepstake similar to online slots, and were first declared illegal by the Bureau of Gambling Control in 2012. There are thought to be over 300 such businesses running illicitly across the state.

A rather more serious spate of arrests took place in SoCal in 2013, related to an illegal gambling ring operated by Macho Sports [12] . It is said that fourteen of a total of eighteen arrests in relation to this operation were made within the state of California.

Officers had been wiretapping and working undercover in the group for over two years, and the owners are accused of illegally taking online bets from Californians via agents working out of Peru, of processing these payments using Californian bookies, and worst of all, of using violent methods to collect monies owed. The accused face charges of up to 20 years in jail, along with six figure fines.


California is a state with a long proud history of licensed gambling, and as such your options are many and varied. Principally, your choices are as follows.

You can partake in the state lottery, as well as various forms of bingo and raffle. You may wander down to a local horse track and place a wager, or even bet on races from the comfort of your home via state licensed online betting facilities. You may run a social card game of any sort you wish provided no rake or house consideration is taken.

For more serious action, take your pick from eighty-eight card rooms running across the state, and for the widest possible range of gaming options, head to one of over fifty Indian casinos dotted across the length and breadth of the golden state. If you feel like a detox after this venture, many of the reservations offer regular Powwows where alcohol and drug use is strictly prohibited.

If you’re looking for a bit of online gambling, while the only licensed option as of right now is horse racing, legislation for poker and other games shouldn’t be all that far away. If you want to keep to the letter of the law, just bide your time a little bit longer, and maybe lobby your local government to hurry things along.

Resourcs for This Article

  1. New Internet poker bill a poor bet, opponents say
  2. CA Bill SB 1485
  3. CA.Gov: California
    Gambling Laws and Regulations – 2012 Edition
  4. CA.Gov: Card Rooms List
  5. Best LA poker room for safety and action?
  6. Tournaments at the Commerce Casino
  7. California Casinos
  9. Law enforcement cracking down on Internet gambling operations in Southern California
  10. SoCal Arrests in “Violent” International Sports Gambling Ring

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