Legal California Gambling & Poker Laws

An Overview of Gambling Laws in the State Of California

California has a history of gambling going all the way back to the Gold Rush of the 1840’s. Today there is a thriving gambling ecosystem in place including horse racing, tribal casinos, poker rooms and lottery games. California is looking to the future, already enacting a bill to allow betting on horse races over the internet – and having bills come through looking to regulate online poker rooms too. This page is a comprehensive guide to California gambling laws.

First up below, you will find a quick-fire history and overview of gambling in the Golden State. Next is a run through of the different gambling formats, along with a note on the legality of each. After that a more detailed timeline of the laws affecting online gambling can be found – followed by a summary and a look at the future possibilities for gambling in this State.

California Gambling Laws – A Brief History

Unlike other States, gambling has been part of the landscape from the beginning in CA. Card-rooms, or ‘California Casinos’ as they are commonly known – have been around since the Gold-Rush days. These rooms offer player against player games including poker and some variations of blackjack and pai-gow poker in which the players take it in turns to be the ‘banker’.

Many card rooms have gone over the years, however there are still 38 throughout the State – the biggest is the famous Commerce Casino – which is home to some of the most prestigious poker tournaments in the World.

It took a while for other forms of gambling to catch up.

In 1933 Horse racing betting was added to the list of legal games. This has become another huge success story for the State, with 6 huge tracks and a number of off-track betting opportunities too. Fast forward to 2010 and this industry was given another huge boost when internet wagering also became legal – sparking interest from some major sports-book brands from around the world.

The CA lottery is huge, and has 10 different draws in addition to the colorful scratch-card games. This became legal in 1984.

Tribal casinos generate significant revenue – both for their own tribes and for state coffers. The development of these started in 2001, when a law known as ‘Proposition 1A’ was signed which enabled negotiation of deals (known as ‘compacts’) with the individual tribes. When you add together card rooms, tribal casinos and horse racing – California is fast approaching Nevada in terms of total gambling revenue.

There is currently a moratorium on new casinos until 2020, though moves are afoot to get the legislation through to make online poker a reality.

California Gambling Laws – Overview of Different Gambling Games

Casino Games: Yes, there is a huge choice of casinos in California spreading slots and table games. Roulette and Craps games are not allowed in this state (ball and dice games have specific bans), though some casinos get around this law using quirky hybrid rules where cards are used. Casinos are on tribal lands.

Online Casino Gambling: No, there is no regulated casino gambling at this time. This could be included in a bill that regulates poker, though concerns about the potential cannibalization of brick and mortar casino revenues make this more difficult to get an agreement on.

Live Poker: Yes, there are more than 38 of card rooms – also known as ‘California Casinos’. Live poker games have been a big draw in this state for many years. As in many other States, home poker games are considered to be within the law as long as no individual is making a profit from hosting the game.

Online Poker: No, there are no regulated poker sites that exist in California at this time. There have been various bills introduced over the last few years to move forwards legislation – and with 38,000,000 people this State is big enough to support a thriving poker economy of its own. There are potential tough decisions to be made on any bill, with the State and Tribal goals not always converging.

Sports Betting: Yes, only betting on Horse races is allowed, with on-track betting as well as from more than 100 permitted outlets and more recently online too.

Lottery Betting: Yes, this is big business in California, with more than 21,000 lottery outlets. There are a number of regular draws, alongside scratch-card games.

Bingo Games: Yes, bingo halls are big business throughout California, they are licensed and strictly regulated via the charity gambling statutes.

California Gambling Laws – Timeline of Key Statutes

There was plenty of gambling during the Gold Rush years – though this was absolutely unregulated and almost certainly crocked. Since this State’s inauguration in 1850 there have been card rooms spreading poker and other player against player games.  It was not until 1993 that other forms of gambling legislation started to become law.

The current Statutes are very detailed, including operating gambling devices (widely defined), housing gambling games or even promoting them – the core definition involves playing of certain games:

“Every person who deals, plays, or carries on, opens, or causes to be opened, or who conducts, either as owner or employee, whether for hire or not, any game of faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, rouge et noire, rondo, tan, fan-tan, seven-and-a-half, twenty-one, hokey-pokey, or any banking or percentage game played with cards, dice, or any device, for money, checks, credit, or other representative of value…” (From section 330).

Below is the legislative timeline for California gambling:

1933: A constitutional amendment legalizes betting on horse races, and industry that thrives in the Golden state to this day, with 6 racetracks and a large number of off track betting establishments. Later, betting on horse races over the internet would become legal too.

1984: Proposition 37 becomes law, creating the State lottery. This went on to become hugely successful with billions of dollars in prize money already distributed.

1988: The Federal ‘Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’ really started the casino gambling business moving in this State. Triggering the negotiation of ‘compacts’ with more than 50 tribes. The tribes started by offering bingo type games in establishments on their territories.

2000: Proposition 1A became law, fully legalizing casino gambling on tribal lands. This lead to the negotiation of individual compacts with the tribes covering the type and number of machines and table games they can run. Financial settlements were also individually negotiated including tax and the payments to other tribes who do not have casinos on their land.

2010: Residents are now able to bet on horse racing over the internet. While this is a small section of the overall gambling market, it does set a president for other forms of online gambling to follow.

2012: Various bills to legalize and regulate online poker are put before the California Senate, these include SB45, SB40 and SC1473. One sticking point with these bills is whether the tribes will have a role in licensing and regulating the online poker operators. There is also some debate about whether any ‘bad actor’ clause should be involved. Many of the operators who left the US after the UIGEA of 2006 would like this in place to stop those operations who continued operation after that date from receiving licenses.

2014: Two more bills AB2991 and SB1336 are introduced, it is not known how far these will go – however the appetite for regulated online poker is certainly increasing, thanks to successful launches of similar games in Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey.

California Gambling Laws – Summary and a Look to the Future

There is little doubt that California has one of the most liberal and progressive gambling environments in the US. The move online is being hotly anticipated by the software operators and the Brick and Mortar establishments who hope to be in line for a license. The large size of the Californian population means that some huge online tournaments and promotions will be able to run. Any future liquidity sharing deal with other regulated States could produce an even more enticing poker environment.

One major obstacle that will need to be overcome to reach this point is the involvement of the tribes. These groups have run casino gambling in California for many years and feel that they should be responsible for the online gambling licenses too. How this is worked out in terms of roles and taxation is unclear – and the fight to take a fair share of the pie from various sides could delay the passage of any legislation.

In the meantime, Californians are free to enjoy the right to gamble in just about every way possible.

Useful Resources:

Overview Of CA Gambling History

Legal Internet Horse Racing Betting News


Info on Proposition 1A