California Card Rooms

Card games have a special status in California – many gambling-related sections of the California Penal Code don’t apply to them as long as they’re banked by the players instead of the house. The relevant regulations were designed with privately-owned card rooms in mind, which were a part of the local gaming culture well before the government began regulating the gambling industry.

Unfortunately, as tribal gaming was introduced to the state and new federal regulations were passed, the law became convoluted. As a result, even experts can’t seem to agree on important issues, such as the legality of California-style blackjack or online poker play. Some of these contentious issues have been settled by the courts, while others still await resolution.

Card rooms fact sheet:

Texas Hold'em:Yes; all venues
Exotic poker variants:Yes; largest venues
Other games:Player-banked casino-style games
House-banked games:No
Largest card room:Commerce Casino
Number of venues:88

Privately-owned card rooms

According to the January 2018 report published by the California Gaming Control Commission, there are 88 licensed non-tribal card rooms operating within California state lines. These venues focus predominantly on competitive poker games, such as Texas Hold’em or Omaha. Some of the bigger establishments also offer niche poker variants, such as Stud or Razz.

The available stakes are usually determined by the size of the card room. Small, pub-like businesses tend to stick to low-stakes games, while larger venues also allow their customers to experience medium- and high-stakes action.

The largest non-tribal card rooms operate significantly more poker tables than even the biggest tribal casinos, including the Pechanga Resort & Casino (54 poker tables) and Thunder Valley Casino (50 poker tables). They also tend to contain the word “casino” in their names.

For example, Commerce Casino, the largest poker venue in the entire state, houses 270 tables and hosts annual televised World Poker Tour events. Other major hotspots on California’s poker map include Hawaiian Gardens Casino (225 tables), the Bicycle Hotel & Casino (185 tables), Hollywood Park Casino (120 tables), and Hustler Casino (91 tables).

In 2001, California card rooms were also allowed to operate card games that are typically associated with casinos, such as blackjack or pai gow poker. The caveat is that these games must be banked by the players instead of the house. Card games that adhere to this standard are often referred to as California or Asian games.

These games might soon disappear from the card rooms. The local tribal casinos have always maintained that the card rooms infringe on their exclusive rights to offer casino-style games. In September 2018, California’s Bureau of Gambling Control decided to act on these complaints, warning card rooms of its plans to revoke approvals on all casino-style games, including blackjack.

Austin Lee, executive director of Communities for California Cardrooms, noted that this crackdown is likely to force many card rooms to adjust their operations, which might carry negative consequences for municipalities that depend on them for revenue. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but it’s possible that the pre-2018 status quo will not be maintained.

Home games legality

California’s card game regulations include an exception for home games, which are entirely legal as long as they aren’t open or conducted in public, no rake is involved, and nobody files a complaint.

Online poker in California

The battle for regulated internet poker in California began in 2008, with politicians from both parties undertaking sixteen attempts at passing Nevada-style regulations. Unfortunately, each of these legislative pushes failed, and in 2018, the issue wasn’t pursued any further in the Assembly or the Senate.

Given the fact that the national debate over gambling shifted to sports betting after Supreme Court struck down the PASPA ban, it’s more than likely that the window of opportunity to pass new poker-friendly regulations in California has closed.

At the moment, California businesses are banned from operating online poker sites. This prohibition was challenged by the Nation of Santa Ysabel tribe, which launched an internet bingo site called Desert Rose Bingo to test the waters before committing any serious resources to the development of its own online poker platform.

The tribe argued that the gambling compact signed with the state gives it complete authority over Class II and Class III games, but this wasn’t enough to convince the court. In a 2018 ruling, Ninth Circuit Judge Carlos T. Bea stated that the act of placing bets on sites like Desert Rose Bingo from within the borders of California violates the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and ordered the site to be shut down permanently.

From a player’s standpoint, the situation is more complicated. Many offshore poker networks accept California-based poker enthusiasts, but playing on such platforms might constitute a violation of Penal Code Section 330. Unfortunately, the relevant regulations are so confusing that even legal experts can’t reach an agreement on them.

For example, Nelson Rose, who is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on gambling laws, believes that playing poker is not a crime in California because internet poker games don’t meet the definition of a banking or percentage game, while Chuck Humphrey points out that this conclusion might be incorrect because online poker rooms take a percentage rake.

Sweepstakes-based vs. traditional poker networks

Californians looking to try online poker need to stick to social gaming platforms and sweepstakes-based sites if they want to err on the side of safety. The difference between the two boils down to the rewards that are available to players.

Social sites shower their players with virtual items, while sweepstakes-based sites hand out premium currency packs with every play money bundle. This premium currency can then be used for playing on designated tables and can later be exchanged for real money rewards. From a legal standpoint, the premium currency doesn’t hold any inherent real-world value, which means that sweepstakes sites’ customers don’t violate any federal or state laws.

Poker sites that follow the sweepstakes model shouldn’t be considered a substitute for traditional internet poker networks as the promotions they offer are typically limited to Facebook giveaways. Nevertheless, they provide Americans who have no access to legal real-money platforms with an opportunity to turn a profit and hone their skills in a more serious setting.