California Casinos

Legal casino-style games in California are available exclusively in tribal casinos and, to some extent, in local card rooms. Gambling outside designated facilities is illegal, as outlined in California Penal Code Section 330 et seq.

The definition of unlawful gambling is enumerative to some extent but ultimately has an open nature. Thus, local courts can apply the regulations to games that were not popular enough to attract the attention of lawmakers when the law was being drafted.

This prohibition poses serious implications for individual gamblers as the very act of participating in an illegal game of chance constitutes a violation of Section 330. The relevant passage reads as follows:

“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, and every person who plays or bets at or against any of those prohibited games, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Engaging in unlawful gambling is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Casinos fact sheet:

Table games:Yes. Roulette and craps are played with cards.
Other games:Bingo and poker
Online games:Not legal
Largest casino:Pechanga Resort and Casino

Tribal casinos

Native American casinos operate under compacts between individual tribes and the state, which were signed in accordance with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. While the IGRA was passed in 1988, tribal gaming wasn’t introduced to California until the early noughties because the Golden State used to have a constitutional ban on casino-style gambling, which was only lifted in 2000.

Tribal venues are allowed to offer banked games, such as poker and blackjack, as well as slots and bingo. Roulette and craps are played with cards in California as local regulations prohibit casinos from relying exclusively on dice or roulette wheels to determine game outcomes.

As of January 2019, there are 69 tribal casinos operating in California, with over 70,000 slots installed across their gaming floors. Most of these venues offer around 1,000 games, so they are significantly smaller than their Las Vegas counterparts. However, several Indian tribes operate larger casino resorts, which give their customers access to 2,000+ slots and dozens of table games.

The biggest tribal casinos are located in Temecula (Pechanga Resort & Casino), Highland (San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino), Lincoln (Thunder Valley Casino), Cabazon (Morongo Casino Resort and Spa), Brooks (Cache Creek), Pala (Pala Casino Resort & Spa), Placerville (Red Hawk Casino), Alpine (Viejas Casino and Turf Club), and Lakeside (Baron Resort & Casino).

Casino games in card rooms

Non-tribal card rooms that operate in California are best known for their poker games. However, in 2001, card rooms were authorized by the state to offer other card games under the condition that they’re be banked by players instead of the house. Thus, many of these venues now host games like blackjack or pai gow poker with a rotating dealer, which are often referred to as California or Asian games.

Understandably, the local tribes have long maintained that card rooms that offer such entertainment infringe on their monopoly to operate casino-style games. In September 2018, the tribes’ lobbying efforts met with some success as California’s Bureau of Gambling Control warned the card rooms about its plans to initiate a crackdown on casino-style games. The BGC also declared its intention to uphold the regulations for California and Asian card games.

The consequences of this development are yet to be seen, but it’s likely that the pre-2018 status quo will be disrupted.

Online casinos

As mentioned, casino-style games are banned in California unless they’re operated by licensed local businesses, namely tribal casinos or card rooms. These businesses aren’t allowed to offer their services over the internet, as evidenced by the Desert Rose Bingo case.

Desert Rose Bingo was an online bingo site launched by the Nation of Santa Ysabel tribe, which maintained that it had the right to offer Class II and Class III games online because the compact signed with the state gave it authority over these forms of gambling.

The judge ruled against the tribe and ordered the site to be shut down permanently, noting that the act of placing a bet on Desert Rote Bingo while located in California constituted a violation of the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

California authorities cannot shut down offshore casino sites based in Antigua or Panama, but playing on such platforms likely violates the general California gambling ban.

According to California Penal Code Section 330, the act of betting anything of value on “any banking or percentage game played with (…) any device” is a misdemeanor, and demonstrating that a computer with an internet connection doesn’t meet the definition of a device of any kind could prove to be a daunting task.

Sweepstakes-based sites vs. online casinos

Sweepstakes-based casinos can be described as a hybrid between real-money gambling sites and social gaming sites. The games they offer can be played exclusively using virtual currencies, which don’t directly correspond to any real-world currency like on Chumba Casino. The currency must be purchased with real money.

The clever part is that each basic bundle comes with a premium currency bonus, which is technically free. The player can spend this premium currency on USD rewards, which is similar to a standard cash-out. Because virtual currencies don’t carry any inherent real-world value, the player doesn’t violate any federal or California-specific laws.

The biggest downside of sweepstakes-based casinos is the fact that the promotions they offer are limited to Facebook giveaways, which makes it harder to come out ahead. Thus, such platforms shouldn’t be treated as a serious alternative to real internet casinos. They’re more like social sites that allow their customers to experience the thrill of winning real money prizes in a casino setting at an affordable price.