Is Online Poker Legal In California 2018?

By Brian Mickers

Looking to play online poker in California? We discuss the legal implications of playing poker online in the United States with a focus on California in 2018.

What Do We Mean By Legal Anyway?

In order to answer this question properly, we have to at least look to define what we mean by whether online poker is legal or not. When we wonder about this generally, for instance, whether stealing cars is legal or not (although few people really wonder about that), it comes down to requiring a couple of things in effect.

The first is whether there are clear and explicit legal sanctions connected with it or case law that would suggest it is being legally prohibited. The second is the question of enforcement, without which the whole matter becomes for all practical purposes a moot question.

Prohibition Versus Regulation

With regard to the first question, this would require regulations passed by government bodies which either clearly prohibit online poker or at least cast some doubt as to its legality. As far as the second part of this goes, an example of this would be legislation banning gambling in general, with the question of whether online poker fits into the category still being open to interpretation.

This is entirely separate from questions of regulation, which a lot of people seem to get confused about. Prohibition would involve explicitly making something illegal, like possessing certain drugs. If we are wondering whether a certain substance is illegal to possess, we can just look it up to see. Any substance not mentioned, like possessing bottled water, would be excluded by its not being on the list.

Regulation, on the other hand, looks to allow certain things but limit the way they can be used. The sale of alcohol is an example of regulation. It is legal but only under certain circumstances, such as being sold in licensed establishments and to those of age.

Does Prohibition Prevail Right Now In The United States?

The first thing we need to ask is whether online gambling is prohibited by law in the United States. For quite a number of years, the Department of Justice held that it was, by virtue of the Federal Wire Act, originally designed to use against bookies by charging them for communicating bets across state lines by wire transmission (thus the name).

The Federal Court of Appeals ruled against this interpretation over 10 years ago and in fact clearly stated that this law did not apply to online poker at all. Still, the DoJ clung to its belief that this law applied to online poker anyway, and used it as the cornerstone of the charges it laid against offshore poker companies on Black Friday and on other occasions.

The DoJ Finally Listens To Reason

Recently though they ended up recanting their stance here and now have admitted that the federal court was correct in their ruling. This serves to remove the last vestiges of any federal law prohibiting online poker in any way. Even the UIGEA required this law as its basis, as it only applies to unlawful gambling, and does not make it unlawful in itself.

There are states which have legislation which may at least be seen to make online poker illegal, and in some cases, such as the in the state of Washington, it is explicitly illegal. So the answer to our question is that online poker is legal in the United States generally but may or may not be legal in your state. It is legal in most states though since most states do not have legislation prohibiting it.

What About Online Poker Regulation?

Regulated online poker is live in three states.  It went live in Nevada on April 30, 2013.  Delaware launched online poker and casino games on October 31, 2013.  New Jersey rolled out online poker and casino games on November 21, 2013.

The California Legislature is considering two bills at this time.  Both would regulated online poker, but casino games would remain illegal.  The online poker bill under consideration in 2016 is AB 2683, introduced by Adam Gray and Reggie Jones-Sawyer.

There are several offshore poker sites that accept California online poker players.  These sites are not licensed to operate in California.  It is not illegal to play on them, but there is some concern about whether payouts can be made due to payment processing limitations.  Some sites have been known to outright scam players.

The Practical Side Of Things

A lot of players worry about the practical side, with good reason in fact. The first part of this is to look at the consequences of being in violation of a law. So we’ll say you live in Louisiana or Washington where they have made it very clear that playing online poker is illegal. So what does this mean anyway?

The bottom line here is that if people aren’t being charged under this law, and there seems to be no intention by the authorities to do so, then this may not even be of concern to players.

Only laws that are enforced have any practical meaning. Sure, they could have a change of heart and start cracking down at some time in the future, and players who insist on playing online poker in contravention of this law would be taking such a risk, but generally, there is ample warning here, so this risk may be seen as pretty low.

Players Also Have To Worry About Government’s Long Arm

There’s also the practical consequence of having your funds get caught up in the wrestling matches we’ve seen between U.S. authorities and offshore poker companies, such as what happened during Black Friday. This can at best be a major inconvenience, and there’s always been the possibility of players not getting their money back.  Absolute Poker, one of Black Friday’s targets, stiffed players for an estimated $45-$50 million.

As we have seen, the DoJ doesn’t need a whole lot of justification to do things like this, and the whole Black Friday operation ran counter to the ruling of the higher courts. However, that didn’t stop them as we know, as all of this was, in essence, a power play and the people involved did not even live in the U.S. and were not subject in any way to U.S. law.

Could we see something similar happen again? Anything is possible, although the U.S. market has been pretty decimated, and there aren’t any big players left like Poker Stars and Full Tilt to teach a lesson to. In spite of the retraction of the Wire Act’s application to online poker, the DoJ has made a few relatively feeble attempts to attack some of the remaining poker sites still offering play to Americans, but these attacks were thwarted pretty easily and there didn’t seem to be the same zeal behind it from the government side as we’ve seen in the past.

What Should U.S. Players Do About All This?

It’s hard to be too critical of those who have simply chosen to step aside and wait. People have a right to do whatever they want, and I respect all of their decisions. What I do look to do is to try to get people more informed about what’s going on, and therefore help them make more informed decisions.

With all of the propaganda and misinformation that we have had thrown at us both the government and a pretty confused public, it is understandable that online poker has seen such a huge decline. When you throw in the difficult circumstances that so many poker players have had to endure from the events of Black Friday, that added considerably to the bleakness and confusion.

As time goes on, we can only hope that more light will shine upon this situation. I am encouraged that more and more U.S. players are picking themselves off their feet and getting back in the game, but the current numbers still are only a small shadow of what once was. We’ll have to see how things evolve in the next few years before we can get a real picture of whether the online poker scene in the United States will ever be able to recapture its former glory.

Authors Note: This article is not legal advice, we believe we have created a thorough resource on the subject but we are not lawyers and we encourage site visitors to do their own research before deciding to play online.