Gaining an understanding of the legal framework surrounding poker and gambling in California is important for individuals interested in participating. California maintains a relatively strict approach to gambling and has prohibited the majority of betting activities. Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize exceptions and areas that are not clearly defined, particularly for poker players.
We provide a concise summary of California gambling and poker state laws, providing insights into the definition of gambling, the legality of online poker, and other details to keep you well-informed.
|State Code Section(s)||PEN.1.9.10330-337; BPC.4-5|
|Gambling Definition||Engaging in any controlled game, including dealing, operating, conducting, maintaining, or facilitating such activities, constitutes gambling.|
|Definition of Banking Game or Banked Game||A banking game or banked game is not considered a controlled game if its publicly available and the rules include a player-dealer position that must be regularly and systematically rotated among all participants, restrict the player-dealer’s potential losses or gains to a predetermined and limited amount, and prohibit the house, any other entity, players, or observers from acting as the bank during the game.|
|Online Poker/Gambling||Over a span of 10 years (2006-2016), legislators examined different versions of online poker bills but were unable to secure their passage in both chambers. Despite attempts to accommodate various special interests during this period, the tribes and card rooms were unable to reach a consensus on the inclusion of “bad actor” provisions. Eventually, lawmakers abandoned their efforts in 2016 due to the absence of viable compromises, and the issue has not been revisited since then.|
|Live Poker||More than 100 licensed card rooms across the state, as well as casinos located on Indian reservations, are authorized to host live cash games and tournaments. However, counties with significant populations have specific regulations in place for draw poker, requiring approval from the voters.|
|Casinos||Apart from card rooms that provide non-house-banked games such as poker and California blackjack, there are casinos situated on different Indian reservations across the state. These casinos typically offer a comprehensive range of amenities, including table games, slot machines, as well as other popular games like keno and bingo.|
|Sports Betting|| A bill that was proposed in 2017 with the aim of legalizing sports betting was still under consideration during the 2018 session; however, it had not been successfully passed.|
|DFS||In 2016, there were deliberations in California regarding daily fantasy sports, but no legislation was enacted, and there have been no subsequent proposals on the matter.|
|Other Forms of Gambling||The forms of gambling permitted include the lottery, horse wagering through pari-mutuel betting, and charitable gambling.|
Can I Play Online Poker in California?
Yes, you can play online poker in California. The state does not have laws specifically prohibiting online poker, and many offshore poker sites accept players from California.
Poker & Gambling in California
As mentioned above, the legislature around online gambling in California is a little unclear, but we’re gonna do our best to lay it all out for everyone. So, California Penal Code 330 PC prohibits two main types of gambling games – banking games and percentage games. Banking games are games where the player plays against the house, such as blackjack or baccarat, and percentage games are games where the house collects a certain percentage of the amount won, such as poker.
This pretty clearly states that playing poker in California is illegal. However, poker games do not fall under prohibited gambling games as long as they’re not being conducted for profit. So, if the house isn’t taking a rake, then the games are legal. This means that home games where no rake is taken are perfectly legal in California.
Online Poker Laws in California
While that’s all well and good, what about online poker? Well, the references to online poker or online gambling in general are few and far between, making it unclear as to whether or not the same laws apply to bets made online. In fact, the only reference we could find to online gambling in the California legislation is the following section from Section 339.6. Unlawful bets, wagers or betting pools; exclusions:
“(a) Notwithstanding Section 337a, and except as provided in subdivision (b), any person who, not for gain, hire, or reward other than that at stake under conditions available to every participant, knowingly participates in any of the ways specified in paragraph (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6) of subdivision (a) of Section 337a in any bet, bets, wager, wagers, or betting pool or pools made between the person and any other person or group of persons who are not acting for gain, hire, or reward, other than that at stake under conditions available to every participant, upon the result of any lawful trial, or purported trial, or contest, or purported contest, of skill, speed, or power of endurance of person or animal, or between persons, animals, or mechanical apparatus, is guilty of an infraction, punishable by a fine not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250).(b) Subdivision (a) does not apply to either of the following situations:
(1) Any bet, bets, wager, wagers, or betting pool or pools made online.
(2) Betting pools with more than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) at stake.”
There’s quite a lot to unpack here, so let’s break it down. The main paragraph explains that any person who places a bet on the outcome of any trial or contest of skill, speed, or power of endurance between two people can be subject to a $250 fine. Given that poker is a contest of skill between people, it’s likely that it falls under this bracket.
However, the paragraph starts with “except as provided in subdivision (b),” which then goes on to give the exclusion “Any bet, bets, wager, wagers, or betting pool or pools made online.” Essentially, excluding any bets made online from being punishable under the Unlawful Bets, Wagers, or Betting Pools subsection.
You can see why it’s confusing, as this is the only mention of online gambling made in the legislation! This leaves online poker in a bit of a grey area in California, and allows for players to engage in the activity at offshore sites.
Will California Legalize Online Poker soon?
However, attempts have been made to legalize online poker in the past. In 2016, Assembly Bill 2863 was introduced to the State Assembly – a bill that would legalize online poker. While the bill did make progress through the assembly, it came up against opposition in the form of the horse racing industry due to their perceived threats over their pari-mutuel pool, as well as from state tribes over the “bad actor” provision.
While lawmakers were able to overcome the opposition from the horse racing industry, they were unable to allay the fears of the “bad actor” provision, and the bill ultimately failed. The bill was not taken up again in 2017, and while the legislation remains under active consideration, it has not been picked up again.
This means it’s unlikely that we’ll see online poker legalized in California anytime soon, but many advocates of online poker in the US continue for the game to be legalized in the state. As it’s one of the largest economies in the US, it would be a big win for the online poker community if it became legal in the state. However, players can still access offshore online poker sites if they wish to hone their skills.
Alternative Ways to Play Poker in California
While real money online poker is illegal in California, there are ways that residents can enjoy these games while staying on the right side of the law. Sweepstakes Poker takes advantage of a legal loophole that allows players to play for real money.
For those of you who haven’t come across Sweepstakes Poker before, it’s a form of online poker which is played with a virtual currency, which can be redeemed for real money. When you play at one of these Sweepstakes Poker sites, you must purchase the virtual currency to start playing. Once you’ve bought your virtual currency, you can use it to play the poker games offered on the site. Then, once you’ve finished playing, you can redeem that currency for cash.
It manages to sidestep any regulations that forbid people from making real money bets, as the virtual currency used to play poker is not considered legal tender. Sites like Global Poker use this loophole to offer “real money” games to Californians and players all over the US.
The legal state of online poker in California is complicated to say the least. While there are scant references to online gambling in the state’s legislation, online gambling is still considered illegal in California. However, residents can still play online poker for real money by accessing offshore sites or by playing Sweepstakes Poker.
Despite the stalling of bills that could legalize online poker in California, we remain optimistic that one day we’ll see online poker back in the Golden State, so subscribe to Tight Poker to stay up to date with all the latest goings on in the world of online poker.