California Casinos and Gambling

Short Summary:  California is fairly liberal when it comes to gambling laws.  In addition to allowing players do whatever they want, (including playing online) the state has legal and regulated charitable gambling, live and simulcast racing wagering, card rooms and lottery.  The only thing they presently lack are sports books, any regulated form of online gambling and, if you want slots or video poker, you have to go to an Indian casino.

California is an odd state in that it licenses and regulates card rooms, but then it does not allow those places to have any machines. However, there are tribal casinos in the state for the purposes of anyone who wants to play machines. Fortunately for those looking for a long stay, Las Vegas and/or Lake Tahoe are not a far drive for most Californians, so if you want to get all of your gaming done in one place, there you go.

The following forms of gambling are legal in California:

  • Charitable
  • Pari-Mutuel
  • Lottery
  • Commercial
  • Tribal
  • Racetracks

While there have been several pushes to legalize and regulate online poker, and to a lesser extent other forms of online gambling in the state, none of them have been successful as of yet. They tend to either die a Legislative death or otherwise be outright rejected. Given all of the other legal forms of gambling in the state, it is somewhat baffling that this continues to happen.

California is basically reasonable when it comes to charitable gambling. Any organization may conduct a raffle anytime that it likes, whereas bona fide non-profits can become licensed to conduct bingo operations. Charities are also permitted to have, “Monte Carlo,” casino nights, though state law does limit them to one of those per year. If the charitable non-profit has its own physical location (as opposed to renting one) then it may have up to four casino nights per year.

The state does not appear to tax any charitable gaming revenues whatsoever.

The state offers live and simulcast pari-mutuel betting or can, through its racetracks. This is all governed and regulated by the California Horse Racing Board and the State of California has about ten racetracks. These racetracks offer both live and simulcast wagering and can operate 365 days per year, as a result, even on days that there are no races going on.

The lottery is regulated by the State of California and is known as the, “California Lottery,” which is technically a division of the California Gambling Control Commission, which is also responsible for regulating the card rooms in the state. The card rooms are the form of commercial gambling that takes place within the state.

There are also tribal casinos in the state who offer machines and work with the state of California by means of compacts. These locations are different from the card rooms in that they offer electronic gambling devices, whereas the card rooms focus on table games and poker.

The card rooms of California are also unique because they do not have a house edge. The games do, but the card rooms charge a flat fee per hand to the players and do not have a house edge because they are legally prohibited from doing so by law. The way it works is that players can theoretically take turns offering to, “Bank,” the game, which means they act as the house covering all of the bets for the other players at the table. The card room itself gets it’s per hand fees from all of the players at the table, including the one banking.

As a practical matter, California card rooms usually have, “Corporations,” which are essentially players who are hired and are there for the purpose of banking every hand. While other players must be given the option to bank, technically, usually these corporations are the only ones there able and willing to cover all of the action. This also allows the game to proceed smoothly in a manner more similar to Vegas casinos, but still not exactly.

Live Poker is inherently a player-banked game, so the California card rooms take a rake of the poker pots as they would in any poker room anywhere else in the country.

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California Online Gaming Law

In terms of unlawful gambling, which is any form of gambling not specifically authorized by the state, the only penalties that exist would apply to operators and not mere players. While it would be a very bad idea to own/operate an online casino from within the State of California, there is nothing that exists within the state’ laws that would make it illegal for a player to be playing at an online casino.

California has been pretty aggressive at targeting operators of illegal forms of gambling in the past, mainly because they have so many regulated forms of gambling that it is simply a matter of protecting their business interests.

One thing that is interesting about California is that the state extends the rights to its Municipalities to enact gambling laws such as have not been addressed by the state itself. In other words, your County/Municipality technically could make it illegal for you to gamble online, but I have never heard of any county in which this is the case. They would also have virtually zero means of ever being able to enforce it.

Effectively, there are essentially no restrictions whatsoever to playing online.

California Casinos And Card Rooms

The State of California is positively massive, and as such, it is home to almost innumerable tribal casinos and card rooms that are regulated by the state. To try to list all of them on this page would be a fool’s errand akin to trying to do the same on our Nevada page. You would be best advised just to do a Google search for casinos or card rooms in whatever city in the state you are visiting.

One thing that might make the endeavor a bit confusing is that the, “Card Rooms,” do not have to advertise themselves as such, but may instead choose to self-refer as, “Casinos.” The Bicycle Casino is the largest example of this as it says, “Casino,” but it only has poker and table games. One of the larger casinos in the State of California to offer slot machines is the Barona Casino and Resort, which is located in San Diego.

If you’re looking for a casino in California near you or where you are visiting and want to find out what it has, you would be well-advised to do a Google Search and either call or visit the website that it pulls up. The one thing that you can know for sure is that the Indian Gaming Act is what enables a location in California to have slot machines, so if you see any of those (whether or not there are tables) you know that you are in a tribal casino.

A good example of a traditional California card room is Bay 101. This is a San Jose institution, a place where poker pros and amateurs meet daily for tournament and straight head-to-head play. Bay 101 is so closely identified with poker in part because of its position as the operator of the only bounty-style tourney on the World Poker Tour. Occasionally, California-style table games are played here, but not regularly enough for me to consider this venue a real casino.

On the other hand, take a look at Thunder Valley Casino Resort, a perfect example of a California casino. Located thirty miles northeast of the state capital, in an unincorporated part of Lincoln County, Thunder Valley Casino Resort is a Native American casino that’s been open since 2003. The main attraction here are slot machines – the casino has more than 100,000 square feet of space dedicated to them. Also available are California-style table games, video poker terminals, live poker, and a few other traditional games of chance and skill. The property is also home to resort-style amenities, like fine dining restaurants, shops, and a huge pool and fitness complex.

Basically, the state’s Native American casinos are different because they can legally offer a larger variety of betting opportunities than card rooms. California’s Native casinos offer table games, all forms of slot machines, poker rooms and occasional tournaments, and live bingo games and pari-mutuel betting windows.

Card Rooms in California

So how did card rooms become so popular? A rule change.

In 2007, the California legislature decided to expand the definition of “charitable games” (which were already legal by state fiat) from just bingo and raffle contests to include contests like “poker,” and other forms of casino-style gambling. That new rule, combined with the state’s existing easy access to tribal gaming, made California one of the most gambling-friendly parts of the country. The state’s relatively loose laws are loosening further still, with some suggestion that parts of the state could expand legal access to gaming in the next legislative session.

The Golden State loves its card rooms, which by the way are glorified poker rooms that may have some other games of chance thrown in for good measure. California requires special versions of table games, in order to fit the state’s gaming law’s definitions, and most of these are variations of blackjack. The most popular is called “California 21,” and you can usually find some version of it in every poker room in the state.

The reason these games are legal? They are entirely player-banked, meaning the host accepts only small fees in exchange for letting gamblers use his space for their private games. All players are competing against one another, not against the house. That’s only allowed at tribal casinos, and only under certain conditions.

Conclusion

There are no laws whatsoever in the State of California that prohibit a gambler from playing online, provided he is not doing so as an operator. Despite several attempts, the state has been unsuccessful at specifically legalizing and regulating online gambling, but there are plenty of websites that offer their services to players in the State of California, including the ones that we mentioned above.

When it comes to live casino gambling, you can enjoy that at any of the California card rooms if you are looking for poker or table games, but you will have to go to a tribal casino if you wish to play slot machines or video poker. Aside from that, California has about ten horse tracks with live and simulcast racing as well as a state lottery.

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