California Casinos and Gambling

California is one of America’s three largest states, both in the size of its borders and the number of people who call it home. Because the state has such a big population and land mass, laws that pass in California tend to get more attention than in other parts of the US. It’s a big, generally-liberal state that has one of the most liberal stances on gambling law in America. As a consequence, Californians can gamble in a lot of different legal and regulated markets.

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California Gambling Law

Almost every type of bet you’ll find in a Vegas casino or in any other part of America is available in a legal format in California.

One of the reasons California is such a gambler’s paradise is the high priority the state places on honoring municipal laws and statutes. This had been used as a loophole for a few decades in the mid-20th century but is now a recognized feature of the state’s governance. The state allows cities and counties to create and regulate their own laws, and it means different parts of California have different laws when it comes to what bets are allowed and disallowed.

State law makes it clear that any form of wagering that’s done for the purpose of raising money for charity, for amusement, during carnival games or other novelties, as part of play in licensed card rooms or play at tribal casinos, for the purpose of pari-mutuel wagering, and for most types of social gambling is totally legal. Also legal and popular: state-run and regional lottery games.

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.

A Guide to California Casinos

The last time I counted, the state of California was home to more than 150 casinos and card rooms, so I won’t list them here. Instead, here’s a guide to understanding the difference between a California casino and a card room.

Just to make things extra confusing for visitors, some gambling venues that are best classified as card rooms call themselves casinos, mostly to advertise that some legal form of gaming takes place there.

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.

More Facts about California Gaming Law

California is undoubtedly one of the more liberal states in America, and the same is true when it comes to gaming law. The state’s penal code is light on penalties for illegal gambling, almost every instance of which is met with a simple misdemeanor charge. In a sense, the state has put a limited decriminalization of gambling in place, offering illegal gamblers reduced penalties for second and even third offenses.

Illegally owning and/or operating an illegal gaming machine is a misdemeanor charge. So is “coercion of a person to unlawful gambling,” which is regularly considered a felony charge in the rest of the United States. The actual penalty ranges from a light fine ($50 for the first case of illegal gambling) to the implied possibility of a small amount of jail time – we’re talking a few weeks max.


The state of California doesn’t seem all that interested in locking people up for participating in any form of illegal gambling. The state has provisions for a few different legal ways to place bets, so it isn’t clear why or how anyone would gamble illegally anyway. Provided you follow the very liberal rules spelled out in the state’s penal code, you can take part in almost every form of gambling within the state border of California.