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California has more card rooms offering poker than any other state in the United States, as well as boasting the country’s largest live poker room, the Commerce Casino. In spite of being called a casino, the Commerce features “poker only gambling” as casino gambling is prohibited in California, aside from the Indian casinos who operate outside the jurisdiction of the California Gaming Control Commission.
Poker has been very popular in California since the gold rush days. Due to an old law prohibiting “stud horse poker,” legal poker in California for most of the 20th century has been limited to forms of draw poker only, since it was felt that draw poker doesn’t fit into the category of stud horse poker since it isn’t a stud game.
It wasn’t until many years later, when Texas Holdem became popular, that this definition was finally clarified, and in the end it was found that while this old law may prohibit stud horse poker, it was a game that was so obsolete that no one really knew what the game was anymore. So the law became more strictly interpreted and this allowed for other forms of poker to be played as well besides draw poker.
California Card Rooms
There are currently almost 100 different card rooms in California (1), distributed widely across the state, and governed very strictly by the Gaming Control Commission (2). Among the regulations, there is a stipulation that players must play against each other and the house is not to be involved in the betting process, which even prohibits them from charging a percentage of the pot, or rake. Instead, they must receive their revenue from charging players on the basis of time played.
This obviously rules out casino games since they all involve the house being involved in the betting, as laws in California long prohibited “banking” or “percentage” involvement by gambling establishments.
California casinos and their poker rooms continues to thrive in the state though, even in the age of internet poker and rival tribes lobbying against iGaming altogether.
California Indian Casinos
The establishment of Indian casinos saw considerable opposition from the government of California, as state authorities wished to retain control over gaming in the state, while Indian tribes claimed autonomy over these regulations. The matter was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case California v. Cabazon Band Of Mission Indians (3), and the court ruled in favor of the Indians, allowing them and other tribes in the state to operate gambling facilities.
This allowed the expansion of Indian Casinos in California, and today there are a total of 68 Indian casinos operated by 62 different Indian tribes, in addition to the state regulated card rooms (4). The Indian casinos offer not only poker but slot machine gaming as well, as they are not under the purview of the California government who does not permit this at the non Indian card rooms.
With such a strong presence in the California poker and gambling scene, the goal of the regulators in the proposed online poker bills is not to have this separation with the online side of things, and to do this they must bring the Indian tribes onboard. This has proven to be quite a challenge so far but it is expected that things will be ironed out in time.
California Gambling Laws
The laws in California regarding gambling set out a variety of restrictions on what constitutes a legal gambling operation in the state, where persons who are found to be gambling at an unlawful gambling facility in the state as well as the operators being subject to being prosecuted under the California Penal Code (5)
These laws are targeted at gambling which occurs within the state though and does not address or even contemplate internet gambling, so while a few states now have specific laws against internet gambling and internet poker, California isn’t presently one of them.
Californians have comprised a high percentage of the internet poker market in the U.S., which continues, and all online poker sites currently accept players from California. The current efforts to regulate poker in California do address this matter though and specify that upon their passing, the only permitted online poker in the state will be through licensed operators in the state.
California is such a huge state and poker is so popular there that the residents should find the regulated sites very appealing indeed and the opportunity to play approved poker with all of its advantages, including the far superior banking options that would be available, probably render the existence of offshore poker sites pretty meaningless.
Getting Regulation Approved In California
There are currently two separate bills before the California legislature that seek to regulate online poker in the state, Assembly Bill 2291 (6), and Senate Bill 678 (7). The bills are quite similar in most respects, with various Indian tribes lining up on both sides, with the goal to get everyone to agree on one of the versions when revised to the satisfaction needed to obtain a consensus.
The details that need to be still worked out are fairly minor though, although a big sticking point has been whether or not “bad actors” will be allowed to participate, where bad actors here is defined as companies who served the U.S. market after the UIGEA was passed, most notably Poker Stars.
Ironically, the UIGEA had nothing to do with the legality of online poker in California, but no one seems to care.
PokerStars has been busy lobbying several Indian tribes to come over to their side and has had some good success already. The Assembly bill does allow for a more relaxed attitude toward them while the Senate bill explicitly prohibits their involvement.
This and a few other things still need to be resolved, and progress is being made, although the progress has been fairly slow. It is likely just a matter of time though before these details get worked out and agreed on, we finally see regulated online poker in California.
In the meantime, players can play live poker at one of the many live poker rooms, or at one of the many Indian Casinos. Should players wish to play online, they are welcome at any of the online poker sites accepting players from the U.S. generally, while they wait for regulated poker to finally come to California.
In the meantime, the only poker site I recommend playing at if you’re from the great state of California is Ignition Poker, which purchased up the Bovada software and has since re-branded. They offer a $1,000 signup bonus for poker players and still offer the same great software and promotions that Bovada used to feature.