California Real Money Online Gambling Guide

While many states are grappling with the issue of gambling within their borders, California’s situation is perhaps the most interesting. California has been very permissive when it comes to certain types of gambling such as poker, but remain opposed to other forms such as traditional casino games.

California may remain obtrusive in maintaining their particular quirks concerning what they feel is appropriate and not appropriate to be offered on lands within their legal jurisdiction, but they are at least far more open to what they will give their approval with as long as it is being run on tribal lands outside their legal purview.

It is of benefit to players to at least have a good understanding of what is really going on with the gambling scene of their state, and especially not be prone to myths such as their being any law at all restricting the ability of Californians to gamble online at sites outside of the state. While they may be waiting for regulated online poker and sports betting to arrive, they need to realize that this only applies to operations being hosted in California, and has nothing to do with players themselves, who are free to enjoy the plethora of sites available to them located outside the state.

California does host a great number of land-based casinos, both off-reservation regulated card rooms and the state’s many Indian casinos, as well as being able to play the state lottery and bet at one of the state’s many horse racing tracks. We cover the entire gambling scene in California here for you as well as answer popular questions.

History of Gambling in California

California Online Casinos and SlotsCalifornia has a rich gambling history dating all the way back to the early frontier days. All these years later, California is still the poker capital of the United States, a movement which was well underway even before it became a state in 1850.

Throughout California’s history, its many card rooms have flourished, While other states may have had a history of frontier card games being played in saloons that later became opposed and outlawed, the state of California has not waivered in their support of their card rooms, even though they have struggled with permitting other forms of gambling, including many casino games.

Just like you could visit a California town during the gold rush days and visit an establishment that allowed you to play cards for money, you can do the same thing today, although things are far more organized and regulated than in the old days where you often not only had to be good or lucky but good with a gun as well.

Other forms of gambling took longer to become legal in California, with betting on horses being first permitted in 1933, as well as their rolling out their state lottery in 1984, starting out modestly with scratch tickets and evolving into a $7 billion a year enterprise that is used significantly to fund public education.

The 1980’s also brought the state its first tribal run gambling, where several tribes set up bingo halls which allowed people to gamble at bingo for real money. The State of California tried to shut them down, but lost a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which allowed Indian tribes to offer gambling on their lands without interference from the state.

This decision gave birth to tribal gaming in the United States in general, and in California, these tribes ended up forming an alliance with the State and reached a compromise on the games they could offer, where the tribes expanded from bingo into various card games but modified their games to suit the State’s preference for cards, where they adapted popular table games like roulette by using cards and later tiles. This allowed for the State to regulate these tribal casinos and provide the gambling public with a higher level of confidence that this oversight provides.

California has resisted expanding their regulating gambling beyond the card game motif and has maintained this dual system of regulation ever since. There has been plenty of talk surrounding regulating sports betting and online gambling, but lobbying from existing stakeholders such as card rooms and tribal casinos has kept things stuck in the mud for now.

California Gambling Laws

California does a lot of things differently than elsewhere in the country, and the state’s approach to card rooms versus other forms of land-based gambling is a curious one. Even after all these years, California’s legal approach to real money gambling still looks strikingly similar to the frontier days, where poker is openly welcomed but other games normally found in casinos are explicitly prohibited.

This list of prohibited games still have games on the books that haven’t been played in over a century, such as faro, and you still can’t play faro or some of these other games legally even though people would have to do internet research to figure out how these games were played in days or yore.

This list also includes the popular casino games of roulette and “twenty-one,” the original name for blackjack, and also includes “any banking or percentage game played with cards or dice.” This provision is designed to exclude any game where the house takes a percentage of amounts staked, whether that be by way of taking percentage of pots with poker, called the rake, or any game designed to retain portions of betting by having the house “bank” the game, where they take an active role like all traditional casino games do.

How California fits the playing of poker or other card games into this scheme is to require the players to bank games themselves, where operators have no financial stake in the outcome of games but instead charge an hourly fee. There is a rationale of sorts at work here, where it is felt that the house running games may have them encouraging the betting as well as having the potential to create unfavorable odds for players, as is the custom with casino gambling.

Other explicitly-permitted games such as the state lottery or pari-mutuel horse race betting are made available, but California does not permit other forms of casino games or sports betting. Slots are explicitly outlawed, and sports betting has been trying to get off the ground lately. They came close in 2020, but just like with the battle with trying to legislate online poker, the State could not reach enough consensus with the Indian tribes who would be offering it, and the issue has now been tabled once again.

The State of California did end up coming to an agreement with the tribes after it was found by the courts to not have any legal authority over gambling on tribal lands. This agreement does allow for state officials to inspect and regulate Indian real money casinos in California, who in turn adjusted their game offerings to better comply with the desires of the State.

For example, roulette is prohibited in California, but so are slot machines. Indian casinos offer a massive number of slots, and this issue needed to be set aside, although the State of California does not have any legal power over tribal gambling and any arrangement must be voluntary. The Indians agreed to change the game of roulette a bit by calling it something else and using cards on their roulette wheels, where the dealer turns over a tile on the wheel now to reveal the number, making it distinct enough from the banned “roulette” to make everyone happy.

As silly as this may seem, this and other quarks that have been implemented has made the State happier and the tribes continue to enjoy their monopoly over the majority of real money gambling in California that has fallen to them due to the State not being willing to expand gambling regulation in the state generally.

Land-Based Gambling in California

The California Lottery has thrived since the mid-1980s and takes in $7 billion a year in revenue, so this is big business. Lotteries have become so ubiquitous that people don’t tend to even think of this as gambling anymore, due to lotteries being so widely seen as permissible, in contrast to other forms which may be seen as more contentious among the pubic and legislators.

While betting on horse races isn’t welcomed quite as widely as the lottery is in California and elsewhere, it has a long and rich history in California, being offered since all the way back in 1933. Just like the lottery, the topic of the permissibility of pari-mutuel betting just doesn’t come up, and both of these are non-contentious. You have to go to the track to bet though, another quirk.

California has 90 card rooms that operate in their state, which collectively take in $1 billion in revenue per year. Given California’s historical love of poker and distaste for other casino games, it hasn’t taken a lot of lobbying by card room owners to keep the state on the straight and narrow as far as only permitting their style of casino gambling and outlawing all other forms.

This journey did hit a roadblock once the Supreme Court decided that the State of California does have the legal power to regulate gambling on tribal lands, and after this decision, these tribes went from just offering bingo for money and built full-fledged casinos. It is like there are two different jurisdictions involved, the state itself and the tribal lands, but these two distinct entities have managed to sign a peace treaty of sorts which ended up with the tribes holding tremendous power over gambling in California.

Any changes to gambling law in California now has to have consensus agreement among the state’s tribes, which do not act together but instead have divergent and opposing opinions on how to proceed with these changes. Progress toward change has therefore come very slowly, and the state is a long way away from licensing and regulating actual casinos in the state, although the Indian casinos in themselves has allowed for a great expansion of the casino market in the state.

Indian casinos in California have now collectively grown to be as big as all the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, with revenues now up to $7 billion a year, now as big as the California Lottery as well. These casinos may not be very big, but they are everywhere, within easy driving distance of just about everyone in the state. Californians used to be limited to travelling to Las Vegas to gamble at casinos, but no more.

California Online Casinos & Slots Gambling

Online gambling legislation and regulation in the United States is rife with myth, with the first big one being that this is something that is ever decided at the federal level. States decide these matters completely on their own, and California simply does not have any applicable laws or regulations that pertain to this.

Online gambling is often not just black and white though, and some have mistakenly interpreted California law that prohibits gambling machines as applying to online gambling as well. It is against the law to possess a device that permits money to be staked on it. This would apply to a slot machine for instance, but some think that it also would apply to using a computer or mobile device to wager.

This would be a ridiculous interpretation, as if true, this would make possession of these devices illegal in themselves, because they could be used to make such wagers. The wagering itself isn’t made a misdemeanor by this law, it is the possession of devices used to this that is the crime here, but only ones who are designed for this wagering, not just ones that allow you to do a great many things including wagering.

There is no state or federal law preventing Californians from gambling online as much as they wish, as opposed to some states such as Washington having explicit laws against it or other states having laws that might be interpreted as preventing it depending on the particular reading of the law that you use. The role of courts is to interpret the law, and this is often a difficult task that can also be very much colored by the personal beliefs of the judiciary, but this is all black and white in California, and it’s all white.

The regulatory part of this is very much in state control within the state, who they may issue licenses to in order to engage in online or any form of gambling that is hosted in a state, and these things are fully at the pleasure of the state. Nevada, for instance, has seen fit to allow for online gambling operations to operate out of their state, but California hasn’t come to that decision yet, and are still working with the tribal stakeholders to put together a licensing scheme.

While tribal casinos have the legal power to offer whatever form of gambling that they want on their own lands, if they forage off on their own, without the ascent of the state government, this will result in a break in the peace of sorts that they enjoy with the state, with several important potential issues. The state could take measures to impede this, and such a scenario could also place the sweet deal that the status quo provides these tribes at some risk.

Future of Gambling in California

Perhaps ironically, with billions more potentially on the line, the reason why we don’t have online poker and sports betting in California yet has completely come down to the tribes failing to reach an agreement among themselves. This just keeps being pushed down the road at the present time with no end to the disputes in sight.

The regulation of California-based online poker sites has been particularly contentious, and where poker is concerned, the State has taken sides on this as well, being fussy on which companies they wish to allow to participate in any new licensing scheme. Popular sites like Poker Stars have been smeared by accusations of being “bad actors,” which results not from their actually being bad actors but by way of a fundamental misunderstanding of how the law applies to gambling in the United States.

We may assume that state legislators would be familiar enough with the law to be aware that PokerStars and others did not run afoul of the law by continuing to offer play to Californians post-UIGEA, as this did not speak to the legality of this, nor has any federal law. There was no applicable law at all that applied here. We may expect lay people to be confused by these things, but it is inexcusable that state legislators hold such fundamental misunderstandings of the law.

As permissive as California has been, in comparison to most other states, California still has a long way to go to open their minds enough to allow reason to play a more prominent role in their approach to gambling. Perhaps the pain of the 2020 lockdown will cause them to think more carefully about their continuing to cling to ideas that benefit no one, where players and operators are both prevented from coming together for freely made economic exchanges that add to the pleasure of the people, contribute to economic and business expansion, and pad the bank accounts of the State.

Consistency is a fundamental principle of the law, and is an absolute requirement in fact. It just isn’t consistent that Californians can enjoy certain forms of gambling but not others, unless you can make a substantial distinction that makes sense of differing regulations. California still has much work to do with understanding this better.

California Online Slots & Casinos FAQs
  • What forms of gambling are available in California?

    California has had legal poker since even before it became a state. California remains the land-based poker capital of the U.S., with many also playing online, although online poker regulation hasn’t come to the state yet. Players can also enjoy the state’s many Indian casinos, which do a huge business, as well as playing the state lottery, betting at one of the state’s many horse racing tracks, and even bet on sports and play real money casino games online at one of a great many out of state sites.

  • Who do California online casinos & gambling laws really pertain to?

    Although the California penal code does provide a list of prohibited types of wagers that can neither be held or played in California, this law only really has the power to prohibit the hosting of prohibited games within their jurisdiction. Otherwise, all of the gambling that occurs at tribal casinos would be illegal, as they could be forced to permit tribal operators but prohibit non-tribal residents from playing there. If the operator is operating legally, this preempts any question of the play offered being illegal. The law therefore only really applies to who they allow to offer gambling.

  • What is the difference between legal, regulated, and prohibited gambling?

    Many people confuse the terms legal, regulated, and prohibited. Regulated gambling is permitted and controlled, like the card rooms here are. Prohibited involves specific gambling-related activities that it is illegal to engage in, like offering slot machines off of tribal land. Legal does not mean regulated, it means a lack of legal prohibition. Legal literally means not illegal by way of law, like Californians placing bets on sporting events at sites operating outside California.

  • Why does California not permit traditional real money casino games?

    California’s gambling permissiveness came out of the saloon games of the Old West, which pitted players against each other directly in poker games. Although the State has always warmly welcomed this form of gambling, they continue to object to games where gambling operators are active participants, which is the case with all casino games. While this is seen to protect players, it ignores the principle of informed consent where players are allowed to choose the suitability of a form of gambling themselves.

  • How can Indian tribes offer casino games while other Californians cannot?

    Indian reservations are deemed to be on federal and not state land, meaning that they are immune from certain state laws and regulations. The federal government, by way of the Constitution, defers to states in matters of commerce, and Indian tribes were afforded the same privilege by the courts. Once the State of California lost this fight, the opposing parties decided to co-operate to further their mutual interests, and the State and the tribal gaming providers now work closely with one another.

  • What control does the State of California have over tribal gaming?

    The State of California actually does not have any say in tribal gaming that occurs within state borders, because control of this has been given over to the tribes by way of federal law, the division of powers under the Constitution, and by way of judicial decision. Tribal casinos have chosen by way of free will to agree to certain compromises in their gaming, even though this is really just a façade, playing craps with cards instead of dice for instance. It’s a facade that the State appreciates, and that does matter to the tribes as they seek to take advantage of state co-operation to expand their enterprises further.

  • How long before California gets online gambling regulation?

    Californians do not actually have to wait for regulation in order to bet online for real money, although they have been waiting for quite some time for California to finally regulate online gambling. The bid to regulate online poker has been at an impasse for several years now, with no real end in sight. California came close to regulating sports betting, but that has now been delayed until 2022 or 2023 at the earliest. California at least has the will for this, but getting stakeholders to agree enough on how to proceed remains a significant challenge.

  • Can Californians gamble online now?

    Online gambling has dramatically changed the nature of gambling, where we now can travel to far-flung locales electronically. Californians have travelled to Las Vegas since it opened, where it is legal and regulated, and whether it is or not in California is of no consequence. This is the case as well when we travel outside the state to gamble online, and these sites are indeed legal and regulated elsewhere. The State has the power to regulate real money gambling in California, but not gambling that occurs outside the state and outside its reach.

  • How can California improve land-based gambling?

    It may be seen as just to see Indian tribes benefit so much from tribal gaming, and California may indeed have this as a political preference, but we need to understand that justifying this duality is limited to this. California law was crafted for a time long ago, and as permissive as California is, their view is still rife with paternalistic biases that have just persisted and haven’t been re-thought. If people are gambling at Indian casinos, we should need a good reason why we do not allow this on non-tribal lands. California also needs to revisit their peculiar tastes in certain games and govern this by way of principle as well.

  • How may California improve real money online gambling in the state?

    It is not that online gambling will come to California if and when the State finally passes a law to regulate it, as it already exists, but this would certainly expand the market. The big way that this will improve things is to allow players to place financial transactions much more easily, with their options not being as limited as they are now with most methods being unavailable. While California has been open-minded toward poker and sports betting, they also need to open their minds to casino games as well and not try to limit this just to the land-based casinos they currently have.

Chief Editor: Mike leverages his true passion for online gambling to create a uniquely informative site that takes players well beyond the standard fare in the industry.

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