Much Ado About Nothing: Pledge To Police Card Rooms Unfulfilled A Year Later

Posted on November 1, 2019 - Last Updated on November 13, 2019

Late in October 2018, an enforcement arm of California seemingly took sides in the ongoing dispute between card rooms and tribal casinos. A year later, that card room crackdown pledge remains largely unfulfilled.

The story isn’t as simple as poor execution of good intentions or a government agency paying lip service without accompanying action, however. The situation is much more complicated.

Why the card room crackdown pledge was made

Simply put, the tribal casinos got some return on their investment. The casinos made contributions to the re-election campaign of current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

At his direction, the Bureau of Gambling Control stated it would begin enforcing a state law that limited games card rooms could offer. This news seemed a partial victory for casinos.

Casinos had made complaints to the state years prior to Becerra taking office, contending that it was illegal for card rooms to offer games like blackjack. They argued state law only allowed casinos to do so.

The BGC’s statement included time for card room operators to comply with Becerra’s interpretation of the law. The casinos weren’t completely satisfied with the lack of immediacy in enforcement.

The irony of the situation is that the casinos’ response actually played a part in keeping the status quo alive and well.

How the casinos became their own worst enemy

Shortly after the announcement by the BGC that card rooms would be given a “grace period,” the casinos upped the ante. Three of the California tribes sued the state based on their lack of enforcement of state law concerning the California card room offerings of non-poker games.

While the casinos hoped the courts would force the issue, the suit actually complicated the matter further. It would have been folly for the BGC to go ahead with any plans with the potential for the courts to redefine the law. Because of that, the state had to wait.

Meanwhile, card rooms continued to offer 21 and other non-poker games. The courts dismissed the various suits¬†this summer. While that’s a disappointing outcome for the casinos, they haven’t exhausted their options yet.

The interests of the card rooms and the cities they reside in further complicate the matter. They played a part in this pledge going unfulfilled, as well.

Because cities collect tax revenue from card rooms, and card rooms provide jobs, city governments oppose the BGC’s policy. Card room employees have also expressed their sentiments at public meetings.

The state has come up with a compromise of sorts, but enforcement of the new rules is spotty. The proposed rules, which have not yet taken effect, act to limit the non-poker games and third-party banker roles along with mandating dealer breaks.

For the most part, the status quo remains. That could change with more judicial or legislative action.

Why the California Legislature may need to act

The upside to leaving legislation intentionally vague is that it allows room for regulators, like the BGC, to adapt policy to changing habits and technology. There is a downside, however.

This situation represents that downside. Because Becerra’s opinion on California gambling law carries so much weight, it leaves room for other parties to challenge that opinion.

Those challenges are a large part of the reason the pledge goes unfulfilled a year later. It may take further legislation to resolve this issue.

That may spur more legal challenges, though. Ultimately, the California Supreme Court may either enforce fulfillment of this pledge or nullify it for good.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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