While Las Vegas rightly enjoys the title of America’s gambling capital, for poker players, California has long been a prime gambling destination as well, thanks to the state’s many card rooms. In the past, California card rooms represented the only legal alternative to Nevada for US card players. Today the Golden State still remains a hugely popular hotbed of poker action, with nearly 100 legal card rooms throughout the state, from Eureka in the north to Chula Vista in the south.
Truth be told, a “California card room” can refer to a wide range of establishments. A cardroom can be a modest facility with more seats at the bar than at the tables. It can also be a sprawling, casino-like property with hundreds of card tables and gambling options that range well beyond No-Limit Texas Hold’em. In fact, some California card rooms are among the largest not just in the country, but in the entire world.
Read on for a comprehensive overview of California card rooms, including information about where to find them and what they offer, discussion of the legality of card rooms, a review of card rooms’ colorful history, and answers to frequently asked questions.
Quick facts about California card rooms
- Current number of active card room licenses: 85*
- Total number of tables at active CA card rooms: 1,825*
- Most popular card game: No Limit Texas Hold’em
- Other poker variants offered: Pot Limit Omaha, limit hold’em, Omaha Hi-Lo, seven-card stud, seven-card stud hi-lo, razz, Badugi, 2-7 triple draw, lowball, razz, mixed games
- Other card games offered: EZ Baccarat, California blackjack, Pai Gow Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Let It Ride, Three Card Poker
*according to the California Gambling Control Commission
California card rooms
Here’s a snapshot look at the five largest card rooms in California with details about each, followed by a list of all the active card rooms in California.
All five of the card rooms below are in and around the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Note that the number of tables typically refers to the number of traditional player-versus-player poker tables. In some cases (including each of these), California cardrooms will also offer additional “table games” featuring other card games.
The Commerce Casino & Hotel
- Address: 6131 Telegraph Road, Commerce, CA 90040
- Phone: 323-721-2100
- Tables: 210
The Commerce features the largest poker room in the world, with 210 tables occupying most of its 90,000-plus square feet of gambling space. The Commerce hosts several marquee poker tournament series each year, including the World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic, the Los Angeles Poker Open, the Commerce Hold’em Series, and the California State Poker Championship.
The card room features both traditional poker and “Cal games” or other card games such as Pai Gow Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, Chinese Poker, and more. Like other CA card rooms, The Commerce also spreads modified (i.e., not “house-banked”) versions of baccarat and blackjack allowed under California gambling law. Players can additionally play Pai Gow Tiles, a version of Pai Gow Poker that uses dominoes rather than cards.
The Bicycle Hotel & Casino
- Address: 888 Bicycle Casino Drive, Bell Gardens, CA 90201
- Phone: 562-806-4646
- Tables: 185
The famed poker room at The Bicycle Hotel & Casino is nearly as large as the one at The Commerce, with even more gambling space (over 100,000 square feet) and 185 tables. Players can enjoy the same wide variety of poker games and “California games” at the Bike.
Like The Commerce, The Bicycle hosts several important poker tournament series each year, including World Series of Poker Circuit events, the WPT Legends of Poker series, the Ladies International Poker Series, and the annual Big Poker Oktober series. For many years, the poker room has additionally featured a popular Live at the Bike! livestream, allowing viewers to watch high-stakes poker action online.
The Gardens Casino
- Address: 11871 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, CA 90716
- Phone: 562-860-5887
- Tables: 110
The Gardens Casino, also often called the Hawaiian Gardens, is another huge card room, with 150,000 square feet of gambling space. The room features 110 tables and hosts tournament series like the WPT Gardens Poker Championship and the WPT Gardens Poker Festival on top of its usual daily and weekly tournaments.
Like the other major card rooms, Gardens Casino offers both traditional player-versus-player poker and a range of “casino poker” games like Pai Gow Poker (and tiles), Three Card Poker, and the like, as well as the allowed baccarat and blackjack variants.
Hollywood Park Casino
- Address: 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90303
- Phone: 310-330-2800
- Tables: 105
Hollywood Park Casino is another large property, with over 100,000 square feet of gambling space and more than 100 tables. You’ll find the usual spread of hold ’em and Omaha games, plus seven-card stud and mixed games in which Badugi and Badeucy are part of the rotation. In the past, the card room for many years also hosted the US National Championship of Poker, along with other events and series.
Like other venues, the casino also offers its own lineup of “Cal Games,” including No Bust Blackjack, Pai Gow Poker (and tiles), No Collection Baccarat, 2-Way Winner (a poker-blackjack hybrid), Party Craps, and more.
- Address: 1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247
- Phone: 310-719-9800
- Tables: 70
Hustler Casino opened in 2000 in Gardena, well after the heyday of the earlier Gardena card clubs (discussed below). Indeed, the facility is located at the site of the old El Dorado Club, one of the original six Gardena card rooms. Soon after opening, however, the Hustler Casino became one of the better-known card rooms in the state, for a time particularly famous for its high-stakes seven-card stud games hosted by its late owner, Larry Flynt.
Today, the Hustler Casino features 55,000 square feet of gambling space, including a 70-table room where players will find a variety of stakes and games. There are numerous daily and weekly poker tournaments plus holiday events. Players can likewise try No Collection EZ Baccarat, No Bust Blackjack, Fortune Pai Gow Poker Progressive Jackpot, and other card games.
Currently active California card rooms in 2024
Here’s a list of all of the active California card rooms as reported by the California Gambling Control Commission, along with their reported number of tables.
|No of Tables
|500 Club Casino
|Ace & Vine
|Artichoke Joe's Casino
|Bay 101 Casino
|Blacksheep Casino Company
|Bruce's Bar and Casino
|California Club Casino
|California Grand Casino
|Central Coast Casino
|Club One Casino
|Club San Rafael
|Diamond Jim's Casino
|Empire Sportsmen's Association
|Garlic City Club
|Golden State Casino
|Golden Valley Casino
|Golden West Casino
|Hollywood Park Casino
|Hotel Del Rio & Casino
|Jalisco Pool Room
|Kings Card Club
|La Primavera Pool Hall & Cafe
|Lake Bowl Cardroom
|Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino*
|Larry Flynt's Lucky Lady Casino
|Limelight Card Room
|Lucky Chances Casino
|Magnolia House Casino
|Mike's Card Casino
|Mortimer's Card Room
|Napa Valley Casino
|North Coast Casino
|Oaks Card Club
|Ocean's Eleven Casino
|Old Cayucos Tavern
|Outlaws Card Parlour
|Palace Poker Casino, LLC
|Parkwest Casino 580
|Parkwest Casino Cordova
|Parkwest Casino Lodi
|Parkwest Casino Lotus
|Parkwest Casino Sonoma
|Paso Robles Central Coast Casino
|Seven Mile Casino
|St. Charles Place
|The Aviator Casino
|The Bicycle Hotel & Casino
|The Deuce Lounge & Casino
|The Gardens Casino
|The Nineteenth Hole
|The River Card Room
|The Saloon at Stones Gambling Hall
|The Tavern at Stones Gambling Hall
|Tommy's Casino & Saloon
|Tres Lounge and Casino
|Turlock Poker Room
|Westlane Card Room
*licenses expired although stayed pending final disposition of an evidentiary hearing
Largest poker tournaments in California
As noted above, California card rooms have hosted some of the biggest and most prestigious poker tournaments in the US. The World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker Circuit, the Mid-States Poker Tour and the RunGood Poker Series have all regularly visited the Golden State over the years.
World Poker Tour events have proven the most popular at California card rooms. The WPT began in 2002, with televised broadcasts following a year later. The Bicycle Casino hosted the second ever WPT event, the main event of the annual Legends of Poker series. There were two other WPT events in California during that first season, one at Lucky Chances Casino in Colma and another at The Commerce Casino.
It’s no surprise to find the WPT and, in particular, the L.A. Poker Classic at The Commerce dominating the list of the 10 largest poker tournaments ever held in California cardrooms in terms of prize pools:
|2007 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2010 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2009 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2006 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2011 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2008 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2017 WPT Shooting Star
|Bay 101 Casino
|2012 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2005 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
|2017 WPT L.A. Poker Classic
The WPT Legends of Poker Main Event at The Bicycle Casino just missed making this list, having had multiple instances of $4 million-plus prize pools during the mid-2000s.
Legality of California card rooms
Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, legal prohibitions against gambling in California curiously excluded draw poker, thereby creating conditions to allow legal card clubs over subsequent decades. The city of Gardena near Los Angeles became especially known for such clubs starting in the late 1930s and over the next half-century. The clubs paid taxes to the city as well as license fees, although they endured frequent legal challenges from anti-gambling groups.
The Gardena clubs were popular and attracted players from all over the state and even from across the US. However, the restriction limiting them to draw poker and lowball (a variant in which the hand rankings are inverted) helped keep the card rooms from expanding. That changed in 1987, when a court ruling added Texas Hold’em and stud as allowed variants, as well as the hold’em variant Omaha. “This is the best thing to happen to poker in California since the Gold Rush,” one card room manager told the Los Angeles Times. And indeed, the new rules sparked tremendous growth for California card rooms.
By then, The Bicycle Club already had 120 tables in action. The Commerce and other venues likewise began adding more tables to accommodate the larger crowds of players coming to play poker. For a while, the card rooms in the two affected counties were the only ones enjoying the increased business, but within a year other card rooms throughout the state also began adding hold’em and stud.
The California Gambling Control Act of 1998
Among its provisions, the California Gambling Control Act of 1998 created a statewide system to regulate California card rooms. The new law created the California Gambling Control Commission to establish regulatory standards and to issue and renew licenses to card room operators. Meanwhile, the California Bureau of Gambling Control, part of the state’s Department of Justice, helps conduct background checks for prospective licensees and also regularly inspects and audits the card rooms’ operations to ensure they abide by regulatory standards.
The California Gambling Control Act additionally extended an already existing statewide moratorium on new card rooms. That moratorium was extended again thereafter and is still in effect today. The moratorium essentially prohibits local governments from expanding gambling (with a few exceptions), including adding new card rooms.
All California card rooms operate under private ownership. That is, no public corporations can invest in the clubs. In addition to being licensed by state regulators, they abide by the ordinances of their local jurisdictions, as well. That usually means if existing card rooms wish to expand, the community has to approve.
California card rooms and tribal casinos
California is also home to nearly 70 tribal casinos, many of which also offer poker and other card games under tribal-state compacts.
In fact, the legal authorization for those tribal casinos happened just about the same time as the California Gambling Control Act. The first tribal-state compact was signed in 1998, and later that year Californians voted in favor of a proposition authorizing tribal casinos. A legal challenge overturned the proposition on a technicality, but voters again approved a similar proposition in 2000, and the first full-fledged tribal casino opened the following year.
Some card room operators immediately filed lawsuits objecting to the new tribal casinos, although they were unsuccessful in their efforts to stop them. Eventually, the tribes would likewise file their own lawsuits against some card rooms, accusing them of offering house-banked card games like blackjack or baccarat that are only legal in tribal casinos in the state. Those efforts have largely failed as well, although the antagonism between the tribes and card rooms continues today.
Blackjack, baccarat, and other non-poker games in California card rooms
The tribes are correct in their position regarding the card rooms and house-banked games. The tribes’ compacts enable them to offer a variety of Class III gambling games, including blackjack, baccarat, and other card games in which the player plays against the house. Meanwhile, the card rooms cannot offer games that are not player-versus-player (like traditional poker) and involve the player competing against the house.
California Penal Code 330.11 spells out how a game is not considered a “banking game” or “banked game” if the game involves a player-dealer position that is “continuously and systematically rotated amongst each of the participants during the play of the game” and that the player-dealer can win or lose just like everyone else in the game. As such, the game will “preclude the house, another entity, a player, or an observer from maintaining or operating as a bank during the course of the game.”
By way of summary, the section concludes by putting it even more bluntly: “the house shall not occupy the player-dealer position.”
In other words, California card rooms are not technically supposed to offer card games like blackjack, baccarat or other “casino poker” card games that feature a dealer representing the card room competing against players. When you see California poker rooms offering these games (such as described above), you’ll discover they play a little differently from standard player-versus-house versions in order for the card rooms to comply with the law.
For example, if you sit down at a “California blackjack” table in a card room, there might be a dealer there, but he or she is only present to assist with gameplay and does not play a hand as in a Vegas casino. Instead, each player at the table takes a turn acting as the “banker” against whom the other players are competing. That means if the player-banker loses, that person (not the house) has to pay the winning players.
While the rules for these games vary from card room to card room, the same principle holds for other card games, too, like baccarat or pai gow. The players take turns acting as the banker and all play against one another, with the house not allowed to enter into play.
History of California card rooms
California card rooms have a long and fascinating history dating back to the mid-19th century. According to gambling historian Robert K. DeArment, following the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), “there were several hundred, at least, and perhaps as many as a thousand” gambling establishments in the state. Later in the century came legal prohibitions against gambling. However, draw poker continued to be legal, thereby keeping California card rooms part of the state’s history throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
Here is a timeline listing some key moments in the history of California card rooms:
- 1879: A newly ratified California Constitution prohibits most forms of gambling. Later, an amendment would single out “stud-horse poker” as a prohibited game.
- 1891: California amends its gambling law again to list a number of prohibited card games without including draw poker.
- 1911: California Attorney General Ulysses S. Webb issues an opinion distinguishing draw poker from other “games of chance,” thereby keeping draw poker off the list of prohibited games.
- 1936: Ernest “Ernie” Primm opens a gambling club in Gardena, the Embassy Palace, where draw poker becomes the featured game. Legal challenges lead to Webb again ruling the game legal as long as the community approves.
- 1940-1949: Along with the Embassy (later renamed the El Dorado), five more Gardena card rooms open: the Gardena (1940), the Monterey (1940), the Rainbow (1945), the Normandie (1947) and the Horseshoe (1949). These “original six” poker rooms help Gardena earn a reputation as the “Poker Capital of the World.”
- 1967: California card rooms appear in a Sports Illustrated feature by Dick Miles titled “Lowball in a Time Capsule.”
- 1974: The film “California Split,” directed by Robert Altman and written by Joseph Walsh, accurately chronicles a typical California card room with its fictional California Club. Click here for a recent interview with Joseph Walsh about his classic film.
- 1982: Anthropologist David Hayano’s book “Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players” comprehensively analyzes the subculture of California card rooms.
- 1983-84: Large-scale poker rooms begin to open, such as the Commerce Casino (1983) and the Bicycle Casino (1984).
- 1987: A ruling in Los Angeles County allows card rooms to begin offering Texas Hold’em, Omaha and stud games in addition to draw poker and lowball. The larger card rooms swiftly expand their operations, and in some cases smaller rooms (including all of the “original six” in Gardena) have to close.
- 1996: Legislation goes into effect imposing a three-year statewide moratorium on new card rooms while lawmakers can decide upon a new comprehensive gambling law. At the time, there are close to 180 active card rooms in the state.
- 1998: Lawmakers pass the California Gambling Control Act. Among other provisions, it establishes statewide regulatory oversight over card rooms. The new law also extends the moratorium on new card rooms through Jan. 1, 2015. Since then, the moratorium has been extended multiple times. It is currently in place through Jan. 1, 2023.
- 2018: According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, 88 active card rooms generate about $850 million in revenue after winnings during the 2017-18 fiscal year.
FAQ about California card rooms
What is the minimum age to gamble in a California card room?
California card rooms require players to be at least 21 years old to play any of their games. This requirement contrasts with some California tribal casinos where the minimum age to gamble is 18.
Do the players deal or are there dealers at the tables in California card rooms?
In the past, players dealt with one another in California card clubs, but today there are dealers at all of the poker tables. When playing other “California games” like the modified versions of blackjack and baccarat, you may find that players are technically designated as dealers in those games since the card rooms are not allowed to offer house-banked games (as in casinos). However, you will still often find a card room staff member at the table tasked with helping the game move along.
Which poker games are available in California card rooms?
No Limit Texas Hold’em is the most popular game in California card rooms (by far), followed by Pot Limit Omaha, limit hold’em and seven-card stud. You will also occasionally find additional variants at the larger card rooms, including Big O (five-card PLO hi-lo), Badugi, 2-7 triple draw, Chinese Poker and other mixed games. Most poker rooms in California offer both cash games and tournaments.
Meanwhile, many California card rooms also offer different “table games” that resemble “casino poker” games in Vegas casinos, although the California versions do not feature the house playing against the players. These poker-related games can include Pai Gow Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Three Card Poker, Mississippi Stud, Crazy 4 Poker and others.
What is the difference between “banked” and “non-banked” card games?
As described above, California card rooms cannot legally offer “banked” games (also called “house-banked” games). These are games like blackjack or baccarat in which the house plays against the player. California card rooms have developed a workaround, though, by offering modified versions of these card games in which the players take turns acting as the “banker” and occupy the position that the house typically fills.
Are home poker games legal in California?
Yes, poker players can host their own home games in California. The California Penal Code specifically notes that home games are legal as long as there is no rake or fee. The law defines “controlled” games that require state approval and licensing, then provides a list of games that are not considered controlled games. That list includes “games played with cards in private homes or residences, in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player.”