The legality of gambling in California is not a black-and-white issue. Instead, specific games and specific aspects of gameplay are classified as legal or illegal, creating a gaming landscape that is unique to the Golden State.
Background: Legal gambling in California
The following types of gambling are currently legal and regulated in California:
- Tribal casinos
- Card rooms
- Pari-mutuel betting on horse races, including off-track betting (OTB) and online advance-deposit wagering
- Charitable gaming
- CA state lottery
The federal government passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1998, which formalized terms around gaming on tribal lands and paved the way for Native American casinos throughout the United States.
California further formalized Indian gaming in 2000 when 64.5% of voters supported Proposition 1A, Gambling on Tribal Lands. This amendment authorized the state to negotiate “compacts” with federally recognized Indian tribes to establish gambling facilities on Native American land.
Each compact agreement was negotiated separately with different tribes – considering each tribe’s economics and infrastructure – and included specific terms about taxes and regulations. This amendment gave Native American tribes exclusive rights to operate Las Vegas-style casino games in California.
Tribal casinos in California are authorized to offer slot machines and house-banked card games, unlike California’s card rooms.
Craps and roulette, which are illegal in the state because they utilize dice and wheels to determine the outcome, are also not allowed at tribal casinos. Some tribal casinos have developed versions of those games using cards instead of dice and balls as a workaround.
There are currently 60 licensed tribal casinos recognized by the California Gaming Control Commission.
A complete list of tribal casinos and their locations is available here.
Poker is not illegal according to California law, and the state has been home to legal card rooms for more than 150 years since the state’s inception.
Card rooms, also known as “California casinos” or “card clubs,” can be found throughout the state, making California a hot spot for live poker games and tournaments.
An important caveat for California card rooms is that all house-banked games are illegal in the state, except for games offered by tribal casinos. Players acting as the bank can be tricky and unfamiliar, so card rooms often hire third-party “proposition players” to act as the bank.
In addition to poker, card rooms offer “California games,” which are card games modified to comply with California’s gaming laws.
Examples of California games offered at card rooms include:
- 21st-century Baccarat
- 21st-century Blackjack Switch
- Casino War
- Crazy 4 Poker
- EZ Baccarat
- Fortune Pai Gow Poker
- Let It Ride
- Mississippi Stud
- Pai gow poker
- Pan 9
- Pai gow tiles
- Three-card poker
- Ultimate Texas Hold ’em
There are currently 89 licensed card rooms recognized by the California Gaming Control Commission.
Here is a list of California card rooms, including each one’s address and size (number of card tables).
Pari-mutual betting on horse racing
Voters in California voted to legalize betting on horse races through a ballot referendum in the 1933 election.
Off-track betting (OTB) and online advance-deposit wagering have since been legalized, too. In 2001, the state passed legislation to allow telephone and online wagering on the races.
Five tracks in the state host races year-round, fairground tracks to host races seasonally, and satellite betting facilities are available throughout the state. A list of official horse racing locations and advanced deposit wagering locations can be viewed here.
California voters approved an amendment in 1976 that legalized charitable bingo games and another amendment in 2000 that allow charitable raffles.
In 2007, the state passed legislation permitting poker night fundraisers.
When voters passed Proposition 37, the California State Lottery Act of 1984 gave Californians legalized lottery.
The ballot measure was approved by 58% of voters, with the understanding that lottery proceeds would provide funding for public schools and colleges.
California gambling laws & regulations
The California Penal Code, enacted in 1872, dictates some of the rules that have shaped the gaming landscape in the state.
Below is an excerpt from the penal code that lists specific games that are illegal. Poker is not on the list of prohibited games, which gave rise to California card rooms.
California Penal Code
CHAPTER 10. Gaming 
Every person who deals, plays, or carries on, opens, or causes to be opened, or who conducts, either as owner or employee, whether for hire or not, any game of faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, rouge et noire, rondo, tan, fan-tan, seven-and-a-half, twenty-one, hokey-pokey, or any banking or percentage game played with cards, dice, or any device, for money, checks, credit, or other representative of value, and every person who plays or bets at or against any of those prohibited games, is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be punishable by a fine not less than one hundred dollars ($100) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by both the fine and imprisonment.
California-specific gambling guidelines
Critical aspects of California’s laws dictate how the state can offer games:
- House-banked games are illegal. However, this does not apply to tribal casinos.
- Games that determine a game’s outcome using dice (like craps) or wheels (like roulette) are illegal. This law also applies to tribal casinos.
Legal disputes between tribal casinos, card rooms
After years of conflict and escalating tensions between tribal casinos and California’s card rooms, Indian tribes have filed two lawsuits in close succession.
The disputes center around the way card rooms have been handling the restrictions on house-banked games.
Tribes argue that commercial card rooms are exploiting loopholes in the law to effectively offer an experience similar to what Indian casinos provide through house-banked games, even though tribal casinos hold exclusive rights to providing such games in California. Card rooms maintain that they are operating within the legal boundaries dictated by the state.
Both sides argue that they are within their rights and in the right on the issue. Both parties also have a vested interest in protecting their share of the lucrative gambling business in the state.
The San Diego Superior Court lawsuit in 2018
Two Indian tribes filed a lawsuit in November 2018 in San Diego Superior Court because card rooms are offering card games that do not comply with state regulations.
The claim was filed against some of the most famous and successful card rooms in California, including Commerce Casino, Bicycle Hotel & Casino and Hawaiian Gardens, as well as third-party proposition players.
The tribes that filed the suit claimed they are losing approximately $14 million in annual revenue to the (illegal) games operated by card rooms and are calling on the state to enforce the associated laws.
Bo Mazzetti, the chairman of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, made the following statement about the lawsuit they filed:
“I would like to make it clear, we are not challenging the right of a business to operate, but rather the non-compliance with California law… If the California Department of Justice and the Gambling Control Commission had enforced the current laws that exist, we would not have taken this action. We have been trying to work with the state for over 13 years on this issue. Unfortunately, this lack of enforcement gives us no other option but to pursue legal remedies.”
On the flip side, the card rooms maintain that they are operating within the bounds of California state law.
Ryan Stone, the owner of three card rooms, made the following statement:
“These tribes continually make false statements about the legality of our business in an effort to shut down the card room industry, which supports our cities and provides living wage jobs to thousands of people in California. This lawsuit is the latest attempt to interfere with a legal industry that has existed in California for m Both player-dealer games and blackjack-style games have been approved by the California Department of Justice and played at California card rooms without harm to or complaint from the public for decades.”
A federal lawsuit in 2019
Three tribes sued the state of California in federal court in January.
The tribes accused the California Gambling Control Commission and Bureau of Gambling Control of failure to uphold Proposition 1A, Gambling On Tribal Lands (passed in 2000), which authorized the state to establish exclusive compacts with tribes in California to offer Las Vegas-style casino games.
Anthony Roberts, chairman of the Yocha Dehe Tribe, stated:
“State law, the Constitution and our compacts are all very clear about our exclusive right to operate house-banked, casino-style card games. We did not want to file this suit. But card rooms continue to play and brazenly advertise these games, even though it’s patently illegal for them to do so. We are asking the state to do its job and enforce the gaming laws and rules California’s voters and state Legislature have put in place.”
Tribal casinos have been highly successful in California.
A 2016 California Tribal Government Gaming Impact study concluded that tribal casinos in California generate $7.8 billion in revenue annually, employs 63,000 people and contribute $400 million in annual tax revenue.
California card rooms are a $1 billion industry that employs approximately 22,000 people.
Card rooms have been an economic and cultural fixture in California’s communities and urban areas, which are not served locally by casinos on tribal lands, for more than 150 years.
Legal gambling expansion disputes in California
In recent years, proposed legislation addressing online poker and sports betting have stalled due to disagreements between tribal casinos and card rooms as to the interested parties’ rights and jurisdictions.
Tribal casinos have threatened to block legislation until their disputes about card room gaming operations are sufficiently addressed.
Is online gambling legal in California?
Currently, California is not considering any active legislation to legalize and regulate online casinos in the state.
Proposals for regulating online poker and online sports betting in the state have been met with disagreements between tribal casinos, card rooms and racetracks about who would benefit from offering these games. The outlook for legal online gambling in California is unclear at this time.