Like most states, California allows certain types of gambling and prohibits others. However, California law has a number of idiosyncrasies that make it somewhat distinct among US states in terms of what games are legal and how you can play those games.
There is a statewide lottery in California, but no legal sports betting (not yet, anyway). There are no commercial casinos, but there are legal card rooms, some large enough to call themselves “casinos.” There are tribal casinos with a wide range of Vegas-style casino games, but even in those casinos, you’ll discover certain games like craps and roulette aren’t available in their traditional forms.
Here’s a quick overview of legal gambling in California, outlining what games are allowed and what games are not.
Is gambling legal in California?
Here are the primary types of legal gambling in California at present:
- Tribal casinos
- Card rooms
- Pari-mutuel wagering on horse races, including off-track betting and online advance deposit wagering
- California State Lottery
- Charitable gaming
California gambling laws and regulations
The California Penal Code first went into place in 1872. Section 330, Chapter 10 begins with a list of prohibited gambling games and the penalties for anyone who tries to offer them:
“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 noir, 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.”
There aren’t too many Californians looking for a game of lansquenet or hokey-pokey these days. But you’ll notice the law also explicitly forbids roulette and twenty-one (or blackjack). It also prohibits “banking” or house-banked games played with cards, games played with dice (like craps), and other games that are in fact popular today.
Poker is not a house-banked card game but rather a game in which players play against one another (and not the house). You’ll notice poker is not on the list of illegal games, although in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were legal prohibitions that specifically outlawed “stud-horse poker” yet allowed draw poker.
That allowance of draw poker later gave rise to California card clubs, which became especially popular during the middle decades of the 20th century. Later, in 1987, a court ruling allowed the card rooms to start offering Texas Hold’em, Omaha, and stud games in addition to draw variants.
Meanwhile, tribal-state gambling compacts have made it possible for Native American tribes to offer house-banked card games like real money blackjack as well as slot machines and other games. However, the restrictions against roulette and craps remain.
The minimum age to gamble legally in California varies depending on the type of gambling involved. Here’s a quick overview of the legal gambling age requirements in CA:
Legal gambling age in California
|In order to…||The minimum age is…|
|gamble at a California tribal casino||18 or 21 (varies depending on casino)|
|play games at a California card room||21|
|bet on horse races at a California horse racetrack, OTB parlor, or an ADW site||18|
|purchase California Lottery tickets or claim prizes||18|
|play bingo, raffles or other charitable games||18|
California tribal casinos
There are more than 100 federally recognized Native American tribes based in California, and the majority of them have gambling compacts with the state. Of that group, more than 60 tribes operate nearly 70 casinos in the state, with dozens of Northern California casinos and many Southern California casinos, as well.
In other words, tribal casino gambling in California is huge. According to the American Gaming Association, tribal casinos in California annually generate around $8.5 billion in gross gambling revenue.
California tribal casinos are legal thanks to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which makes those aforementioned gambling compacts possible. The first compacts between California tribes and the state came about during the late 1990s, and in 2001 the first full-fledged tribal casino opened.
The compacts permit Class III gambling in tribal casinos. That includes slots, video poker, blackjack, baccarat, poker, bingo, and a host of other games. However, the tribes cannot offer traditional roulette and craps. Instead, tribal casinos offer modified card-based versions of those games, often called “California roulette” and “California craps.”
Multiple entities oversee California’s tribal casinos, including individual tribal agencies, the California Gambling Control Commission, and the National Indian Gaming Commission, which is part of the US Department of the Interior.
You will also find other tribe-operated gambling venues that offer Class II games only. Those include non-banked card games like poker and bingo, but not the full range of casino games available in Class III casinos. These Class II properties can operate without tribal-state compacts but do need federal approval from the NIGC.
California card rooms
As noted above, California card rooms predated tribal casinos for many decades. For many years, these card clubs especially thrived in and around Gardena in Southern California. Following that 1987 ruling allowing poker games other than draw poker in the state, more and more card rooms opened throughout California. Recent estimates suggest California card rooms represent a $1 billion-a-year industry.
Today, there are nearly 100 legal and licensed card rooms in California, including some of the largest not just in the US but in the entire world. Rooms like The Commerce Casino, The Bicycle Hotel & Casino, and The Gardens Casino each have more than a hundred poker tables (more than 200 at Commerce). Note that even though some of these card rooms call themselves “casinos,” from a legal standpoint they aren’t casinos in a traditional sense, as only the tribes can legally operate those in the state.
Many of these card rooms additionally offer modified versions of other card games like blackjack and baccarat. These games are modified so they are not technically house-banked card games, which are illegal outside of tribal casinos. Instead, in these games players compete against one another (much as in traditional poker) rather than against the house. Sometimes these games are called “California Blackjack” or more simply “California games” in order to distinguish them from their traditional counterparts.
The CGCC acts as the regulatory body overseeing California card rooms. The Bureau of Gambling Control, part of the California Department of Justice, additionally acts as the law enforcement authority helping to ensure California card rooms operate according to the state’s gambling laws and the regulations for card rooms.
Horse race betting in California
Pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing in California is legal, as well. California features multiple popular racetracks, including Santa Anita Park, a frequent host of the annual Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
You can also bet on horse races at two dozen off-track betting parlors located throughout the state. These include “mini-satellite” facilities in bars and restaurants. At these OTB sites, patrons can watch and wager on simulcast races from around the world.
Californians can additionally bet on horse races online at advance deposit wagering sites like TVG and TwinSpires.
Pari-mutuel wagering on horse races first became legal in California in 1933. OTB wagering became legal in 1985, and advance deposit wagering on horse racing via online sites became legal in California in 2002. The California Horse Racing Board acts as the regulatory body for both on-site wagering on horse races and off-track betting parlors.
California State Lottery
Voters approved a state lottery in 1984, and the following year the California State Lottery sold its first tickets. Today it is one of the largest state lotteries in the country, with California players winning more than $5.5 billion during a recent fiscal year. The lottery helps fund public education in the state, and over recent years has contributed nearly $2 billion per year to CA public schools.
Online sales of lottery tickets are not legal in California, but there are more than 23,000 retail locations where players can play the lottery. California participates in multi-jurisdictional draw games like Powerball and Mega Millions. The CA Lottery also has its own in-state games like SuperLotto Plus, Fantasy Five, and others. The lottery additionally features a selection of scratch-off instant games or “scratchers.”
One quirk of the California State Lottery is how for draw games it uses a pari-mutuel system to determine cash prize amounts. In other words, there are never set amounts for any of the prizes. They always depend on the number of tickets that people buy. California uses this system for Powerball and Mega Millions, as well. That doesn’t affect the top prize, but for lower-tier prizes, California players win different amounts from people playing in other states.
Another distinct aspect of the California Lottery is the fact that the state does not withhold state or local taxes on lottery winnings. Those who win do, however, still have to pay federal tax on their winnings.
Charitable gaming in California
California also allows nonprofit organizations to conduct various forms of charitable gaming. These groups can legally conduct charitable games to raise money for schools, mobile home parks, senior citizens’ groups, religious groups and churches, civil leagues, veterans organizations, fraternal orders, and other nonprofit, tax-exempt entities.
Bingo is by far the most common type of legal charitable gaming in California. Nonprofit organizations can also invite players to participate in raffles and pull tabs, and to play other games like poker or pai gow as long as the games raise funds for charity and stay within the prescribed limits.
Generally speaking, local jurisdictions oversee the games, although California law does stipulate certain guidelines that all must follow. One such restriction is a $500 maximum on top prizes in these charitable games.
The CGCC does oversee remote caller bingo, including issuing licenses to groups satisfying the requirements to do so. But for the most part, cities and counties handle oversight of charitable gaming in California.
Looking ahead: The future of legal gambling in California
The next most likely expansion of legal gambling in California will involve sports betting. The US Supreme Court ruled against the federal ban on states legalizing sports betting in 2018, and since then dozens of states have done just that. Over recent years, California has likewise considered the possibility of legalizing sports betting. Tribal casinos, card rooms, racetracks, and other venues are all in the running as potential locations for California’s first legal sportsbooks.
If sports betting becomes legal in California, there is a chance that online sportsbooks will be able to launch in the state, as well. If they are, Californians throughout the state would be able to wager on sports legally without having to visit a retail location.
That said, other forms of online gambling such as real money online casinos are less likely to become legal in California any time soon. In the past, legislators did try for several years to introduce online poker laws in California, but those efforts never came to fruition.
Californians wishing to play casino games online do have legal options with social and sweepstakes casinos. Social casinos like Pulsz invite players to play slots and table games for entertainment purposes. Other sites like Chumba Casino, LuckyLand Slots, and Funzpoints employ a sweepstakes model to allow players to play casino games using virtual currencies with a chance at redeeming cash prizes.