Online poker is hugely popular in California. Californians have played games, e.g., Texas Hold ’em and Omaha at home since the first online sites appeared in the late 1990s.
Land-based poker is on the up, too. California boasts a massive selection of legal poker rooms that host the biggest games in the world.
For now, regulated intrastate online poker in California looks unlikely. However, there are other ways you can play Texas Hold ’em on your PC or mobile device.
So, what can Californians expect when real money online poker becomes legal on the West Coast?
As of 2020, sweepstakes-based poker sites like Global Poker are the only legal form of online poker available in California.
Sweepstakes-based poker sites in California
Sweepstakes-based poker sites are a fun way to play legal online poker and online casino games in California. The primary currency used on sweepstakes sites is entirely virtual and can’t be transferred out, which means that it doesn’t hold any real-world value.
Players can purchase this virtual currency using real money. The catch is that every virtual currency pack is bundled with special sweepstakes tickets, which can be used to participate in sweepstakes cash games and sweepstakes tournaments. They can also be redeemed for real money prizes as soon as they are wagered at least once.
This solution works because the basic, valueless virtual currency is the product you pay for.
California poker fact sheet:
|Land-based card games:||Yes|
|Largest poker room:||Commerce Casino|
|Home games:||Yes, but no rake allowed|
|Legal online poker:||No, sweepstakes only|
Sweepstakes model showcase – Global Poker
Global Poker became available to California resident in early 2017. Allowing for sweepstakes based online poker for real cash prizes! You can also play at it’s sister site Chumba Casino which offers online casino games for real cash prizes.
Global Poker supports 6-max and 9-max ring games as well as single- and multi-table tournaments. Available online poker variants include No-Limit Hold’em, Fixed-Limit Hold’em, Pot-Limit Omaha, and Crazy Pineapple, which is a Hold’em variant in which players are assigned three hole cards instead of two and must discard one of them after the flop.
The site sees enough traffic to keep the tables running 24/7, but if you want to participate in high-stakes games, we recommend playing during the evening peak traffic hours.
The software is HTML5-based, which makes it compatible with a wide range of desktop computers and mobile devices. Unfortunately, there is no download option, but the browser app supports playing on multiple tables at once.
How to Play Poker Online
You can play hold ’em, Omaha and a range of tournaments and cash games online in 2020. The question is, how do you do it?
For now, it’s safe to stick to free to play online poker rooms that accept US players. You can also play for “sweeps cash” at brand new sweepstakes poker websites.
Online Poker Using Sweepstakes
Online sweepstake poker sites and casinos are relatively new. These sites allow you to play poker for free, but it’s possible to win some real cash, too.
At sites, e.g., Global Poker, you purchase virtual coins via PayPal or your credit card. When you are buying play money, you receive virtual “sweeps cash” (SC).
You can then switch between play money and “sweeps cash” tables with your new currency. If you win cash games and tournaments, you can withdraw your winnings in real cash to your bank account or e-wallet.
Sweepstakes poker is entirely legal in California.
Global Poker is the sister site of Chumba Casino, a free-to-play social casino. You can play six-max and full-ring cash games in variants like No Limit Hold ’em, Omaha or Crazy Pineapple. You can also enter single table tournaments (STT) and multi-table tournaments (MTT).
Global Poker has proved popular since it launched in 2017.
You can earn “sweeps cash” when you purchase play-money coins, and you can obtain more “sweeps cash” by sharing posts on social media.
In 2019, Global Poker held the Rattlesnake Open II. The giant championship series gave away $1 million in “sweeps cash” to winning players. Buy-ins ranged from SC $3.30 to SC $218, and there were some large prize guarantees attached. The main event featured a buy-in of SC $218 and a guaranteed prize pool worth SC $100,000.
Popular Online Poker Variants
Texas Hold ’em
Texas Hold ’em is the most popular form of poker online. It’s easy to learn, and you will find more hold ’em cash games and tournaments than any other variant.
How to Play
Hold’em uses a standard 52-card deck. You are dealt two cards at the start of the hand.
The idea is to form the best five-card poker hand made up of your two cards and five “community” cards in the middle of the table. All players at the table share the community cards.
There are four rounds of betting in Texas Hold ’em. A “pre-flop” round of betting follows the deal. A round of betting follows the “flop” when the three community cards are dealt. Then, another round of betting follows the “turn” community card.
Finally, a “river” card is dealt on the table, and a final round of betting takes place. The showdown is between all remaining players who compare hands.
There are three betting structures in hold ’em.
- No limit: No limit is the most common form of the game. In no limit, there is no maximum bet you can make. If an opponent moves all in for all his chips, you can still make a call even if you don’t have enough chips to match the bet.
- Pot limit: You can bet any amount up to the total size of the current pot.
- Limit: There are structured bets for pre-flop, flop, turn and river play. Pre-flop and flop bets and raises are equal to the big blind. On the turn and river, bets and raises are worth double the big blind.
In Omaha, you are dealt four cards at the start of a hand.
You still share five community cards with opponents. However, at the end of a hand, you must use two of your hole cards with three community cards to make a five-card poker hand. It is usually played as Pot Limit Omaha online.
Stud comes in two forms: five-card and seven-card.
Online, stud is generally played as a limit game. You are each dealt one or two cards face down and one face up. You play several rounds of betting until you receive a final card face down. After the showdown, the best five-card poker hand wins.
Crazy Pineapple is popular at free-to-play sweepstakes sites like Global Poker. The game is similar to Texas Hold ’em, but you receive three “hole” cards at the start of a hand instead of two.
There is a round of pre-flop betting after the deal. As in Texas Hold ’em, a flop of three community cards are dealt out. Everyone shares these cards.
Three cards (the flop) are dealt on the table. A betting round takes place, and you discard one card from your hand.
Further rounds of betting follow, with a single turn and river card dealt in between. At showdown, the best five-card hand wins.
Poker Cardrooms in California
Live poker is legal in California. The Golden State now boasts some of the biggest and best poker rooms in the country. There are around 70 brick-and-mortar card rooms in California.
The Commerce Casino, in LA, is one of the biggest card rooms in the world. It houses more than 250 tables and hosts regular hold ’em, Omaha and Stud cash games and tournaments. The Commerce also offers blackjack and three-card poker tables.
The Commerce is a significant stop on the World Poker Tour, the WPT LA Poker Classic. The LA Poker Classic costs $10,000 to enter and regularly attracts some of the most prominent players in the world.
BICYCLE HOTEL & CASINO
“The Bike” in Bell Gardens, is also one of the largest cardrooms in the world.
Its poker room is more than 100,000 square feet and features 185 tables spreading Texas Hold ’em, Omaha, 7-Card Stud and Mexican Poker.
The Bike is also a regular host for the World Poker Tour. The Legends of Poker event has been held at the Bike for years.
BAY 101 CASINO
The Bay 101, in San Jose, has been operating since the 1920s.
The Bay 101 offers daily tournaments and cash games including Omaha Hi-Lo, No Limit Hold ’em and Stud.
The card room is also a host stop on the World Poker Tour. The Bay 101 Shooting Star takes place at the poker room every March and costs more than $5,000 to enter.
Play Free Poker Online in California
California has a long and rich tradition of legal poker. The online poker situation is a little murkier, however.
There have been attempts to bring in new gambling regulation, but California doesn’t offer legal online poker sites yet, although the state boasts some of the best live card rooms in the world.
You can still play online poker in California, but you need to be more selective with where you play. New sweepstakes poker rooms let you gamble with play credits and trigger cash prizes.
Put on your best poker face and find a site that’s the right fit for you.
Federal gambling regulations
California card rooms and tribal casinos can’t launch online poker rooms because of the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, or UIGEA. The UIGEA was put on the books in 2006 and prohibits American businesses from knowingly processing payments for any wagers placed over the internet.
The UIGEA doesn’t apply to licensed companies operating in states that explicitly legalized internet gambling, which is why Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware are allowed to run online poker sites with this law still in effect.
Numerous California Assemblymen and Senators, such as Roderick Wright, Lou Correa, Lloyd Levine, Mike Gatto, Adam Gray, Isadore Hall, and Reggie Jones-Sawyer, have tried pushing for similar regulations to be introduced in the Golden State since 2008, but none of their proposals have gained enough support to make it to the governor’s desk.
Native American online poker
In November 2014, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel tribe tried to take matters into its own hands. The tribe launched a real-money bingo site called Desert Rose Bingo in an attempt to test the UIGEA prohibition and potentially lay the groundwork for a future Native American internet poker project.
The servers that powered the site were located within the reservation, and the tribe maintained that it had the right to offer its gambling products online because the compact signed with the state authorized it to offer Class II games on tribal land.
The government immediately filed an injunction, forcing the site to be temporarily shut down. The legal battle lasted four years, and in 2018, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that the operation was illegal.
The judge agreed with the tribe regarding its jurisdiction over gambling on Indian land but noted that the act of placing a wager took place elsewhere on the territory of California, constituting a violation of the UIGEA.
This ruling proved without a shadow of a doubt that even the Native Californian tribes would not be able to launch legal poker sites without statewide legalization.
California Penal Code
Over the years, California poker players became discouraged with the lack of progress on the legislative front, and many turned to offshore poker platforms to get their internet poker fix. After all, these platforms can’t be shut down by the government as they are typically based in places like Panama or Antigua.
In the world of offshore gaming, the UIGEA doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the game; it merely inconveniences you when you try to make a deposit.
Unfortunately, the legality of playing on offshore sites is a contentious issue. Section 330 of the California Penal Code states that participating in any banking or percentage game constitutes a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
However, experts on gambling law can’t seem to agree on whether online poker offered by offshore platforms can be classified as a banking or percentage game. Pondering the technicalities of this issue should probably be left to people like Chuck Humphrey or Nelson Rose – we just want to emphasize that determining whether an online player can be punished if caught is impossible without precedent.
California online poker: Background
As expected, 2018 was not the year for California online poker. For the first time in a decade, no poker-related proposals were put forward during the legislative session. The national gambling debate shifted to sports betting after SCOTUS overturned the federal PASPA ban in May.
Unfortunately, California needs to amend its constitution before its lawmakers can start working on a bookmaking bill. Assemblyman Adam Gray proposed putting this issue on the November 2018 ballot, but his initiative didn’t gain enough support before the elections.
As a result, Californians won’t get to vote on sports betting legalization until November 2020. If the online poker camp decides to stick to Jones-Sawyer’s plan and pair its new bill with this issue, 2019 will be another year in which we won’t see any meaningful legislative action.
On the judicial front, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel tribe lost the Desert Rose Bingo case in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The online bingo operation that was supposed to pave the way for tribal internet poker was deemed illegal. The court dismissed the argument that all servers were located on tribal land and based its decision on the fact that the act of betting occurred elsewhere.
California online gambling fact sheet:
|Land-based card rooms:||Poker and other card games|
|Horse race betting:||Online betting allowed|
|Online poker:||Social sites only; UIGEA still in effect|
|Online casino games:||Social sites only; UIGEA still in effect|
|Minimum gambling age:||18 (21 at some casinos)|
California Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer introduced AB 1677 in February 2017. The goal of the bill was to legalize and regulate online poker in California. No wording in the bill even addressed the operator suitability issue. It looked like an attempt to start over.
Two months later, with no real movement on the bill, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians withdrew from its alliance with PokerStars.
California legislators never even got around to discussing online poker and when last day for the State Senate or Assembly to pass bills came on Sept. 15, California online poker was dead again.
In 2016, California came closer to passing legislation that would legalize and regulate online poker than it ever has before. Yet still, by the time the state’s legislative session ended in August, no bill had passed.
As it had been in the past, the biggest stumbling block for online poker legislation in the state in 2016 was operator suitability.
A tribal coalition led by Pechanga and Agua Caliente was pushing for a 10-year ban against PokerStars and parent company Amaya. PokerStars itself, alongside in-state partners like the Morongo and San Manuel tribes and Commerce, Bicycle and Hawaiian Gardens cardrooms, wanted regulators to make the decision, but appeared willing to accept a five-year penalty or $20 million payment in lieu of it.
In June, an online poker bill passed through the State Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. It was the furthest an online poker bill had ever gone in California. Then-Assemblyman Adam Gray, author of the bill, introduced amendments supporting a five-year ban for persons that took bets in California after Dec. 31, 2006. Depending on how the language in the amendments was interpreted, it may have also included a lifetime ban for operators that did the same.
Neither side seems happy with it. PokerStars went from calling the tribal coalition obstructionists, to standing in the way of the online poker bill itself.
The bill never made it through Assembly, Senate, or came anywhere close to making it to the Governor’s desk.
The year 2016 started with the Horse Racing industry, Tribal casinos, and online poker operators all on different sides of the online poker issue in California. It ended much the same way.
In many ways, 2015 is similar to the story of 2014, with the notable difference that political attention to the issue of online poker began earlier in the year and appears to have greater force behind it.
There are currently two primary competing visions for online poker in California – AB 9 and AB 167 – both of which sit with the Governmental Organization Committee in the Assembly.
There is an additional legislative vehicle for online poker in the Assembly: AB 431, sponsored by Assemblyman Adam Gray and co-authored by State Sen. Isadore Hall. AB 431 is currently a “shell” bill, meaning it contains little in the way of actual details or language.
You can read more about and track each bill using California’s online legislative information system.
As in past years, the key divisions revolve around who is eligible for licensure as an online poker operator.
In February 2014, two online poker bills were announced. SB 1366 would allow online poker only. It included a bad actor clause that would forbid any company from operating in the state if it took action from U.S. players after December 31, 2006.
AB 2291 was a similar bill. One difference is that the bad actor clause was left open for future debate.
On April 23, 2014, the California Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization held a hearing to discuss online poker. Topics included the history of online poker in the U.S., testimony from executives involved in the regulated industry, as well as views from tribal and commercial gaming companies.
The hearing appeared to be a positive for the online poker industry. One opponent of gambling in general was cut off from his speech. Andy Abboud, VP of Government Affairs for Las Vegas Sands, had his company’s motives questioned by the committee. All members of the committee that spoke appeared to be educated about the online poker industry.
Prior to 2014
Online poker has been an issue in California for nearly a decade at this point. The state has seen numerous bills prior to the handful currently circulating in Sacramento.
Six bills in the past had been introduced but failed to pass in the California Legislature. Those bills were the Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act of 2013, SB 51, SB 678, SB 1463, SB 40 and SB 45. These bills would have legalized, regulated and taxed online poker in California.
Is online poker legal in California? Read more about that complex question in this feature article.