California gambling laws are unique in what they allow and what they prohibit. In some cases, these laws force casinos to find creative means to offer traditional games that would not otherwise be legal. Roulette is a great example of a popular game in casinos across the US and around the world, but which in California is illegal unless available in a modified form.
Only California’s federally recognized Native American tribes that have gambling compacts with the state can legally offer even the modified version of roulette in their casinos. That is to say, you won’t find anything resembling roulette in any of the card rooms in California or elsewhere. However, what you’ll find in those tribal casinos is not exactly roulette, at least not from a legal standpoint. It is California roulette, a game that looks and plays a lot like traditional roulette, but one that uses playing cards and/or other means to make it different from the usual game.
Here’s an overview of roulette as you’ll find it in California tribal casinos, including information about some of the interesting modifications the casinos have made to the traditional game. We also have details about how to play roulette, as well as information about playing roulette online in California.
Is roulette legal in California?
Roulette is not legal in California. But the altered version of roulette available in tribal casinos — aka California roulette — is legal.
During the late 1990s, California and many of the Native American tribes there began signing tribal-state gambling compacts. The first group of more than 60 compacts is often referred to as the 1999 Compacts (even though some happened later). Subsequent groupings are the 2004 Compacts and the 2012 Compacts. California voters, meanwhile, approved the building of tribal casinos at the ballot box, and the first ones began to appear in 2001.
As is true in other states, the games that California’s compacts allowed must also be legal under California law. Put simply, the California Penal Code forbids a number of casino games for real money, but exceptions allow both tribal casinos and California card rooms to offer certain games under certain conditions.
In 2004, the California Division of Gambling Control issued an advisory to the state’s gambling tribes reiterating how “the game of roulette is specifically prohibited by name as being illegal to deal, play, carry on, open, cause to be opened, or conducted, under California law.”
That same advisory also described California roulette, a game using 38 playing cards and an automatic shuffler to simulate the same sort of probabilities as the traditional ball and spinning wheel. Most pertinently, the advisory made clear the legal status of California roulette as available in tribal casinos.
“The Division does not consider California Roulette to be the game of roulette because California Roulette is a banked card game,” the advisory explained (bold added).
That’s the story in a nutshell. Roulette is not legal in California. But California roulette, a game that uses cards, is legal.
Where can you play online roulette in California?
Online gambling for real money is illegal in California. You won’t find any real money online casinos legally operating in the state. That means you cannot legally play online roulette for real money in California.
Californians can, however, play roulette online at social and sweepstakes casinos.
Pulsz Slots and Casino is a social casino that invites players to play a number of different casino games for fun. Among the offerings at Pulsz is one online roulette game, American Roulette 3D.
Meanwhile sweepstakes online casinos use virtual currencies that can be redeemed for cash prizes. Most sweepstakes casinos focus mostly on slots, but an exception is Chumba Casino, likely the most popular online sweepstakes casino at present. In addition to slots, Chumba Casino offers some table games, including online roulette gambling.
How to play roulette
Traditional roulette, as you’ll find it in most casinos outside of California or online, involves a board marked with numbers, a ball, and the iconic spinning roulette wheel operated by a croupier in retail casinos.
Players start by purchasing chips from the person running the game, known as the croupier. Very often a roulette table will use its own special chips that are different from the casino chips you buy at the cashier cage and play with at other table games. Players will play the game with these chips, then exchange them for regular casino chips before leaving the table.
Once players have their chips, the croupier will spin the wheel to begin the game. While the wheel is spinning, players make their bets by placing the chips on the roulette board. Eventually, the croupier will announce that betting is closed and everyone waits for the wheel to stop. When it does, the croupier will place a marker on the winning number before settling all bets and proceeding to the next spin.
Different forms of roulette
There are two primary variations of roulette in retail casinos and online:
- European roulette
- American roulette
Roulette originated in France during the 18th century. Eventually, the game settled upon a standard wheel with slots for the numbers 1-36, with half the numbers marked red and the other half black. Those early wheels also featured two slots marked zero and double-zero (0 and 00). That was the wheel when roulette began to appear in American gambling dens at the start of the 19th century. Interestingly, in Europe, the single-zero roulette wheel later became standard as the game developed through the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
Meanwhile, the American version of roulette continued to use the double-zero wheel. On the wheel, the single-zero and double-zero slots are both typically green to distinguish them from the red and black numbers.
That difference is what distinguishes European roulette from American roulette. When you sit down to play European roulette, you’ll find the wheel has only the single-zero. If the game is American roulette, you’ll see both single-zero and double-zero spaces. As explained below, the difference affects the game’s odds, with American roulette affording the house a greater edge than European roulette.
California tribal casinos base their California roulette games on the American version that employs both the single- and double-zero. The sweepstakes site Chumba Casino, where Californians can play, also features American roulette.
Different types of roulette bets
Roulette is a true gambling game. There is no “system” or skill that can improve your chances of winning. That said, knowing what the different bets are can help you at least understand what you’re risking and your chances of winning or losing.
Bets in roulette generally fall into two categories — either inside bets or outside bets. Inside bets are on the numbers located “inside” the main box on the roulette board. Outside bets are on the different combinations of numbers in smaller boxes located “outside” the main box. Inside bets have longer odds and bigger payouts, while outside bets are more conservative (relatively speaking).
Here are the most popular inside bets (along with their usual payouts):
- Single-number or “straight up” bets (pay 35-to-1).
- Double-number or “split” bets in which you bet on two adjacent numbers by placing a chip on the line between them (17-to-1).
- Three-number or “street” bets on a row of three numbers (11-to-1).
- Four-number or “corner” bets in which you bet on four adjacent numbers by placing a chip on the intersection of all four (8-to-1).
- Five-number bets on 0, 00, 1, 2 and 3 (6-to-1).
- Six-number bets also called “line” or “double street” bets on two rows of three numbers each (5-to-1).
You can also bet on the single-zero or the double-zero, which like other single-number bets pays 35-to-1. Or bet on both 0 and 00 at once (at 17-to-1). There are also a few other split bets involving different combinations of the 0 and 00 and the three numbers along the top row (1, 2, 3).
Meanwhile, the outside bets offer bets on groups of numbers as follows:
- Bets on the first 12 (1-12), second 12 (13-24), or third 12 (25-36), aka betting “dozens” (2-to-1).
- Bets on a column of numbers containing a third of the numbers from 1-36 (2-to-1).
- Bets on red or black (1-to-1).
- Bets on odd or even numbers (1-to-1).
- Bets on 1-18 or 19-36 (1-to-1).
Unlike inside bets, outside bets usually are not available to “split” by combining different bet types into one wager.
If you do a little math, you can see how the house has an edge in roulette. The house edge is even greater in American roulette with both the single- and double-zero, neither of which are red or black, or odd or even, or part of many other groups of numbers on which you can bet.
For example, say you bet on red — an even-money bet (1-to-1). There are 18 red numbers, but there are 20 non-red spots on the wheel (the black numbers plus the two green numbers, 0 and 00). You have an 18/38 or 47.4% chance to double your money, which means the house has a better-than-even chance of winning.
That’s the case for all of the probabilities and payouts in roulette. The house always has an edge, making the payouts slightly less than what the chances are of hitting your desired number(s).
Betting limits in roulette
One other aspect of betting on roulette worth covering is the betting limits. As with other table games, you’ll typically find that each roulette table has both minimum and maximum betting amounts. These amounts are usually visible on the table itself, either printed on the felt or on a posted sign.
Be aware that when you place an outside bet, the bet must be at least the table minimum. Meanwhile, when placing inside bets you can actually divide your wager into amounts that are smaller than the posted minimum, but that together add up to at least the minimum.
For example, if the table minimum is $25, any outside bet you make has to be at least $25. For inside bets, though, you could bet $5 each on five different numbers if you like. The minimum is per spin, which means as long as you are betting $25 total with those inside bets, you’re fine.
Legal roulette games in California casinos
Understanding how traditional roulette works helps us follow the modifications California tribal casinos have made in order to transform their games into California roulette.
The difference, however, is essentially cosmetic and doesn’t truly affect the game as described above. You’ll find all the same betting options and payouts in California roulette as there are in traditional roulette.
The big change is the use of playing cards to determine outcomes rather than using a ball and wheel as in regular roulette. To give you an idea of what that means, here are a couple of examples of California roulette as found in California casinos.
Mystery Card Roulette
Mystery Card Roulette is the most common brand name for California roulette. The order of play is just as we described above for regular roulette. Players purchase chips from the croupier, and while the wheel spins they place their bets on the roulette board. Incidentally, you’ll often hear the person managing a California roulette game described as the dealer, not a croupier, which reminds us the game does use cards.
The wheel has vertical posts around it, much like a Wheel of Fortune game. When the betting closes, the dealer drops a flapper that hits against the posts as they go by. Eventually, the wheel stops with the flapper resting between two of the posts.
The center of the wheel contains 38 cards positioned kind of like spokes. There is one card each for the numbers 1-36 plus a 0 and 00 card. These numbered cards are marked as red or black (for 1-36) and green (for 0 and 00), corresponding to the numbers and colors on the board. When the wheel stops, the dealer pulls out the indicated card and shows it to the players, places a marker on the winning number, then settles the bets.
Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula is one of several casinos that offers Mystery Card Roulette in California. Here is a video from Pechanga explaining the game that gives you a good idea of how California roulette looks different from regular roulette, but plays the same.
Some roulette casinos in California offer their own special take on California roulette, although in each case the game uses cards instead of a ball. One such example is available at Pala Casino Spa Resort in Pala, a game they call Pala Roulette.
Like regular roulette, the game features the same roulette board and all of the same types of bets. There is a wheel with 38 spots as well, although with no numbers. Instead, the spots feature four different colors. There are 12 spots colored red, 12 more that are blue, and 12 that are white, plus two spots that are green.
Before spinning the wheel, the dealer shuffles a 38-card deck in which the cards are numbered 1-36, 0, and 00, then deals four cards face down onto four different-colored regions on the table (red, blue, white, green). The spinning wheel then determines the color, and the dealer turns over the corresponding card to reveal the winning number.
Incidentally, Pala Roulette does use a ball and wheel as in regular roulette. But as you can see, the cards help determine which number wins, and that’s enough of a difference to make Pala Roulette, unlike regular roulette.
Pala Roulette incorporates one other twist that sets its game apart, what it calls the Super Green Bet. Players can bet a maximum of $1 on whether the chosen color will be green and the number either 0 or 00. If that happens, players win a payout of 275-to-1 on their wager.
Note, however, that like all roulette bets the odds against winning the Super Green Bet give the house an edge — in this case quite a large one, as the chance of winning is around 1 in 361.
Video or electronic roulette
Finally, you’ll also frequently find video or electronic roulette available in California casinos. Again, these games all play just like regular roulette (the American version), except players make their wagers on screens rather than with chips on a table.