The topic of legal online poker is not new to the state of California, the largest potential market that exists in North America by far. However, to date, politicians, operators, and tribes that control most of the State’s gaming have not been able to fully agree on the terms of a bill that would return online poker to The Golden State.
Legal Status of Playing Poker Online in California
California state law does not specifically address online poker. At the same time, it is widely understood that traditional online poker is not legal in California.
Legal online poker should be codified in state law. It should provide details as to licensing and operations, taxation and regulations, all overseen by the California Gambling Control Commission.
However, years of discussions and negotiations have only led to frustration, not only for legislators and potential interests but for poker players. And due to the lack of compromise by special interests, players have few online poker options.
Sweepstakes poker rooms provide a way to avoid legal liability. Players can log on to these US sweepstakes poker rooms and play for virtual currency. They pay a monthly fee to play on the site, and players can then exchange their virtual coins for cash later. Recreational players and pros alike are finding this to be a viable option as prize pools become larger and more consequential.
The other option for California poker players is offshore poker sites, which are unregulated by any US entity and largely unmonitored by reliable gaming agencies. These sites offer real-money deposits and withdrawals, though fees can be significant if using banking methods other than cryptocurrency.
California Started Strong and Early to Regulate Online Poker
California legislators has spent more years trying to legalize and regulate online poker than any other state. While most states didn’t even think about online poker or online casino games until after Black Friday – when the United States government seized PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, UltimateBet, and Absolute Poker sites on April 15, 2011 – California saw the writing on the wall.
This state was one of the most popular in the country to play live poker, so both players and powers knew that they had an opportunity to put California ahead of all others when the US government passed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006). As partypoker and other operators left the US online poker market, California could regulate the game early, not only to show other states how it could be done but to have legal online poker set in state law should the US government try to ban it altogether. California could be exempt from a federal law if it had a state law and a regulated industry in process.
Not only did California have card room operators and Native American tribal casino owners to work with, the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) was a strong organization in poker with more than one million members. The PPA worked with online poker operators and lawmakers alike while representing poker players, so a mediator of this type was thought to be the perfect body of interested parties to make it all happen.
That was the case, as the PPA led the way to discussions and negotiations…until it all fell apart.
Attempts to Regulate Online Poker in California
Long before other states recognized the present and future dangers to online poker – or cared what it meant for their poker players – California was on the mission. It was (and still is) the most populous state in America. It had the players, the forethought, the thriving live poker scene, and the forward-thinking lawmakers to get it done.
So, the journey began.
2008: AB.2026 was a proposal introduced to the legislature to study the feasibility of intrastate online poker. It passed through its committee and was amended by both the Assembly & Senate, but it ultimately stalled.
2010: SB.1485 was floated as a possible bill but then withdrawn after receiving significant pushback from the public.
2010: SB.40 was introduced with the backing of many California , but it failed to gain any momentum and went nowhere.
2012: SB.1463 was another attempt with the backing of the tribes in an alliance, but it did not improve on the progress made the year prior, and it failed. In addition, the tribal alliance ended after the defeat.
2013: SB.51 and SB.678 were both introduced to the legislature but failed to gain any traction. They fizzled out quickly.
2014: SB.1366 and AB.2291 caused a fair amount of discussion among lawmakers and special interests. The former introduced a bad actor clause that would have prevented operators from getting licensed if they operated in California (see PokerStars and Full Tilt) after Black Friday. Discussions on both yielded resistance from various groups and neither made it to the Assembly.
2015: Four online poker bills made their way to committees, but all found different levels of resistance. They all failed.
2016: AB.2863 passed its committee and moved forward but met resistance on taxation rules and was sent back for review. That was where it died.
2017: AB.1677 tried for legalization but it did not make it out of its committee. By the end of 2017, the partnership between PokerStars and California tribes ended, and lawmakers expressed their frustration, adding that they were unlikely to try again.
2018: Lawmakers focused on sports betting, though that effort failed.
2019: Sports betting efforts failed again.
2022: Two propositions for legalized sports betting made the November ballot for a public vote. However, the proponents and opponents on each side spent nearly $600 million in advertising, the most spent on any ballot propositions in United States history. The public reacted in confusion and anger, voting down both bills by significant margins.
There are several primary hurdles to California legalizing online poker or any type of online wagering, such as sports betting.
Native American tribes disagree with each other as to which should be able to offer said gaming or betting, how revenue would be distributed and taxes levied, and how land-based and online partnerships should be structured.
Cardrooms and tribal casinos disagree as to revenue, taxation, access, and regulatory framework, to name just some of the issues.
Most casinos and cardrooms still feel that PokerStars should be locked out of any market due to its refusal to leave the US online poker market after the UIGEA became effective, instead waiting until being forced out on Black Friday. (This is the much-discussed “bad actor” clause in past legislative proposals.)
Horse racing tracks across California want a piece of any igaming action. They did agree at one point to accept a subsidy-type payment to stay out of the industry, but all interests did not agree to the payments.
Since Poker Central (now PokerGO) bought the Poker Players Alliance in 2018, it rebranded the organization as the Poker Alliance but then allowed it to falter and fizzle into nonexistence. There has since been no lobbying or influential organization representing the interests of online poker players.
Lawmakers spent years trying to find agreement among the many parties in the California gambling community to no avail. There are few lawmakers interested in trying again.
Sweepstakes Online Poker vs Real Money Poker
California does not have legalized real money poker, but that is not to say that online poker does not exist. It does, but a popular form of online poker in the state is sweepstakes online poker.
Sweepstakes poker sites are legal poker sites that offer real money prizes for its players. The main difference between more traditional online poker sites and sweepstake poker sites is that traditional poker sites offer buy-ins and prizes in an established currency, usually USD. A sweepstakes poker site will offer players the chance to buy tickets or coins used by the site that allow the player to access the tournaments and cash games. Once ready to cash out, players can get this currency refunded back to them and exchange that currency for real money.
When players sign up to play in a cash game or buy in to a tournament, they can use the site’s currency for those transactions. For example, at Global Poker, players can buy gold coins to use in various cash games or tournaments. As players accumulate more coins, they can trade them in for cash prizes or gift cards. While sweepstakes poker sites are legal, online poker players will want to review a site’s rules and the methods of transferring funds and currencies. They should fully understand how the site works and its benefits and limitations. The differences between sweepstakes and traditional online poker are important, as there are no direct cash transfers or single-step transactions.
The Live Poker Scene in California
Unlike online poker, live poker is alive and well in the Golden State.
There are approximately 60 licensed cardrooms across the state of California open for business, with dozens more holding licenses but not currently in operation. These establishments can offer Texas Hold’em and other poker variants.
In addition, there are 67 licensed tribal casinos in California, some operating as fully-functional casinos with slot machines and poker rooms, while others offer only bingo or a handful of video gaming terminals. Fewer than half of the tribal casinos offer traditional poker.
Some of the most famous poker rooms are found in California as shown in the table below. Parkwest Bicycle Casino (also known as “The Bike”), Hustler Casino, and Commerce Casino are the most popular and located in the greater Los Angeles area. They are open around the clock and offer all types of cash games and tournaments, with Hustler Casino Live even offering some of the most-watched high-stakes cash poker game streams in the world.
The largest card clubs in the state by number of tables are:
Commerce Casino in Commerce, Los Angeles (374 tables)
Hawaiian Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens, Los Angeles (374 tables)
Parkwest Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, Los Angeles (200 tables)
Hustler Casino in Gardena, Los Angeles (91 tables)
Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, Los Angeles (75 tables)
Lucky Chances Casino in Colma, San Mateo (60 tables)
Artichoke Joe’s Casino in San Bruno, San Mateo (51 tables)
Club One Casino in Fresno (51 tables)
Lucky Lady Casino in Gardena, Los Angeles (50 tables)
Ocean’s Eleven Casino in Oceanside, San Diego (50 tables)
Bay 101 Casino in San Jose, Santa Clara (49 tables)
Casino M8trix in San Jose, Santa Clara (49 tables)
The 19th Hole Casino & Lounge
2746 W Tregallas Rd, Antioch, CA 94509
500 Club Casino
771 W Shaw Ave, Clovis, CA 93612
Agua Caliente Casino
32250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
Artichoke Joe's Casino
659 Huntington Ave, San Bruno, CA 94066
The Aviator Casino
1225 Airport Dr, Delano, CA 93215
111 Monterey St, Salinas, CA 93901
Barona Resort & Casino
1932 Wildcat Canyon Rd, Lakeside, CA 92040
Bay 101 Casino
1788 N First St #10, San Jose, CA 95112 [JN1] [JN2]
Technically no, online poker for real money is not legal in California. All the online poker rooms that follow state-by-state licensing rules are not open to players from the Golden State. However, players have three options available to them if they want to play poker for money – play on an offshore, unregulated site; play on a sweepstakes poker site, or play at a live casino or card room.
When will online poker be legal in California?
No one has any idea when online poker will be fully legal in California. Given the countless attempts of politicians, lawmakers, card room operators, tribal leaders, and other interested parties to no avail, some believe it will never happen. There are numerous issues that remain non-negotiable for many parties in the discussions.
What is the best California online poker site?
For global gaming sweepstakes, the best California online poker site, as seen in the table above, is Global Poker. It is the most established sweepstakes poker room with the largest assortment of games and tournaments, as well as reliable payment systems.
Can you win real money playing online poker in California?
Yes, you can win real money playing online poker in California, provided you are playing on either a sweepstakes poker room, or an offshore, unregulated poker room. In the case of sweepstakes poker rooms, players can win coins or another currency that the online poker room offers and exchange those for cash prizes or gift cards.
Is PokerStars available in California?
No, PokerStars is not available for real money poker in California. Players can access play-money poker on PokerStars within California, including home games that are not for real money.
What is the difference between sweepstake poker and real money online poker?
The biggest difference between real money poker and sweepstake poker is that real money poker sites allow players to deposit and withdraw an established currency, typically USD, directly on and off the site. Sweepstakes poker sites differ because players must buy the site’s specified non-monetary currency to enter poker games and tournaments, and then they can buy cash prizes or gift cards when they are ready to withdraw their winnings.
What is the status of the current bill in the California Assembly to legalize online poker?
There are no online poker bills – or even sports betting bills – pending in the California legislature. The next chance for lawmakers to introduce proposals will be in early 2024.