California Poker Online

One out of eight people who live in the United States reside in California – the most populous state in the US and the third largest physically after Alaska and Texas. Consequently there is a huge amount of interest in the progression of California gambling laws – particularly from other states deliberating over whether to introduce poker for real money in their jurisdictions.

The significance of Californian online gaming cannot be underestimated. If California was an independent country, it would have the ninth largest economy in the world [1], and it also has a rich tradition of gambling which preceded the 1848 Gold Rush and California´s entry into the Union in 1850 when it became the 31st State [2].

Can I Play Online Poker if I Live in California?

Absolutely. The Office of the Attorney General´s Gambling Law, Regulations, and Resource Information [3] contains 423 pages of legislation relating to gambling in California, and nowhere is it mentioned that online poker in California is prohibited.

Furthermore §19842 of the California Gaming Laws and Regulations [4] states that the California Gambling Control Commission:

shall not prohibit the play of any game or restrict the manner in which any game is played unless the commission finds that the game, or the manner in which the game is played, violates a law of the United States, a law of this state or a local ordinance (*)

The only grey area which exists is the provision of online poker by offshore web sites; which could be classed as illegal under a strict interpretation of §19850 of the California Gaming and Laws and Regulations (requiring a valid state gambling license to provide a controlled game). Despite the penalty being a maximum $10,000 fine (California Penal Code 337j [5]) there are still plenty of poker sites willing to provide a service for Californian poker players.

(*) The common misconception that the 1961 Wire Act and 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act prohibited online poker in California was invalidated in 2011 when the Department of Justice ruled that the provisions in these laws applied only to sporting events or contests [6].

Is it Legal to Play Online Poker in California?

In many jurisdictions outside of California, the law is often interpreted in such a way that it is illegal to engage in any activity if it is not officially sanctioned by the state; but in California the laws are interpreted in such a way as if it is not banned, it is legal. Consequently, the Golden State is home to more than 100 card rooms, 68 casinos, 6 racetracks (plus thirty off-track betting facilities) and 21,000 lottery retailers [7],

When lotteries, games of dice, roulette and bank games (in which players played against the house) were prohibited in the original Californian constitution (of 1849), it remained legal to play poker, bridge and other card games in which an element of skill was involved. Several challenges to this interpretation of the law have been made in Californian courts (see our “History of Gambling Legislation in California” section below), but each time the courts have dismissed the cases.

This would imply that it is legal to play online poker in California – a view which is reinforced by recent attempts to regulate online poker in California in order to make it more secure for those playing it, and also so that the state can generate some tax revenue from a market which is valued at $400 million per year [8].

The History of Gambling Legislation in California

The original Californian constitution in 1849, and a second one thirty years later, did not have much effect on the availability of gambling during the early days of the Golden State – when a named game was prohibited, those playing it would simply change its name. The articles within the constitution were originally created to stop the organizers of gambling activities (players were not prohibited from playing banned games until 1885) and the penalties for breaking the law were slight.

There has been a relaxed attitude towards gambling legislation ever since – examples being that it took sixteen years to ban slot machines after they were first introduced into San Francisco in 1895 [9], and Senator Rod Wright´s first attempt to introduce legislation for online poker in California – SB 51 in 2012 [10] – failed to get a hearing despite being introduced as an emergency measure to resolve serious issues with the state´s budget deficit.

Other notable dates in California´s legislative history include:

1933: Voters approved an amendment to the constitution legalizing pari-mutuel betting at the state´s horse racing tracks [11].

1941: The Monterey Club (in Monterey Club v. Superior Court) argues successfully that a non-bank game of cards which is not specifically listed in Section 330 of the Penal Code is not prohibited [12].

1947: Attorney General of California Frederick N. Howser bans Stud Poker on the grounds that it is a game played against the house (idiot) [13].

1984: Legislation is passed to authorize a state lottery and the first lottery tickets go on sale in October 1985. California allows inter-state lotteries in 2005 [14].

1987: The US Supreme Court Ruling in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians [15] allowed tribal casinos on Indian territory and paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act 1988 [16].

1990: The Superior Court of Alameda County finds thatTexas Hold´em is a different game from Stud Poker(Tibbetts v. Van de Kamp) [17] and allows it to continue at the Oaks Card Room in Emeryville.

2000: A proposal to legalize gaming on Native American lands is passed by a 65% margin in a state ballot and compacts were signed with almost 60 tribal casinos [18].

2001: California Governor Gray Davis signs into law an amendment to the Instate Horseracing Act which allows gamblers to place their bets over the Internet [19].

The Current Situation Regarding Online Poker in California

After Senator Rod Wright´s abortive attempt to regulate online poker in California in 2012, Senator Lou Correa introduced The Authorization and Regulation of Internet Poker and Consumer Protection Act (SB 678) in 2013. That bill also failed to make it into legislation, and was re-introduced in 2014 as SB 1366. At the same time Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced AB 2291 The Internet Consumer Protect Act of 2014.

Major differences existed between SB 1366 and AB 2291 in terms of who was allowed to apply for an online poker license, the costs of licensing and the number of licenses that would be issued. The two most contentious points related to whether PokerStars would be allowed entry into California and whether horse racing tracks would also be allowed to apply for licenses. Infighting between the Indian tribes – keen to protect their own interests – delayed both bills until they were eventually shelved.

Poker´s Big Winners from California

There are a stack of big winners who come from California, with the top 134 players in the Hendon Mob database all having won in excess of $1 million [20]. Without doubt the biggest winner is Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, who won the $1 million buy-in “Big One for One Drop” at the 2012 World Series of Poker (WSOP) for $18,346,673. However, it is unlikely that he paid the full amount of the buy-in out of his own funds, and some of his winnings went to other people who staked him.

Certainly the Californian poker player with the most impressive résumé is Phil Hellmuth Jr. The “Poker Brat” won his first WSOP bracelet in 1989 at age 24, and since then has won 12 further WSOP titles, appeared on the final table on fifty occasions and cashed in the series more than one hundred times. Hellmuth´s lifetime earnings exceed $18 million and place him seventh in the world´s all-time money list.

The Chances of California Online Poker being Regulated in the Future

The chances of California online poker being regulated in the future are very good. Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer has already indicated that he intends to re-introduce AB 2291 into the 2015-2016 Californian legislative session and he claims to have made progress resolving the differences that hindered previous attempts by himself, Senator Rod Wright and Senator Lou Correa.

What form the new proposals will take, and whether they will find a two-thirds majority in both houses to become law, only time will tell. But while the lawmakers, tribes and other interest parties are discussing how poker in California will be regulated, everybody else can spend their time playing online poker for real money without fear of prosecution or any risk to their bankrolls.


[1] GDP Comparison between US States and RoW Countries
[2] California Admission Day September 9, 1850
[3] Gambling Law, Regulations, and Resource Information
[4] California Gaming Laws and Regulations
[5] California Penal Code 330-337z
[6] DoJ Ruling on Internet Lottery Sales
[7] History of Gambling in California
[8] Legislative Analyst´s Office Report 2014
[9] History of Gambling in the United States
[10] Text of Senator Wright´s SB 51
[11] Californian Racing History
[12] Monterey Club v. Superior Court
[13] California Lottery v. Gambling
[14] History of California State Lottery
[15] California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
[16] Indian Gaming Regulatory Act 1988
[17] Tibbetts v. Van de Kamp
[18] The History of Indian Gaming in California
[19] California Legalizes Internet Gambling
[20] Hendon Mob Database – California Money List