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California Legal Poker

Last Update: April 4, 2015

Online Poker

Current state of online poker

The California legislature had two potential online poker bills on the table in 2014, both of which would only legalize online poker in the state. The first is SB 1366 which is a carbon copy of 2013′s SB 678 introduced by Senator Lou Correra. The second bill in the legislature was introduced in the Assembly (AB 2291) by Representative Reginald Jones-Sawyer, which has the backing of a strong contingent of California’s tribal interests and major card-rooms who would all benefit from the bills exclusionary language.

With the tribes and card-rooms approaching a near consensus, 2014 was considered California’s best opportunity for online poker expansion.

However, there is one important problem. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians and three card-rooms, Hawaiian Gardens, Commerce, and the Bicycle Club have entered into an agreement with PokerStars (later joined by the San Manuel tribe), while the rest of the major players have banded together to keep PokerStars out of the California market through a “bad actor” clause in the legislation.

You can read both sides of the story here and here.

Two online poker bills have been introduced into the California Assembly for the 2015/2016 legislative session. AB 9, a new bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, and AB 167, an effort by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer. the chairman of the GO Committees in the Assembly (Adam Gray) and Senate (Isadore Hall III) are also planning on introducing online poker bills.

Past efforts

Over the years California has tried and failed to legislate online poker several times. Because of the many competing interests (card clubs, tribal casinos, online operators and other casino groups), regulation of online poker has faced significant challenges in California. Efforts in 2011, spearheaded by State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and covering only online poker, largely didn’t get off the ground.In 2012, State Sen. Roderick Wright introduced a bill,SB 1463, to regulate internet gambling, including poker, in California. That bill was amended once and debated in committee but never reached the stage of full hearings or a floor vote.Correa is trying again in 2013. In late February he introduced a placeholder bill, SB 678, solely to regulate online poker. For the second time in as many sessions, Sen. Correa has introduced a measure to authorize intrastate online poker in California.  Read the entire story.

The measure was slow to take shape, but in May 2013 Correa rolled out several amendments to the bill that are supported by major Native American tribes in California. The amendments include: authorizing intrastate poker only; only allowing California card clubs and tribes to operate online poker sites; and setting the tax rate at 10% of gross gaming revenue. The chairmen of eight separate bands of Indians signed a joint letter for distribution to California tribal leaders that included a draft of proposed intrastate online poker legislation. It represents the first time that the tribes with casinos, as a collective, have put forth a unified proposal to legalize any form of online gaming.  Read the entire story.

Neither Correa’s nor Wright’s bill came to a vote before the legislative session expired in September. Work on the bills will continue into the next session, which begins in January 2014.

In the absence of any explicit regulations permitting online poker in California, the state of the law is unclear. There does not appear to be any law prohibiting online poker in California, and as poker has been legal in the state for decades, a colorable argument could be made that online poker is legal as well.

Live Poker

California is the undisputed king of legalized live poker in the United States. There are nearly100 state-sanctioned card rooms that operate in California, as well as roughly three dozen tribal casinos, many of which have poker rooms of their own.
Although the state instituted a licensing scheme as recently as 1984, live poker has been legal in California going back 100 years. For most of that period the only permissible games were draw games. Stud games were prohibited by law, and flop games hadn’t yet gained popularity. That changed in 1987, when the Oaks Card Club successfully appealed that there was no form of poker banned by law in California, including flop games.

Today California gambling laws are quite voluminous. The state has detailed statutes and regulations covering all aspects of gambling, including poker, under the oversight of the California Gambling Control Commission.

Home games also appear to be permissible under California law. California Penal Code §330 et seq. defines “illegal forms of gambling”. The definition essentially captures all forms of slot machines and all banking and percentage games, leaving games like poker in a zone of legal acceptance.

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