California Legal Online Gambling / Poker Laws

California Poker Laws

Is Online Poker / Gambling Legal in California?

California’s size and population density makes any legal issue really complex. Laws related to playing poker in California are no different. Statutes on the books regarding casino gambling, lottery games, and sports betting are complex, and on some level, it would require a law degree and plenty of experience to work your way through all the various rules and regulations in place. Unfortunately for those who enjoy playing poker, state law in California is often really vague.

Which Laws Legalize Poker and Gambling in California?

In the United States, vague gambling laws are not uncommon. To understand California poker law, you first have to wrap your head around the concept of a "percentage game,” a phrase often used in the state’s laws related to gambling.

For the most part, the phrase percentage games refers to those games in which the game’s operator (the casino or the game host) is a part of the action and earns money using a house edge or advantage thanks to mathematics. That makes blackjack, craps, roulette, slots, and most other casino games “percentage games” in the eyes of California law. But things don’t end there for California residents: in that state, the term percentage games take on a slightly different meaning.

Technically speaking, all percentage games are forbidden by California Penal Code 330. Weirdly enough, this code also includes games where the house or the host does NOT participate or have a stake in the game. What does that mean for poker players? In any poker game where the casino or host is taking a rake based on pot size percentages, then that game is illicit. Because of loopholes in the law, some poker operators have found ways to rake games without breaking the state code.

How California Law Treats Real Money Poker Games

Poker receives a more complex than usual treatment under California state law. For aspiring poker players looking to splash around in real-money games, California is something of a wonderland, boasting perhaps the largest assortment of live poker games anywhere in the United States - and perhaps the world. Let's break down what types of poker are acceptable under California law and what types might get you into trouble, starting with the former.

What are the legal ways to play poker in California? The primary way that poker gets played in California is at the state's dozens of regulated card rooms. Perhaps the best known among them is the Commerce Casino, which boasts a massive poker room clocking in at over 200 tables. You'll also be able to play real-money games at any of the tribal casinos in California that feature poker rooms, such as the Pechanga Resort and Casino.

You can also play poker in a social setting and still be within the confines of California, with one important caveat: The game is permitted only if no rake or other charge is taken. In fact, it's the rake itself that makes poker a prohibited game under California law (Section 330).

Finally, poker is on the list of approved charitable gambling formats. If you're interested in running such events or ensuring the event you're attending is properly licensed, consult the website for the California Department of Justice.

So what poker games aren't legal in California? You're basically left with games run by unregulated or unlicensed operators that take a rake from the game. But with so many ways to play poker in California while staying within the bounds of state law, players from the Golden State shouldn't find themselves tempted by illegal games very often, if at all.

Loopholes – Can You Play Poker in California Legally?

It may seem like all the laws that have been discussed prove that California is anti-poker, but you can find legal and state- licensed card and poker rooms in the state, most often in regular casinos. Obviously, these games aren’t allowed to take a traditional rake, because that would make it a percentage game which is illegal inside state lines. But these California poker room have found another way to make a profit.

Legal poker rooms in California don’t rake their games using percentages, choosing instead a system of tiers made up of three to four different rake sizes, depending on if they offer a rake-free game as the first tier. You move up the tier system as the pot grows bigger. Here’s an example of how a legal California poker game collects profit from their games:

Tier One: At this tier, the room collects no money at all for any pots smaller than $15
Tier Two: Moving up one tier, the room might take $1 out of each pot worth between $15 and $25
Tier Three: If the pot is between $25 and $45, the room collects $2
Tier Four: At the top-end, any pot worth more than $45 will earn the room $3 in rake

Learn About Other State Laws

Are Home Poker Games Legal in California?

It used to be the case that any gambling venture in the state had to be approved ahead of time by the state government, who would then provide a license or not, depending on certain features of the game. This included private poker games. Remember, this is the same state whose laws say “The State Legislature has no power to authorize, and shall prohibit, casinos of the type currently operating in Nevada and New Jersey.” That’s bold language to find in any state code.

But new language added to state law in 2003 makes certain types of home games totally legal. The new state code says that gambling is not illegal under certain circumstances, including “Games played with cards in private homes or residences, in which no person makes money for operating the game, except as a player.”
As it stands now, home poker games and other card games are legal as long as no one profits from them except by being the better poker player. That means you can’t charge an entrance fee, require a minimum food purchase, or charge the competitors in any other way to participate. That’s because doing so would mean you were operating an illegal casino, in the eyes of California state law.

You can find more information about California’s laws regarding gambling and card games here: