California Online Poker: Is Online Poker Legal in CA?

Besides Nevada, California has the largest land-based casino industry in the United States. The Golden State's gaming industry includes a huge list of tribal casinos and commercial poker clubs. It also has pari-mutuel wagering and charitable bingo halls. Despite the huge brick-and-mortar betting industry, residents must play at offshore sites if they want to play online poker in California.

Despite its lack of licensed online poker, California was the first US state to introduce a legalized online poker bill (back in 2011). Over the next 8 years, 4 different state legislators introduced 10 different online poker bills. None of these gained support in the legislature. A big reason California online poker isn't licensed and regulated is its tribal casino industry.

California's Commercial Casinos and Tribal Casinos

One set of tribes, led by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, signed a deal with PokerStars, the Bicycle Club, and the Commerce Club. If California ever passed online poker legislation, these tribes' land-based casinos -- plus the Bicycle Club and Commerce Club in Los Angeles -- would partner with PokerStars. This would have given the Morongo tribe and its allies a huge advantage in licensed poker online -- which was a huge problem for the remaining California tribal casinos.

Bad Actor Clauses

A much larger coalition of tribes, led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, led an effort to thwart the passage of any regulated poker bill. They supported a "Bad Actor" clause against PokerStars, which would have banned the world's largest poker site from licensed California online poker. Their rationale was based on the fact that PokerStars accepted US players from the passage of UIGEA in 2006 and the Black Friday indictments in 2011. According to the Pechanga tribe and its allies, PokerStars acted as a bad actor and thus should be banned from legal California online poker.

Real Money Online Poker in California

With two vested interests at an impasse, lawmakers never passed bills involving online poker. California lawmakers appear to have given up on passing a poker bill since the last failed attempt in 2018.

When Will California Have Legal Online Poker Sites?

That doesn't appear likely anytime soon. Reggie Jones-Sawyer was the last California lawmaker to introduce a poker bill in 2017. That was his third attempt to pass online poker, after Roderick Wright and Lou Correa introduced 3 bills apiece in the years prior (Mike Gatto also introduced a failed poker bill).

When asked whether he would introduce more legal online poker legislation in 2018, Reggie Jones-Sawyer suggested that he wouldn't because California needed a cooling off period in 2018 and 2019. When the US Supreme Court struck down a ban on sports betting in May 2018, some wondered whether a land-based sports betting bill might lead to an omnibus California gambling bill that included online poker.

Despite over a dozen other US states passing sports betting laws since then, no gambling legislation was introduced since then. Covid likely derailed any gambling bill, because California land-based casinos faced other issues throughout 2020 and 2021. At this point, no one has introduced a CA online poker bill in 5 years, so legal online poker doesn't appear on the horizon.

Popular California Real Money Poker Games

Whether you're playing in live poker clubs, tribal casino poker rooms, or online cardrooms, card players could encounter a number of poker variants. Here's a list of the most popular versions of poker in the world, plus a few games that California poker clubs sometimes feature.

  • Texas Hold'em: The world's most popular poker game. The game is played at the WSOP Main Event and most other main events around the world. Though Pot-Limit and Limit versions exist, the most widespread game is No-Limited Texas Hold'em.
  • Omaha Holdem: Simply called Omaha most of the time. Used 5 community cards with a flop, turn, and river (like Texas Hold'em). Players receive 4 hole cards instead of Texas Hold'em's 2 hole cards. Often played as Omaha Hi-Lo, where the player with the lowest hand receives half the pot.
  • Seven-Card Stud: A game that requires patience and nerves of skill. Seven-Card Stud includes 5 bets, while Texas Hold'em and Omaha only have 4. For those with a masochistic streak, try the lowball version of Seven-Card Stud called Razz.
  • California Lowball: A table game you'll find in the main casino instead of the poker room. California Lowball pits the player versus the dealer. The side with the lowest hand wins, while flushes and straights don't apply.
  • San Francisco Poker: Seven-Card Stud played with special rules in certain San Francisco poker clubs. Both a High and Low version of the game exists. In the High version, the player with the highest heart splits the pot with the highest hand. In the Low version, the player with the lowest heart splits the pot.
  • Gardena Jackpots: A game played in Gardena casinos in which a player receives 5 cards, who must qualify for the pot with jacks or better. If no one qualifies for the pot, players make another ante bet and receive new cards. This builds the Gardena jackpot.

How to Choose the Best California Poker Site For Your Style of Play

  • Cash Games: For players who want to begin and end at their own whim and not on a tournament schedule. In between any two hands, you can leave the game. Also, it's for players who like to get a firm read on opponents, because you can sit for hours with many of the same players. 
  • Multi-Table Tournaments: For players who want to win big prizes with smaller buy-in amounts. If hundreds or thousands of players enter an MTT event, the guaranteed prize pool is large and the top prizes are bigger than most events. The odds of winning are smaller, but it's about the allure of the jackpot prize.
  • Sit & Go Events: For players with less time. SNGs are one-table tournaments, so they mimic the final table in a bigger poker event. 
  • Jackpot Sit & Go's: For players who like quick events, but who also like a shot at a bigger jackpot. These hyper events have a random jackpot prize assigned to them, offering a potentially huge prize. 
  • Knockout Events: For aggressive players who like showdowns with other players. Called PKOs, half of all buy-in fees go to bounties. If you're knocked out, the person who knocked you out wins the bounty. You collect cash from knocking others out. This creates a lot of showdowns. 
  • Fast-Fold Poker: For players with a short attention span. Or better put, for players who don't like waiting for other players to make a decision. If you fold a hand, you're immediately assigned to a new table. You won't wait for two or more other players to finish the folded hand. 

Social and Sweepstakes Online Poker in California

Social online poker is a new way to play poker online. Sweepstakes poker sites pay out real money as traditional poker sites do, but they use sweepstakes contests for payouts because they are considered legal in 30 US states. Like the sweepstakes at McDonald's and other chain restaurants or the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, players receive prizes if they get lucky. They can even request sweeps points without making a deposit. 

For the most part, sweepstakes online poker games operate much like standard online poker. Players create accounts and fund their accounts with standard payment methods. They enter multi-table tournaments, sit & go events, and cash games that are listed on the site. They play poker online for real money and are paid when they make a withdrawal request. It's just there are a few elements like sweeps coins that are new.

Live Poker in California: California Card Rooms

Beyond its 78 land-based tribal casinos, California also has 60 commercial poker clubs. Some of the live poker rooms are world-famous, including famous Los Angeles gaming venues like the Bicycle Club, Commerce Club, and Lucky Lady. For visitors to California who want to play cards in a live poker club, here are a few of the more established poker rooms and their main claims to fame.

Best Live Poker Rooms in California

CA Poker ClubLocationSpecial Poker Events
Bicycle ClubLos AngelesWSOP Circuit Events, Big Poker Oktober
Commerce ClubLos AngelesLAPC, The Commerce Hold'em Series, LA Poker
Hustler CasinoGardenaSpring Cash Drawings, Spring Kickoff Series
Larry Flynt's Lucky LadyGardenaApril Cash Showers, $1000 Big O Weekly Tournament
The Gardens CasinoGardenaPoker High Card Giveaway, $5000 Tournament Every Saturday
Casino Poker ClubReddingSaturday Bounty Tournament, Tue-Thu-Sun Tournaments
Club One CasinoFresno$7500 Guaranteed Sunday High Roller NLH Deepstack
Lucky ChancesSan FranciscoDouble Omaha Tuesdays, Aces Cracked Bad Beat Jackpot
Oaks Card ClubOaklandHold'em "Bad Beat" Double Jackpots

Famous California Poker Players

Chris "Jesus" Ferguson is arguably the most famous professional poker player from California. Known for his long Jesus-like hair and beard and his black cowboy hat, Chris Ferguson has a Ph.D. in computer science and was known as one of the earliest analytical poker players. Ferguson has a role in online poker, as the California native was one of a group of pro poker players who founded FullTilt Poker in 2008. He was implicated in the scandals that came out of Black Friday and subsequently missed a number of WSOP tournaments in the 2010s.

None of that diminishes Ferguson's poker tournament accomplishments. He won the WSOP Main Event in 2000, beating Hall of Fame poker pro T.J. Cloutier in heads-up play. Ferguson also holds the record for the most cashes in a single year (2017) at the World Series of Poker, a record he holds with John Racener. He's won over $9 million in career winnings.

Jerry Yang is another famous California poker player. Yang won the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event. Jerry moved to California from Laos in the 1970s. The Temecula-based Laotian-American player only started playing poker 2 years before his WSOP accomplishment. He won $8.25 million for his win, but remains largely below the radar these days.

Brian Rast is the California poker pro with the most attention these days. Rast hails from Palo Alto, though he now lives in Las Vegas. He has won over $20 million in live tournament winnings and owns 5 WSOP bracelets. He's made it to 10 WSOP final tables and has 33 WSOP money finishes in his career. Rast also has a reputation in online poker, playing at PokerStars and FullTilt Poker under the username tsarrast.

J.C. Tran of Sacramento is one of the most famous Vietnamese-American poker players. Tran has won two WSOP bracelets and made it to the final table of eight World Poker Tour (WPT) events. He also won a World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). In 2013, Tran was the chip leader heading the final table of the WSOP Main Event November Nine but ended up finishing in 5th place.

Other famous California poker pros of note are Jamie Gold, who won the 2006 WSOP Main Event, and Men Nguyen ("The Master").

California Poker Timeline: A History of Online Poker in California

No US state has tried to legalize online poker as often as California. Despite the big potential revenues that would come with access to the nation's largest state population, every attempt at regulation has failed. Each time, it comes back to a split between the state's casino operators over a "bad actor" clause that would ban the world's number one online poker site, PokerStars. 

  • February 2010: Senate Bill 1485: California State Senator Roderick Wright sponsored Senate Bill 1485, which would have legalized online poker in California. This proposal went nowhere since the US Justice Department had not yet stated that online poker was legal in the USA. 
  • December 2011: DOJ Opinion on Online Poker: The attorney generals of Illinois and New York asked the US Department of Justice whether online poker and online casinos were legal under their interpretation of the UIGEA, or whether both activities were banned like online sports betting was. The DOJ stated that poker and casino games played online were legal, thus Sportsbook the door for a wave of legislation in US states. 
  • January 2012: Senate Bill 1463: Roderick Wright sponsored Senate Bill 1463, which would have legalized online poker. The California Poker Association (COPA) backed the bill, and SB1463 came close to passage. This would be the closest that CA online poker came to becoming law. 
  • December 2012: Senate Bill 51: After the failure of SB1463, Sen. Wright sponsored Senate Bill 51, also known as "The Internet Gambling Consumer Protection and Public-Private Partnership Act of 2013". SB51 failed in 2013 when Roderick Wright faced an ethics scandal. More importantly, a rift formed among the California tribal casino operators over the future of CA online poker. 
  • February 2013: Senate Bill 678: State Sen. Lou Correa sponsored Senate Bill 678, which would have legalized online poker in the state. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Morongo Tribe supported the bill, but the Pechanga Tribe and its allies opposed it. The bill failed, like many others. 
  • February 2014: California Online Poker Bill: Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced Assembly Bill 2291, which became known as the California Online Poker Bill. The tribal split killed this proposal, too. Lou Correa modified his proposals and sponsored Senate Bill 1366, but to no avail. 
  • December 2014: Assembly Bill 9: Assemblyman Mike Gatto introduced Assembly Bill 9, a plan to bridge the gap between the tribes in 2015. Gatto hoped to convince both sides to accept PokerStars into California online poker, but the Pechanga coalition insisted on a "bad actor" clause to ban PokerStars.
  • January 2015: Internet Poker Consumer Act 2015: Reggie Jones-Sawyer sponsored the Internet Poker Consumer Act of 2015, but this bill failed. 
  • February 2016: Assembly Bill 2863: Reggie Jones-Sawyer once again sponsored a poker legalization bill -- this time AB 2863. Despite modifications to the previous bills, this proposal failed as well. 
  • February 2017: Internet Poker Consumer Act 2017: Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer backed a 4th bill that would have legalized poker in the Golden State. After this bill failed, Jones-Sawyer called for a cooling-off period in 2018 and 2019. He stated that he hoped 2020 would allow cooler heads to prevail, but the USA was gripped with other issues by that time. 
  • June 2019: ACA 16: State Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblyman Adam Gray sponsored ACA 16, a bill that would have made land-based sports betting and online poker legal. Dodd and Gray hoped that the potential windfall of sports betting would lure the tribes to compromise over poker online, but ACA 16 failed like all the others. It was the last time a California lawmaker proposed such a bill. 

California Online Poker FAQ

Is Online Poker Legal in California?

No, it isn't. California poker players must play at offshore online cardrooms. California doesn't prosecute individuals who play cards online at these sites, though it has laws on the books that suggest such a player could be fined between $100 to $1,000 for doing so.

What Were Some of the Previous Attempts to Legalize Online Poker in California?

State Senator Roderick Wright sponsored California poker bills in 2010, 2012, and 2013. State Sen. Lou Correa sponsored online poker bills in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer sponsored the poker bill AB 2291 in 2014, along with AB 167 in 2016. He also sponsored the Internet Poker Protection Act in 2017, but recommended a "cooling off period" for online poker legislation in 2018 and 2019.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto sponsored AB 9 in December 2016, hoping to reconcile the two sides with the inclusion of daily fantasy sports. Some speculated that legalized sports betting might change the equation after the US Supreme Court struck down PASPA in 2018, but that hasn't proven to be the case.

What is California's bad actor law?

California's bad actor law would have banned PokerStars from its licensed and regulated online poker in California -- either permanently or for a 5 to 10 year period. The rationale is that PokerStars accepted US players from 2006 to 2011 when the US Department of Justice considered online poker a banned activity. Several versions of the bad actor legislation have been forwarded over the years, including those that required PokerStars to pay a huge fine in order to be allowed into California's gaming industry.

How Old Do I Have to Be to Gamble in California?

You'll need to be 18 years old to gamble online in California. If you plan on visiting a land-based tribal casino, take a look at the site's age limit. Many California brick-and-mortar casinos have an age limit of 21, due to the presence of alcohol.

What is California Lowball?

California Lowball is a variant of table poker in which a player competes against the dealer for the lowest hand possible. Straights and flushes don't count as hands. Both the dealer and the player receive two hole cards apiece, along with three community cards. Players make an ante bet and an extra bonus bet to play. An optional Lowdown Bonus bet also is available.

What's San Francisco Poker?

San Francisco Poker is a version of Seven-Card Stud that's played in Bay Area poker clubs. You'll find two variations of the game -- High and Low. In the High version, the player with the highest heart splits the pot with the player that holds the highest hand. In the Low version, the player with the lowest heart splits the pot with the player that holds the highest hands. In either version, a player must remain in the pot until the showdown to qualify for the heart winnings.

What Is “Gardena Jackpots”?

Gardena Jackpots is a variant of high-hand draw poker that was first played in poker clubs in the California city of Gardena (near Los Angeles). A hand of Gardena Jackpots begins with an ante bet, then are dealt five cards apiece. Players must qualify with a pair of Jacks or better. Players who don't meet this requirement must either fold, match the highest bet played, or increase their bet. If no one qualifies, a new set of cards is dealt (and more antes paid). The pot is bigger in this case, which explains the "jackpots" appellation.

Are Home Poker Games Illegal in California?

Home poker games are legal in California if no one profits from the game (except through betting). Thus, the organizer cannot charge an entry fee, a seat license, have a minimum food purchase rule, or otherwise find a way to charge participants. Basically, if you don't organize a business around home poker, then California allows real money betting on poker.

How do I receive withdrawals and payouts in California?

Once you log in to your player account, visit the Cashier page. This provides a list of the payout methods. Make a withdrawal request by choosing the payout method you prefer, inputting a withdrawal amount, and confirming the request. Read the site's FAQ or Withdrawal page to learn how long the withdrawal time is. 

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