California Gambling Laws: An Overview

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Although the Golden State shares a whole lot of border with Nevada, Sin City’s world-famous stance on gambling hasn’t quite rubbed off on the West Coast. California gambling laws and regulations are comparatively more numerous and much more limiting, though they’re not totally Draconian, by any stretch.

The state of California allows some kinds of gambling while specifically outlawing other types. And it goes without saying that the types of gambling that are allowed are closely regulated by California gambling laws.

California Gambling Laws: 330 PC

Gambling shows up quite a bit throughout various forms of California legislation, including the gambling fraud laws in Penal Code 332 PC and bookmaking laws in Penal Code 337 PC, but one of the broadest pieces of California gambling legislation is Penal Code 330 PC. While the aforementioned laws make it illegal to be a bookie or commit fraud while gambling, Penal Code 330 PC makes it illegal to so much as play certain games for money, “whether for hire or not.”

In fact, per the language of the law, certain prohibited games in California are illegal to play, deal, open, conduct or “carry on.” Penal Code 330 PC places these types of prohibited games into two basic categories:

  • Banking games: In banking games, a “bank” – more commonly known in casinos as a “house” – takes part in the game. The bank pays winners and collects from losers of the game.
  • Percentage games: Percentage games are games of chance. In this type of game, the money collected by the house is based on a portion of bets made or on total winnings.

Outlawed Games in California

Helpfully, 300 PC spells out a large chunk of gambling games that are categorically illegal in California in clear black and white. Because this part of the law was first enacted as a response to rampant Gold Rush gambling in 1872, however, this list reads as much like a strange vaudeville act as it does a law. As foreign as many of them sound in the 21st century, games explicitly prohibited in California include:

  • Fan-tan.
  • Faro.
  • Hokey-pokey.
  • Lansquenet.
  • Monte.
  • Rondo.
  • Rouge et noire.
  • Roulette.
  • Seven-and-a-half.
  • Tan.
  • Twenty-one.

Elsewhere, California gambling legislation gets a little weird with what it prohibits. The law restricts slot machines, unless they’re over 25 years old and not used for gambling. Razzle-dazzle card and dice games – a once-popular scam usually played on a grid of holes – are illegal if played for anything of value. Also, Californians may not possess any dice bearing more than six faces, which might be a problem for fans of Dungeons and Dragons.

Per California law, it’s up to a judge (not the jury, interestingly enough) to decide which games are considered banking or percentage games if that game isn’t explicitly prohibited by state law. The state of California considers illegal gaming a misdemeanor. Potentially, the penalties illegal gaming entails include some combination of county jail time of up to six months and a fine ranging from $100 to $1,000.

Legal Gaming in California

Just as it outlaws certain games, state law also recognizes certain forms of legal gaming, laying out regulations in the California Business and Professions Code Section 19800. As is the case in over 20 other states, California limits traditional casinos with banked games such as poker, slot machines and blackjack strictly to tribal casinos located on reservations owned by any of the 535 federally-recognized tribes.

Cardclubs or cardrooms appear very similar to traditional casinos and sometimes even advertise themselves as such, but these California establishments stay within legal bounds by charging players fees to participate in games. In this way, players bet against each other instead of betting against the bank or house.

Similarly, California allows parimutuel horse wagering. Here, all players’ bets are pooled together, and winnings are divided among the victors, minus taxes and fees. Much like cardclubs, the players compete against each other rather than the establishment (i.e., the bank or the house), but this form of gaming is strictly limited to betting on horse races at the location of the race. So that means that jai-alai and dog racing are off limits, and no off-track betting is allowed, either.

Likewise, the state lottery – including popular games like Mega Millions and SuperLotto Plus – and charitable gaming are legal across the state. The latter category may sound broad, but it actually refers only to bingo games (and only bingo games) that donate their proceeds to charitable causes. The California Gambling Control Commission issues regulations on legal gambling and distributes gaming licenses in the state.

Social Gaming Laws

While outlawing the mere act of playing certain games initially sounds scary, it’s important to remember that the legal definition of banking and percentage games requires the presence of a bank or house. This means that Californians who enjoy playing games at home, even for money, aren’t typically at risk of breaking the law.

Commonly, private gaming is treated similarly to the concept of social gaming. While California doesn’t have on-the-books social gaming laws, numerous court precedents in the state, such as Trinkle v. Stroh and Mason v. Machine Zone, generally find that social games are games of skill, while gambling typically involves games of chance where there is a prize at stake.

Online Gambling in California

For years, the legal status of online gambling was murky in California, and the state was far from alone in that respect. As is the case in many other states, California laws and gambling regulations simply don’t cover online gaming.

Further confusion also stems from 2011’s federal Wire Act, an online-centric law that was interpreted as only applicable to sports betting. In January of 2019, however, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in to clarify the law. According to the DOJ, all forms of gambling that cross state lines are illegal.

Sports Gambling in California

Speaking of sports betting, the issue appears on the docket for California lawmakers fairly often. As of January 2020, the ACA 16 bill once again seeks to amend the state’s constitution to allow for sports betting, previously illegal in the state. Native American tribes in California seek their own constitutional amendment to permit sports betting at tribal casinos, while ACA 16 also strives to include mobile sports betting, or gambling using a smartphone.

The latter bill may face an uphill battle, as – in the state, failed to pass in 2016, and mobile gaming remains illegal in the state. Until the November 2020 elections roll out, though, ACA 16 will be anyone’s game.

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About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.