California is the poker capital of the United States, harboring more active poker rooms with more active poker tables than even Las Vegas (admittedly, California is a much bigger state than Nevada). California is also home to the largest physical poker room in the nation (the Commerce Casino).
Major Poker Areas of California
In Southern California, poker is centered around Los Angeles. In Northern California, poker is centered around the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area page also includes a map of the area with casinos highlighted. You can find a listing of all Northern and Southern California casinos, including those around Sacramento, San Diego, and elsewhere in the state, on the California Casino page.
History of Poker in California
How did poker become so popular in California?
In the 19th century during the Gold Rush days, California was the source of much "instant wealth", which resulted in much gambling. The popular games of the day were Faro and Three-Card Monti. As the century turned and the times became more prudish, the public turned against gambling and the legislature outlawed most forms of gambling in the state. Interestingly, however, the legislature banned eleven specific games (including Faro) and then banned "any banking or percentage game played with cards". The list of eleven specifically-banned games included the oddly-named "stud horse poker".
Because of the legal ban on "stud horse poker", all poker was considered illegal along with all other banked card games until 1911, when the state attorney general (Harold Webb) ruled that while stud poker games were simply variants of "stud horse poker" and hence were illegal, draw poker was demonstrably not stud poker, and hence was not banned by law in California. This immediately made draw poker legal in California -- but not any stud or stud-like poker games. Only draw games like 5 Card Draw and Lowball were allowed to be played. The state decided that any games where player were able to replace part of their hands after seeing it were by nature not stud; all other forms were stud.
A number of card clubs sprung up throughout the state to offer draw games. Because of the restriction against "banking or percentage", the card rooms were forced to rake using a flat fee instead of a percentage. As Hold 'Em became more popular in Nevada in the 70's, some card rooms began offering it in California, but the Attorney General sued them, claiming that Hold 'Em and other flop games were variants of stud and were thus banned. Various courts around the state began ruling in both directions, allowing it in some jurisdictions (e.g. Gardena) and not in others (e.g. San Jose). Finally, the Oaks Card Club appealed the ruling that flop games were banned in their jurisdiction, and the appeals court agreed, after long investigation, that flop games were not banned by the previous century's law. Even more interestingly, the court found that no one alive today knew exactly what "stud horse poker" was, and since that was the form of the game that was banned by law, there was now no form of poker that was banned in California by law. Accordingly, after the case was decided on appeal in 1987, card clubs throughout California were now allowed to spread 7-card Stud, Texas Hold'Em, Omaha, and other popular forms of the game. Popularity spread and card rooms expanded.
The state maintains a list of all licensed card rooms in the state, which is helpful for finding poker rooms near any given location. The list is available sorted by either card room name or by city. But be warned: any licenses which are listed as being long since expired (e.g. with expiration dates pre-2004) are quite possibly out of business -- the state is not that good at removing defunct card rooms from their list.
A fascinating 1997 paper on the recent history of poker in the state, including statistics on numbers of cardrooms and other factors, makes for good reading. It's full of interesting charts, too! See also the Poker Law page for more on Poker and its treatment in the law.
- California Gambling History
- California Lotteries and Gambling
- California Gambling Statute
- California Gaming Commission home page
- California Gaming Commission's List of Licensed California Cardrooms
- Is Playing Poker Online Legal In California?
- Gambling in California by Roger Dunstan, an official report from the California Research Bureau.