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Are the gambling laws in LA too harsh?


As nation’s second largest city and the biggest in the state of California, not to mention being right at the heart of one of the most liberal states in the U.S., you might expect Los Angeles to be pretty free and easy when it comes to regulating gambling. Sure, it’s no Atlantic City or Las Vegas, where the city’s economy relies heavily on casinos and the hospitality surrounding that, but it does allow certain forms of gambling. The real question is whether further liberalization could be possible or even desirable in the future.

There’s certainly an appetite for gambling in the country with figures showing that $240 billion was spent on it in 2013 alone – raising $38 billion in tax revenue in the process. As the chart below that shows, the figures for casino spending in 2012 tells us, not surprisingly, it’s Nevada. New Jersey and Pennsylvania that lead the way when it comes to topping the table. But California is nowhere to be seen. If the laws were to be relaxed, allowing casinos to operate in the state, this could be a very different story.

But, for this to happen it would mean that laws governing the whole area of gambling would have to undergo some fairly fundamental changes on both the state and local levels. Broadly speaking, the current legislation allows the following forms of gambling to take place:



Card rooms

Just like the name suggests, these are places where you can typically go to play poker in its many forms as well as other games like Pai Gow Poker, Super Pan 9 and California 21. The latter is a form of blackjack that features a way of wagering known as “player banking”. In this case, the house typically takes a small fee for each game played in the form of a service charge. This is necessary as, under state law, paying and taking of bets by the organization operating a card room is illegal. So, effectively, players are only ever playing against each other and pay for the privilege of using the card room’s facilities.

 Because of the range of games many offer there are some card rooms that include the word “casino” in their name. But this is a little misleading as a typical facet of any casino is being able to play against the house.

 Native American Casinos
An exception is made for over 50 Native American casinos that are located up and down California and these offer have a wider range of legalized gambling options than card rooms. One of the biggest differences is that they are permitted to have slot machines and they can also can offer traditional casino games including blackjack, roulette and craps in which players do compete against the house. They also include places where you can play poker, bingo and keno and with some also offering the chance of track betting.

The more liberal laws that apply to native American Casinos are possible because the tribal lands on which they stand have been given self-governing status and operate in an environment where the tribes often are responsible for their own government, law enforcement authorities and so on. As with many states, the real motivation behind encouraging Native American casinos is to raise revenue that can then be used for the benefit of the people by paying for education and other public services.


The California lottery is another way to raise revenue, this time for the state itself. Tickets are available from over 21,000 locations throughout the state. The tickets come in two forms, scratch cards offering the chance of an instant win and numbered cards for the regular draws. The lottery is a major money earner for the state. For example, in the 2014-15 fiscal year it’s said to have raised nearly $1.4 billion to support the public school system.

 Race Tracks

Finally, with a total of 14 tracks where betting is allowed California is a true hub for the sport in the country. Taking a national view it’s easy to see that while California doesn’t have quite the amount of freedom of Nevada, it’s considerably more relaxed than states like Alabama and Indiana. In the latter even private gambling is outlawed totally with the only permitted wagering being at the state’s single land-based casino, several riverboat casinos and a handful of racinos attached to horse and dog racing tracks.

Online gambling

When it comes to online gambling, something which Indiana also expressly forbids, it’s something of a grey area in California. In common with many states, it has failed to keep up with the global phenomenon that has emerged over the last couple of decades of visiting online casinos, whether to play poker, slots or table games. This is not actually against the law.

However there is a law that states that Every person who has in his or her possession any … machine, contrivance, appliance or mechanical device, upon the result of action of which money or other valuable thing is staked or hazarded … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

So, if it came to it, the argument would probably center on whether today’s tablets and smartphones would be included in the list of mechanical devices or whether they are in a different category altogether.

To sum up, it could certainly be argued that the gambling laws that govern L.A. could benefit from being relaxed a little to allow card rooms to become actual casinos and also to allow online gambling from within the state. In the case of the latter it may be that it’s a waiting game to see if the Trump administration is going to take a stand either pro or ante legalization as it’s a subject that the President has been quiet about to date.

But, as something of a trailblazing state when it comes to more liberal ways of thinking, it could be a good bet that California may well be looking to become even more gambler-friendly in the not-too-distant future.