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The Golden State of California may now be known for its sun-soaked stars of the silver screen, but at the height of the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th Century, gambling was the main pastime of the day. While the state was fast becoming the premier hub of gambling in the US, by the start of the 20th Century, the practice was almost entirely banned by the federal government. It wasn't until the 1980's that gambling started its revival in California, with the Supreme Court affirming the rights of Native Americans to open up casinos on tribal land.
While far less strict than other states, gambling in California is still heavily restricted, albeit with a number of notable exceptions. Thanks to the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1987, fully fledged casinos have been able to operate on tribal land for the last 26 years. This has been made possible by various "compacts" that the tribes have with the state legislature, granting them a fixed number of licences to operate slot machines and other betting activities. These licences have been the source of heated legal debate over the last decade, which came to a head when the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians lodged a $550 million compensation claim against the state of California in 2009, claiming that then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had been illegally withholding them.
In addition to tribal casinos, Californians also benefit from a flourishing card room industry. As of December 2012 there were 88 card rooms operating throughout the state, complementing its 70 tribal casinos. Here, players bet against each other in a number of card games, although the most popular activity is undoubtedly poker. No public corporations are permitted to invest in card rooms, and the vast majority are small, locally run operations that generate money through rakes and other fees. Pari-mutuel betting on horse racing is also permitted, with the California Horse Racing Board tasked with regulating the practice.
California currently has a moratorium on the issuance of new card room ordinances, provisionally halting their expansion until 2020. While online gambling remains illegal, a number of tribes are thought to be considering a move to the virtual sphere, potentially opening up their services to non-US residents until more states legalise the practice at home. With no legislation currently on the docket, though, it would appear that California's gambling laws are set to remain static for at least the foreseeable future.
Horse racing has always been a popular market in California, with the state boasting eight race tracks and a sophisticated pari-mutuel betting system that allows a limited form of legal betting. Despite that, the main activity played by the majority of the population is the California state lottery, which has been providing citizens with a legal gambling outlet for almost three decades. Private lotteries, on the other hand, remain illegal.
Of course, the vast majority of gambling activities in the state takes place in the various casinos and card rooms, which have produced a number of the world's best poker players.
Thanks to its solid foundation of card rooms, California has managed to attract a number of major poker events, whilst also providing famous faces and top poker stars to fill the tables. The California State Championship Poker event has been a staple tournament for a number of years, with Argo star Ben Affleck lifting the crown back in 2004. The larger-than-life Larry Flynt also holds a Holiday Classic Poker tournament all through the month of December at the Hustler Casino in Gardena. Finally, the Word Series of Poker circuit also comes to California in December, visiting Harrah’s Rincon in San Diego.
The gambling market as a whole in the US is starting to heat up. There are now three states where online gambling in some form is legal, and a number of California's Native American tribes are reportedly looking into entering the new market with a view to attracting international customers to their sites. With the state of New Jersey predicted to rake in anywhere between $300 million to $700 million a year from its online operations (a figure that governor Christie puts at $1billion), it seems only a matter of time before other states, including California, look again at legalising online gambling and freeing up the market. Some experts have even predicted that online gambling could arrive in the Golden state as early as 2014, citing reports of potential takings in excess of $10 billion thanks to its large population.
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