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A Guide to Sports Betting and Everything Else to Know About Gambling in California

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SPORTS BETTING - In California, you can bet on a horse race, buy a lottery ticket, put money on poker in a card room and play slots at a tribal casino all in the same – potentially expensive – day.

Nevada, right next door, is undoubtedly the national capital of all things gambling. But after Nevada, California has the most slot machines of any state – one measure of the state’s betting industry. 

The gambling industry, like many, took a hit during the pandemic. Nationally, commercial gaming revenue after winnings shrank by more than 25% between 2019 and 2020. Then, in 2021, it came roaring back – even faster than the rest of the economy – and brought in more money than any previous year. Tribal casinos also had a record breaking year in 2021.

During this year’s November election, Californians will decide whether they want to expand gambling further and allow sports betting. A pitched battle between gaming companies, tribes, card rooms, and others has broken campaign cash records and has landed two separate initiatives to legalize sports betting on the ballot.   

Here’s what you need to know about gambling in California.

When it comes to gambling in California, you have options. 

Tribal casinos

At 69 licensed tribal casinos you can play slots, lottery games, and card games, like baccarat and blackjack, where players bet against the house, as well as games like poker, where players bet against each other. 

Card rooms

At 84 licensed card rooms, you can play games like poker and pai-gow, where players bet against each other. Card rooms can also offer some non-card game options, like drawings. They can’t offer games where players bet against the house.

Lottery

At about 23,000 retailers across the state, including convenience stores and gas stations, you can buy scratchers and fill out tickets for drawings, such as MegaMillions and PowerBall.

Horse racing

You can bet on horse races at one of the state’s four private horse racing tracks, one of its five racing fairs, or at one of its 23 simulcast locations, where you can watch the race on TV and place a bet. You can also place a bet from home – or anywhere – with online advance deposit wagering. 

Charitable gaming

Certain nonprofits can host card nights and raffles for charitable purposes, and cities and counties can choose to allow bingo for charitable purposes.

How big of a problem is gambling addiction?

Problem gambling “includes all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits,” according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Gambling addiction can cause a cascade of problems in a person’s life, including mental health issues, increased use of drugs or alcohol, financial problems and strained relationships. Some take on debt to fuel their habit. Out of the roughly 2,549 people who called California’s problem gambling hotline in 2019 for themselves or someone they knew, gamblers had taken on an average debt of about $24,000. Their average household income was around $74,000.

California has an Office of Problem Gambling, charged with raising awareness of the issue and making treatment available, but a state audit from August 2022 found that the office “lacks data on the number of individuals who are currently suffering or who have recently suffered from problem gambling.” The most recent study was in 2006, which found that 3.7% of Californian adults will experience problem or pathological gambling at some point in their lives. That translates to about 1.1 million adults in 2020. The 2006 survey also found that the prevalence of problem or pathological gambling was higher among men, African Americans, unemployed people, and disabled people.

There are several options for getting help. California has a free hotline people can call to get support and get connected to resources. There’s also Gambler’s Anonymous, which is a support group program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as Gam-Anon, a support system for friends and family members of gamblers. California also has a program that provides free treatment— including counseling, outpatient, and residential treatments — to gamblers or people affected by problem gambling, which includes spouses and family members. Health insurance isn’t required. 

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(Grace Gedye covers California’s economy for CalMatters. Previously, she was an editor at the Washington Monthly. She is a graduate of Pomona College.)

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