Leaving Las Vegas: Gambling in California

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleThe world of gambling as depicted in the second season of The Gambler’s Tale, “All That Glitters,” is decidedly different than that in “Outstanding Debts.” No longer is our story set against the backdrop of high-stakes Las Vegas poker, with its unique set of professional players and power brokers. Moreover, online poker is no longer an ongoing concern. As of the summer of 2012, when our story is set, not much had changed since the conclusion of our first season, at least not as will impact the world of Quorum — online funds remained largely unavailable to players, and the dust was still settling in terms of criminal indictments and civil actions. But most importantly, we’re not in Las Vegas anymore. And gambling in California is decidedly different.

Under California law, percentage games are illegal, but because poker falls outside that category, whether or not you want to consider poker “gambling,” that specific prohibition doesn’t apply.

Popular wisdom (at least in the United States) holds that gambling is legal in Nevada (and Atlantic City) but illegal pretty much everywhere else. But that is far from the reality. Still, attempting to apply any kind of consistent logic to the various legal restrictions can quickly become an exercise in futility. For one thing, as we touched on in one of our earlier entries in this series, coming up with a single, coherent definition as to what constitutes “gambling” is problematic at best. For another, most jurisdictions are more than happy to ban gambling — largely on moral pretext — right up until they have a chance to share in the often-substantial profits, or when the beneficiaries are charitable organizations (as if the purported immorality of promoting such an insidious activity as gambling miraculously changes based on who’s running the game). And sometimes, a particular form of gambling is just too ingrained in the public consciousness — or its operators are too powerful — to prohibit outright.

A prime example of this last point is betting on horse races, as is featured in this season of Quorum. The full history is far too complicated to go into here, but in a nutshell, horse racing is so ingrained into the nation’s culture that despite the underlying structure being effectively identical to comparable forms of gambling that are largely illegal, such as sports betting, it would be extraordinarily difficult to prohibit. (With specific regard to California, horse racing was legalized by voter referendum back in 1933.) That said, until 1970, all horse betting had to take place at the actual track. That year, New York became the first state to legalize off-track betting — that is, betting on a race taking place other than where the wager was physically placed. But after actual racetracks complained that they were losing revenue to off-site betting parlors, the federal government stepped in with the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978. This act certainly didn’t requirestates to allow off-track betting, but at the very least it allowed them a clear framework within which to do so, as well as establishing that states had the right to regulate the process. (California does allow such off-track betting and has a number of authorized betting outlets.) In a surprising parallel to the world of online poker, regular debates around the applicability of the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 to horse betting often raged. And in an ironic twist, while the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (or UIGEA) referenced in season one of Quorum was intended, at least substantially, to target online poker, that same act carved out an explicit exemption for online horse betting, enshrining its status as a legal form of gambling.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

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