Bill or No Bill, Santa Ysabel Tribe To Push Forward With Online Poker in California

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California online poker regulation isn’t moving fast enough for the Santa Ysabel Tribe.

The Santa Ysabel, located in San Diego County, announced yesterday plans to immediately launch a real-money online poker room for California residents under the brand PrivateTable.com.

News of the tribe’s plans was first reported by Marco Valerio.

FAQ and links to additional reading follow.

Is PrivateTable legal?

The issue of legality is always a murky one when you’re talking about online poker.

In this case, it’s even murkier than usual.

The Santa Ysabel offer the following legal rationale on their website:

Tribes are considered sovereign nations in the United States and inter-tribal gaming employing the Internet has been legal for several years.  Class II gaming, such as poker, have been exclusively regulated by tribes in California since 1999.  Absent a specific state prohibition on this type of gambling activity, which does not currently exist in California, tribes are free to engage in this activity as long as the activity is regulated by the tribe as described in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

But Los Angeles-based gaming lawyer Ian J. Imrich suggests that not all consider the issue so definitively settled.

“Some legal commentators believe that limitations in tribal-state regulatory compacts and provisions in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) limit the ability of tribes to accept wagers from off Indian lands,” Imrich told me via email.

“They also argue that IGRA must be amended in order to address internet gaming in this setting,” Imrich continued.

“Other legal experts contend that State and Federal law do not contain any legal limitations and that the tribes have a legal right as a matter of sovereignty to do Class II internet gaming right now.”

Santa Ysabel wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction to assert that online gambling takes place at the point of the server, rather than at the point of interaction with the consumer.

A similar provision was included in New Jersey’s regulation of online gambling in order to comport with constitutional requirements limiting gambling to Atlantic City.

For more on the issue, refer to:

When exactly will it launch?

Good question. A free-to-play version of the room is available now. A tweet from the room’s account today claimed “live cash games” were coming “very soon.”

I emailed PrivateTable support and was told that “We should be launching our real money tables quite soon, although a date has not yet been set.”

A player reported the following interaction with PrivateTable support via Twitter.

What software does PrivateTable use?

John Mehaffey was the first to note that PrivateTable’s software is an iteration of the platform formerly known as Dobrosoft.

The platform has a long history in the online poker market, stretching back to the early 2000s. Currently, US-facing Winning Poker Network utilizes the software.

More background on Dobrosoft here and here.

Will PrivateTable pool players with an existing room?

It does not appear from the announcement that Santa Ysabel plans to pool players with WPN, or with any existing room.

But it may be worth noting that PrivateTable’s website only lists tournaments, and that WPN recently reached an agreement with another room (Betcoin Poker) to pool players for tournament play only.

Kahnawake connection may prove troubling to many

One potential point of concern for players: PrivateTable’s as-yet-undefined connection to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC).

The press release from Santa Ysabel and a letter from Kahnawake both indicate that the working plan is to “host a portion of Santa Ysabel’s interactive gaming structure within the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake.”

The KGC lost credibility with many in the online poker community due to the body’s connections with Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet during the periods when cheating scandals rocked the two rooms.

Kahnawake currently lists several dozen online gambling sites operating under the body’s “Interactive Permit,” most notably the US-facing Bovada.lv.

How does the tribe plan to regulate online poker?

The regulatory approach of the Santa Ysabel is laid out in three core documents available on the website of the tribe’s Gaming Commission:

  1. Interactive Gaming.
  2. Responsible Gambling.
  3. Backgrounds and Licensing.

The Santa Ysabel assert that the “basic foundation of these regulations is the same as those approved by the State of Delaware to regulate that state’s legal interactive gaming activity.”

The tribe’s website lists three members that make up the Santa Ysabel Gaming Commission.

It’s unclear if the tribe would execute regulation with that staff, retain additional staff or outsource some of its regulatory functions following launch.

Who will be able to play?

According to the press release, you must be 18 and “be a California resident and located in the state of California” in order “to participate in tournaments or cash games.”

The “resident” requirement is another aspect that sets Santa Ysabel’s approach apart from regulated online gambling in New Jersey or Nevada, where players must simply be located within the state’s borders to play.

Why haven’t other tribes taken this step?

Each tribe certainly has its own reasons.

But the general consensus among those that I talked to for this article was that, for many tribes, the benefits of launching online poker without legislation were vastly outweighed by the possible risk to existing gaming operations.

Background on Santa Ysabel Tribe

The Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel is a federally-recognized tribe that negotiated a gaming compact with California in 2003. The tribe opened a casino – The Santa Ysabel Casino – in 2007.

The tribe’s land-based casino closed in February of 2014, leaving the Santa Ysabel millions in debt.

More background on the tribe here and here.

What impact could this have on California’s online poker bill?

California lawmakers have until August 31st to move on an online poker bill that has the support of many, but not all, of California’s tribal gaming interests.

It’s certainly possible that the launch of the Santa Ysabel room could nudge what appears to be a slightly stalled process forward, if only ever so slightly. The more successful the launch, the greater the pressure.

The launch could also trigger a legal challenge that might bring some clarity to the current ambiguity surrounding tribal online poker.

That’s an outcome that Imrich considers highly likely: “Santa Ysabel tribes launching of an online poker site for real money will almost certainly trigger legal action based upon the dispute regarding Class II gaming made pursuant to tribal sovereignty as contemplated under IGRA,” said Imrich, who sees a litany of significant impacts that could potentially arise from such legal action.

“The State of California or the US Federal government could seek to enjoin the Santa Ysabel online poker site,” Imrich continued.

“If that occurs, legal issues over the nature and extent of tribal sovereignty to offer Class II gaming via the internet, where the gaming actually takes place (i.e., on tribal servers or otherwise), and whether IGRA authorizes or proscribes such online poker will become front and center in hotly-contested legal proceedings.”

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Chris Grove
- Chris is the publisher of OnlinePokerReport.com. Grove also serves as a consultant to various stakeholders in the regulated market for online gambling in the United States.