The legislative dominoes that were supposed to fall across America once New Jersey went online are still standing, and with internet gambling largely a bust in its most populous state to date, hopes for a vibrant US industry again are shifting West, to California, and to a small Indian tribe that is poised to put those hopes to the test sooner than anyone expected.
Two bills to legalize internet poker in the country’s biggest potential market have been circulating since early this year, but as with similar measures in past sessions, neither is likely to go anywhere until leaders of the various factions within California’s powerful tribal casino industry agree on how to divide the pie and protect their lucrative land-based businesses from online competition.

A San Diego tribe with no seat at the big table is tired of waiting and has set up its own poker site and supporting infrastructure and announced this month that it plans to go live for real money at a room called Privatetable.com.
“It’s going to offer folks the first legal, regulatory, vetted Internet poker,” said David Vialpando, chairman of the gaming commission of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, a federally recognized tribe with 950 members and a 15,000-acre reservation in the mountains of North San Diego County.
The Iipay had a casino, The Santa Ysabel, which opened in 2007, but it shut down earlier this year, leaving the tribe deep in debt. Vialpando says the tribe needs the revenue to rebuild aging roads, buildings and the reservation’s fire station and fund community programs and education. 

If Privatetable happens it will send a thundering shot across the bow of law and precedent. Certainly it would shake up the complacent haggling among the state’s gaming powers, tribal and commercial, about who gets what, and who doesn’t, which has stalled legalization for years.
The Iipay have a letter of support from the government of the Isle of Man, a respected international licensing and hosting e-gaming jurisdiction which gave its formal recognition earlier this year to a fledgling group called the Tribal Internet Gaming Alliance (TIGA). The alliance to date counts only two Minnesota tribes as members, but it’s not without symbolic significance, and it does open up the possibility of interstate compacts with other tribes and possibly international collaborations. 
Canada’s Kahnawake Gaming Commission, which is located on Mohawk Indian territory, is hosting part of the infrastructure, which has been two years in the planning and design, according to news reports. Play will take place on a modified version of the IG Soft software, a version of which is currently in use on the Winning Poker Network. Wagers will be processed by Finpay.net. Deposits will be accepted by credit card and Bitcoin.
“We are hoping that the state uses our experience here at Santa Ysabel to help them craft the framework for internet gaming,” Vialpando said.
At the least, Privatetable.com would provide an early glimpse into the economic realities of online poker in California, the most populous state in the country and the wealthiest—the one state, perhaps the only one, where nearly everyone agrees an intrastate market would thrive. 
Research published last year and based on surveys of real-money players estimates the revenue potential at upwards of $263 million the first year, growing to more than $380 million by year 10. That’s probably conservative. A more recent study commissioned by several casino tribes forecasts a market worth $845 million by 2020.
If the Iipay do take the plunge, only residents of California will be allowed to play for real money, and they will need to be at least 18 years old and physically located within the state.
This is not to say the operation would be on safe legal grounds by any means.
The tribe is relying on poker’s status as a Class II game under the U.S. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)—which is to say, it’s not a house-banked casino game and not dependent therefore on a tribal-state compact under the terms of the Act. The legal advice the tribe has taken is that since IGRA allows tribes to regulate and offer gaming on tribal lands as a matter of sovereignty, and since there is no specific prohibition on online poker in California, Privatetable.com is “in compliance with both state and federal law”. 
While IGRA is clear in its provisions that restrict the gaming to federally recognized reservations or off-reservation land taken into trust by the government on behalf of a tribe, the Act was passed in 1988 and has nothing to say about the Internet Age debate over whether the gambling takes place where a bet is placed or at the server that takes it. It’s an issue in which the federal government has taken no small interest, as anyone familiar with 2011’s Black Friday will recall. But it’s only been tested in a legal U.S. market in New Jersey, which of course came down on the server side in order to comply with a provision in the state constitution limiting casino gambling to Atlantic City.
“Some legal commentators believe that limitations in tribal-state regulatory compacts and provisions in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act limit the ability of tribes to accept wagers from off Indian lands,” Los Angeles-based gaming attorney Ian Imrich told OnlinePokerReport.
“They also argue that IGRA must be amended in order to address internet gaming in this setting,” he said. 
Kahnawake’s involvement could prove troubling as well. It lists dozens of gambling sites as licensees, but transparency has been an issue for the KGC, which has faced legal problems in the past, and it was tainted in the scandals that rocked the industry some years back in connection with cheating at Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet.
Imrich believes a real-money launch will almost certainly trigger a legal challenge from the state and/or the federal government over issues that will be “hotly contested,” he said.
“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.”
Which could be why the Iipay haven’t launched. The tribe promised in mid-July 2014 that Privatetable would be taking bests “within a matter of days”.