Playtech, one of the world’s leading online gaming software providers, has announced that it’s struck what could be a momentous deal to provide the California Online Poker Association (COPA) “with intrastate Internet poker services,” writes Tali Tsipori for Globes, an Israeli-based business site.

Wait, what? Online poker isn’t yet legal in California, despite the efforts of Democratic Senators Rod Wright and Louis Correa. So what’s behind this deal? Will Playtech really be offering online poker services to Californians?

Yes, but not for money — yet. The deal is designed to create an online poker network in anticipation of possible laws. Until any new laws are passed, the new online poker network will be offered in a free, “play for fun” mode, set to launch later this year.

Calling it an “important milestone” for Playtech, Tsipori describes the deal as positioning Playtech for U.S. market entry in case regulations do happen — which is likely.

“COPA members comprise 29 federally recognized California tribal governments and 31 state-licensed California card clubs,” Tsipori explains. Playtech is actually partnering with Sciplay International SARL, which in turn has won COPA’s selection process to “identify the most capable service provider to serve the needs of the California poker players, estimated to be the largest number of poker players in any one state in the US.”

California currently has two online poker bills in the works, neither of which is moving very quickly through Congressional approval given the state’s budget crisis (which should be considered an annual event at this point).

Nonetheless, is considered among the frontrunners in states ready to implement online poker laws. Nevada has just passed a similar bill, and the District of Columbia launches a “free” mode of its upcoming online gambling system in just weeks. More on that here.

In California, the prize is bigger than in other states. “It has been estimated that Californians wager more than $13 billion annually on illegal, offshore internet poker websites,” said Robert Martin, Chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and a member of COPA’s board of managers.

“Our mission is to provide California players with a safe and secure option to play poker legally on the Internet. On behalf of all of COPA’s trusted gaming partners, both tribes and card rooms alike, we are very pleased to enter these agreements with Sciplay and Playtech to deliver a full service solution.”

Playtech’s price jumped on the news, and it’s likely the company will enjoy added prestige in being among the first to get a foothold in the U.S. market. Playtech has a huge European presence, and provides software for leading online casinos and poker rooms like Titan Poker, Mansion Poker, William Hill Online, Betfair, Betfred, and bet365.

such as Titan, bet365, William Hill Online, Betfair, Betfred and Mansion. The Company has a significant presence in the regulated markets across Europe, working with local operators like SNAI, SISAL and Casino Gran Madrid; and state-owned or state-sponsored entities including the Serbian Lottery and RAY in Finland.

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