Tom Gin slowly ran his fingers across the bottoms of the domino-like tiles, feeling the dots like a blind man reading Braille. He never looked down at the four black tiles he was dealt, arranging them instead by touch--and years of experience playing the Chinese betting game of pai gow.
He learned the game as a boy in his homeland and later excelled at it in the back rooms and basements of Los Angeles' Chinatown.
But this afternoon, in a far corner of the half-empty California Bell Club, Gin's luck had soured. The 58-year-old plumber said nothing, but his red eyes showed the strain of three hours of losing. Gin's final wager was on the line as he and other players crowded around the oval table to watch the dealer show his tiles--then reach for Gin's stack of yellow and black chips.
"Damn, the gods are against me," Gin groused to himself, grabbing his cigarettes off the green felt and stalking away, $650 poorer. "I'm a loser--but only today. I'll be back to win tomorrow."
Card club operators in southeast Los Angeles County and Gardena are gambling that Gin and hundreds of others, particularly Chinese and other Asians, will return again and again to fill their once-crowded game tables and once-bulging bank accounts.
Complex Betting Game
The hook is pai gow (pronounced PIE-gow), a complex betting game that club owners believe may revive an ailing industry beset by image, financial and credibility troubles--revive it by tapping a vast new pool of players who have been betting on pai gow for years at illegal games in back rooms, attics and private clubs from Chinatown to suburban Orange County.
New players, club owners say, will not only boost the industry's sagging revenues, but also enrich local cities, such as Bell, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens and Gardena, which have large stakes in the survival of the clubs because they collect a percentage of the club's take. One by one, the councils in those cities endorsed the game in recent weeks, clearing the way for pai gow play to begin despite a thick web of legal questions surrounding the game.
Local councils, hesitant at first, finally warmed to the game when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Cole ruled Jan. 16 that pai gow is essentially legal.
But the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has disagreed, creating a legal quandary that has handcuffed local police, who are struggling to enforce the state's century-old gambling laws, which were written before pai gow was played in California.
In Bell, police detectives on Jan. 29 made the first pai gow-related arrests, issuing misdemeanor citations to five California Bell Club employees for allowing bystanders to wager on a pai gow game, which is a form of side betting or bookmaking, a violation of state law. But some local officials are reluctant to move against the games.
"It's such a fine, fine legal line," said Huntington Park Police Chief Geano Contessotto, who has opposed pai gow at the Huntington Park Casino.
Monitoring the games has also proved difficult because of the language barrier between the mostly Asian players and the vice detectives who watch the tables on closed-circuit televisions or periodically wander the club floors.
Pai gow even threatens the very clubs seeking its potential riches. In a market already short on paying customers, pai gow has pitted the card parlors against each other in a dicey game to attract players.
"Pai gow is a Vegas-style chance game. It's illegal and the courts will eventually declare it illegal," said one card club executive, who asked not to be identified. "None of the (pai gow) games are clean. But if I clean up mine, how can I compete?"
Pai gow is being played in six of the county's seven card clubs, including the California Bell Club, the Huntington Park Casino, the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and the three Gardena clubs, the Eldorado, the Horseshoe and the Normandie.
All six clubs either started or resumed playing the traditional or Asian pai gow, originated in 13th-Century China, since Cole's ruling two weeks ago.
Commerce Votes Against Game
Only in Commerce have council members voted against allowing pai gow, saying the legality of the game, even with Cole's decision, is still uncertain.
Pai gow consists of 32 tiles, each with a different set of red and white dots. Eight players are dealt four tiles, which are then arranged into pairs. There are dozens of pairs combinations, each with a different value. The object is to have a better hand than the dealer, although, as in blackjack, the pai gow player and his opponent can tie or "push."
In traditional pai gow, one player acts as the house, betting against the seven others, while in the game's American version, the participants play one on one, not against the dealer.
According to California law, when one player bets against more than one player, it is considered a "banking" game because the individual is essentially acting as the house. Banking games are against the law.
In Las Vegas, bettors gamble against the house, which makes money when the players lose. In the California poker clubs, there is no house; the clubs act as a host and take their profits from a percentage of all money that is wagered.
Traditional pai gow is by far more popular, and card club operators pressed hard for its approval over the slower but clearly legal American variation.
Judge Cole boosted their cause when he ruled--in a lawsuit filed by the Huntington Park Casino owners against the city and county--that if the dealers' spot "continually and systematically rotates" among the eight players, it is only a "limited banking game" and therefore legal.
The Huntington Park Club Corp., which operates the casino, filed the suit Dec. 20 after city police and sheriff's deputies moved to shut down pai gow games at the casino.
Gary Daigh, the senior deputy in the county counsel's office who argued the county's case before Cole, said Cole's issuance of a preliminary injunction against the city and county "essentially keeps local police or sheriff's deputies from stepping in and breaking up those games." Daigh said the county plans to appeal Cole's ruling, rather than wait for the case to go to trial.
"The judge is wrong," Daigh said. "It's either a banking game or isn't. How can you have a limited banking game?"
Elwayne Smith, Huntington Park's city attorney, predicted it could take up to five years for the dispute to be resolved because of the Superior Court's backlog of cases.
"As long as Cole's ruling stands, so does pai gow," Smith said.
Some club owners pitched pai gow to local councils as a panacea: The clubs would get rich and the cities would, too.
One attorney for the California Bell Club recently boasted to the Bell City Council that pai gow could earn $10,000 a day for the club, more than covering the club's current $4,000-per-day revenue loss. Because the club generated $1.6 million in revenue for the city last year, the council listened--and two weeks ago voted, 4 to 1, to allow pai gow at the financially troubled card casino.
"If there is a chance to make more money legally, the council's position has been to be supportive," said Bell City Manager Byron Woosley.
"But we've had an image (problem) in this town," he said, referring to a yearlong federal investigation that resulted in the conviction of two former city officials and several club partners in a racketeering scheme at the club.
"So we want to be very, very careful about any new game, particularly one where the legality is so up in the air," he said.
Some officials are downright confused by the issue.
"We've been in a never-never land, where the district attorney says one thing, the courts another and the police still another," said Bell Councilman Ray Johnson. "Who is right? We need help, a definitive ruling."
The district attorney's office argues that one popular aspect of traditional pai gow, side betting, is similar to bookmaking, and illegal.
Side Betting Common
Police, club owners and players admit side betting commonly occurs at pai gow tables, drawing as many as three dozen bettors to a game in which only eight players actually receive tiles. Spectators standing behind the tables often make separate or side wagers among themselves on the outcome of the game or directly bet the dealer that one of the eight players will win the hand.
Wagering by non-participants is illegal, according to Dennis Petty, director of the district attorney's Bureau, Branch and Area Operations.
Acting on Petty's position, Bell detectives made the county's first pai gow-related arrests at the California Bell Club last month.
Those arrested on illegal gambling charges were all of Chinese descent: Wing Lou, 52, of Montebello; his wife, Annie Lou, 35; Cliff Tam, 29, of Los Angeles; John Lo, 43, of Monterey Park, and On Wong, 54, of Los Angeles. If convicted of allowing non-participants to wager on the game, the five could each receive up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
"We've got to have (pai gow). How can we compete with the other clubs if we don't have it?" said Wing Lou, who is the Bell club's pai gow adviser.
"I'm just trying to keep this club alive," he said. "I'll always been able to find a bowl of rice and soy sauce. It's no skin off my back. . . . But this club needs this game to stay alive."
While the arrests mark a first, police say enforcement of pai gow violations is extremely difficult.
James Watson, program manager of the state Gaming Commission, said pai gow "is very difficult to monitor" for infractions because any minor variation in the rules changes the game completely. Language also presents a problem because many players--and some dealers--speak limited English, conversing mostly in Chinese during the games.
"Unfortunately no one in law enforcement fully understands pai gow's complexities, so we can't really enforce it effectively," said Bell Gardens Police Chief William O'Donohoe. "Quite frankly, we are relying on the honesty of the club that a clean game is being run.
"So far we haven't seen any violations," he said, referring to the Bicycle Club, the area's newest and one of the state's largest clubs, with 100 card tables and five pai gow tables. "But do we really know?"
The Gardena clubs were the first to offer pai gow, beginning last fall.
In October the Gardena City Council approved the American version of pai gow with rules prohibiting side betting, but the clubs "didn't play the game according to the rules more than a day or two," said Gardena City Manager Martin Reagan.
Interest spread to Huntington Park, where in November city officials agreed to allow only American pai gow.
But police in Gardena and Huntington Park discovered players were playing Asian pai gow as well as making side bets and in mid-December stopped the games in both cities. The action in Huntington Park prompted the lawsuit.
Ruling Sets Off Scramble
Two weeks ago, Cole's ruling touched off a scramble among the clubs to offer pai gow. In addition to casinos in Huntington Park and Gardena, those in Bell and Bell Gardens opened pai gow tables.
"There are games in hundreds of back rooms in Chinatown and Monterey Park," Lou said. "Why shouldn't the clubs--and cities--try to tap that money? Here, they can play safe, have fun and not get mugged."
Competition among clubs for card players has become intense, particularly in the past year with the Bicycle Club's opening. All of the clubs say they are feeling the pinch for customers.
"It's a matter of supply--the number of tables--and demand--the number of players," said Ebrahim Victory, the Bell Club's financial supervisor. "Right now supply is outstripping demand."
When the California Bell Club partners went to the Bell City Council, they said pai gow was the only way to pull the club out of the red. They attributed the decline in revenues to competition from newer casinos.
Since pai gow started Jan. 22, Victory said the club's gross revenue from pai gow has averaged between $5,000 and $6,000 a day, almost half of the club's total daily take. It is still far short of the $24,000 average daily take of two years ago, he said.
Though pai gow has offered a financial boost, not all the club operators believe it will restore the boom of a few years ago.
"It's brought some new customers, some new blood, but they're not flocking through the doors," Victory said. "The game isn't going to save the club."