Legalized Vegas-Style Poker Offers Area Casinos New Deal

Times Staff Writer

The man in the green baseball hat had come west to sample the new deal. Seated at a poker table in the Commerce Casino, he was one card away from taking a $60 pot. He needed a spade, and was dealt one, giving him a winning flush.

“I think I might stick around awhile,” said the man, who called himself Cotton Joe, as he smugly stacked his winnings. A professional poker player from Las Vegas, Joe said later: “This game grows on you. You watch. It’s going to be big here, real big.”

Operators of the seven major poker casinos in Southeast Los Angeles County and Gardena are betting that seven-card stud and another form of stud poker, hold ‘em, will become big draws. Within days of a Los Angeles court ruling in May legalizing the games, all seven casinos in the county began dealing them.


New Prosperity Predicted

Legalization of the games, outlawed since the late 1880s, has some casino officials predicting a new wave of players and prosperity.

Others contend they can compete for the first time on equal footing with casinos in Nevada, where seven-card stud and hold ‘em are mainstays. In recent newspaper advertisements, the Commerce Casino tells readers, “Forget Vegas!” and play “America’s favorite games” close to home.

“This is the best thing to happen to poker in California since the Gold Rush,” proclaimed Sam Torosian, manager of California Bell Club in Bell, which, along with the Huntington Park Club Corp., filed the suit that won the prohibition on prosecution.

Card players and casino operators say the two new games are more exciting than lo-ball and draw poker, which for years were the only games allowed in California poker halls. Stud poker, including hold ‘em, is characterized by dealing one or more cards face up, and in each game there are more betting rounds, generally producing bigger jackpots than in lo-ball or draw poker.

“They are faster paced games with lots of action,” said George Hardie, general manager of the Bell Gardens’ Bicycle Club, the area’s largest casino with 120 tables.

Old Game ‘On Its Way Out’

Because of the popularity of stud and hold ‘em, Hardie said, “It’s only a matter of time, but draw poker is on its way out.”


In fact, a variety of Asian betting games, principally pai gow, has eclipsed draw poker and lo-ball in importance as revenue producers in recent years. The emergence of pai gow brought a racy, high-stakes Las Vegas-element to the clubs. With minimum bets at some pai gow tables of $100 a hand, high-rolling gamblers flocked to the clubs to play the game.

While some casinos such as the Bicycle Club have profited handsomely from pai gow, the legality of the game is being challenged in court, which is one reason some believe stud and hold ‘em is so important to the industry’s future.

“Should pai gow go away, seven-card stud and hold ‘em will become very important to the clubs,” said I. Nelson Rose, a private Los Angeles attorney who specializes in gambling.

Interest in seven-card stud and hold ‘em is building nearly two months after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Vernon G. Foster’s decision. Operators of casinos in Commerce, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Bell and Gardena say they are adding more tables for seven-card stud and hold ‘em. And new players, some from as far away as Nevada, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, are frequenting the warehouse-size poker houses.

Las Vegas casino officials said that many of their regular poker customers, like Cotton Joe, have gone to California to play for profit.

“Lots of those who make a living at poker are in Southern California hoping to catch a few novices asleep at the deal and make a quick dollar or two,” said Eric Drache, poker manager at Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget Hotel. Drache is also organizer of the sport’s richest tournament, the annual $4.8-million World Series of Poker held at the Horseshoe, a casino across the street from the Golden Nugget.

More Winners Predicted

While the new California games may pull players from Nevada tables, industry insiders like Len Miller of Poker Player, a weekly newspaper distributed in casinos in both states, say everybody will win in the long run.


“The number of potential poker players in California has been grossly underestimated,” said Miller, the newspaper’s executive editor. “Now they will come out of the private clubs or pass on the Saturday night games with the boys to play in the poker palaces. . . . And eventually they’ll go to Vegas, because everybody wants to try their luck there. Everybody is going to profit.”

In Bell, Torosian estimated that seven-card stud and hold ‘em will generate about 20% of the Bell Club’s annual revenues, which last year totaled about $6 million. (The club has been wracked by dissension among its owners and faces a takeover attempt by investors in South Korea.) “It will be a real shot in the arm,” Torosian said.

The Commerce Casino and the Bicycle Club expect the new games to bolster revenues by 10% to 15% a year.

Some city officials are less optimistic. Cities with casinos often have large stakes in the survival of the clubs because they collect a percentage of the club’s take.

City of Commerce Finance Director John Mitsucchi said if the new games simply pull players from existing games, he doubts that there will be much of a change in the $3.4 million the city expects to receive in casino revenues in fiscal 1987-88. It will take at least six months to a year, he said, to gauge whether the two games really tap a new pool of players.

Tony Corbet, a retired airline mechanic from Downey, is one who is simply switching games.

“Compared to stud or hold ‘em, draw poker is like chess--it’s slow,” he said, sipping a cola as he surveyed a half-full Commerce Casino at noon on a recent weekday. Corbet calls himself a recreational card player--”It sure beats staying home with my wife watching soaps”--but has become a regular at the casinos since hold ‘em began. “This could get addicting. . . . “


On a weekend night, Ron Sarakbi, general manager of the Commerce Casino, said about one-quarter of the 110 tables are set aside for seven-card stud and hold ‘em.

Constant Racket of Chips

About a dozen tables of stud and hold ‘em were filled on a recent afternoon. A layer of smoke hung over the main casino floor, despite ceiling fans churning away at top speed. The constant racket of poker chips being stacked and tossed and fondled by nervous players sounded like hundreds of crickets on a summer night. And all around were TV sets showing Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying at the Iran- contra hearings.

Tom Stone, a South Gate accountant, was too busy to watch TV. Between bites of lunch, he tried his luck at hold ‘em. In an hour he won $25. Then he stood and announced, “back to the office.” As he cinched up his tie and pushed away from the table, he said, “It sure beats sitting in some coffee shop with my fellow employees bitching about work.”

Others say they are playing the new games because it is close to home.

“It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than going to Vegas,” said Millie Johnson, an El Monte phone operator who had just finished two hours at seven-card stud table. “You don’t have to mess with the drive, the heat or the sharks in Vegas.”

For true poker players, Sarakbi said California casinos now offer a real alternative to Nevada.

“People who like the shows, the glitz of Vegas and the slot machines will still go to Las Vegas or Reno,” Sarakbi said. “But committed poker players don’t have to pay for gas or a room anymore to find good action. It’s here.”

Old Law Outlawed Game

For more than a century that was not the case.

Stud poker had been considered illegal in California gambling clubs because of an 1885 law that specifically outlawed a game called “stud-horse poker.” On that basis, seven-card stud and hold ‘em were considered illegal.


Unlike Nevada, it is illegal here for bettors to wager against the casino (banking games), or for the house to take a cut of the bets or pot (a percentage game). Stud-horse poker was apparently a banking game. But Judge Foster ruled that as long as casinos do not run seven-card stud or hold ‘em as banking games, their customers can play the games.

In most local casinos, stud and hold ‘em players are charged a flat fee of about $10 to $16 an hour, depending on the betting limit, for a seat.

If the new games take firm hold, poker editor Miller said new clubs may open. In recent weeks, card parlors and rooms in Central and Northern California have begun offering the games based on Foster’s ruling, Miller said. And he expects that other cities, looking for ways to generate new revenue sources, possibly will jump into the casino business.

“There are 40 million poker players in this country,” Miller said. “America today is more gambling minded than ever before. Just look at the spread of lottery games. . . . It’s just a matter of time before other cities in Los Angeles County decide to give a poker casino a try.”