Despite expected financial losses, proprietors of seven Southland card clubs have agreed to give up a controversial Asian-style betting game as part of a deal struck with law enforcement officials to promote substantial revisions in the state's 98-year-old gambling law, officials announced this week.
The proposed revisions, drafted by administrators of five Southland cities that host the area casinos, have also been tentatively endorsed by the California Police Officers Assn. Officials of all three groups say a major overhaul of the state gambling law is the only way to resolve long-standing disputes about which betting games should be permitted in the card rooms and casinos.
In exchange for dropping the popular Asian game, casino owners are seeking a return to a recently outlawed fee system, in which clubs collect a portion of gamblers' winnings.
The system was ruled unlawful by an appellate court last November. Since then, clubs have been collecting a per-hand flat fee from players. The percentage system is more lucrative than flat-fee systems.
The tentative compromise that would bar pai-gow throughout the state is outlined in a proposed new gambling law that was released on Tuesday. Administrators from Bell Gardens, Gardena, Bell, Huntington Park and Commerce began working on a draft revision of the law after the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department staged a series of raids on local card clubs where pai-gow was being played.
"We feel the compromise is in the best interest of law enforcement and the gambling industry," said Commerce Club general manager Ron Sarabi, who is also president of the California Card Room Owners Assn. "We all need a clear definition about what games we can and can't play."
The city administrators have approached a state senator to write a bill that would update the gaming section of the California Penal Code, Bell Gardens City Manager Claude Booker said. He would not disclose the lawmaker's name.
Club owners, law enforcement authorities and city officials have unsuccessfully pressed the Legislature for major revisions in the law for the past four years. They have complained that the paragraph-long law, last amended in 1891, is archaic and has caused numerous costly lawsuits in recent years over which games can be played in California.
Ironically, the compromise comes only a week after card club owners won a preliminary court battle against the Sheriff's Department, which has tried to shut down three high-stakes Asian games for the past four years.
A Superior Court judge has ruled that pai-gow, Asian poker and super pan 9 can continue to be played despite the county's contention that the games violate the state gambling law.
The proposed new law would ban pai-gow-- played with dominoes--from card rooms statewide. Locally, the Huntington Park Casino, the Commerce Club, the California Bell Club in Bell, the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and three casinos in Gardena would be affected.
"It is going to hurt us," Commerce Club general partner John Mgrdichian said, adding that he will not oppose the compromise. "We just hope we can make up our losses elsewhere."
However, under the proposed agreement hammered out over the past few weeks, Asian poker and super pan 9--played with traditional playing cards--are included in a list of six card games that law enforcement officials would find acceptable.
Undersheriff Robert A. Edmonds, although declining to comment in detail, said that he supports the city managers' final draft in principle.
"We think it is to everyone's benefit to see the law rewritten," said Edmonds, a gaming committee member of the police officers association. "If things don't change, we will be back in the same litigation all over again."
Club owners agreed. "Sometimes you have to compromise to get legislation that is so vitally needed," said George Hardie, owner of the Bicycle Club, the largest casino in the state.
"Law enforcement has stressed that they prefer pai-gow not be played," Hardie continued. "While we may not like all the provisions (in the proposed law), it is something we can live with."
Club owners have argued that the loss of pai-gow, a fast-moving game popular among Asian gamblers, would hurt them financially. They have estimated that about 40% of club revenues come from fees collected at tables reserved for the three Asian games.
Cut in Staff
Last week, Hardie said that he was prepared to lay off 900 employees--about half the club's total staff--if Superior Court Judge Kurt J. Lewin had ruled that sheriff's deputies had the power to close down the three Asian games until a civil lawsuit over the games' legality is heard.
In a written ruling issued last Friday, Lewin barred sheriff's deputies from closing down tables where the games are being played. He also ruled that club owners would suffer "great and irreparable (financial) harm if enforcement . . . against them by the Sheriff's Department continues."
The department conducted a series of raids during the New Year's weekend. They closed down dozens of tables at six of the clubs for several days and arrested six card club employees for allegedly playing Asian games.
The raids stemmed from an appellate court ruling in November, in which a footnote apparently left open the question of whether the Asian games violate state law because they use a rotating dealer system--players take turns acting as banker, collecting from losers and paying winners.
State law prohibits "banking and percentage" games.
Club owners say that they lost thousands of dollars a day during the closures, and have filed suit against the county and the Sheriff's Department. The suit, which is not expected to be heard until at least late summer, would probably be dropped if the proposed new law passes, said Commerce Club's Sarabi.
That appellate court decision also found that collecting a portion of the gamblers' winnings constituted a violation of the percentage game provision in the state law. Clubs were then forced to switch to a flat fee system or stop offering the Asian games.
Hardie and other club owners expressed optimism that the proposed law would be passed and signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who three years ago vetoed a similar gambling bill because it was opposed by the police officers association.
Since then, other bills, sponsored alternately by the gambling industry and the police officers association, have failed to make it through the Legislature.