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‘So many people think we’re bad people. To me, this is a very respectable business.’

Times staff writer

There is something very comfortable about the circular, green, felt-covered tables, the many chunky glass ashtrays and the thickly cushioned chairs. There is something almost soothing about the clink and slap of poker chips being tossed into the pot and cards being quickly but gently shuffled. Hanging plants and fresh floral arrangements complete the ambiance at the Oasis II Card Room on El Cajon Boulevard. Kathy Graham, a thoughtful woman who once taught Catholic Sunday school, seems an unlikely manager for a place like the Oasis. The 39-year-old Alpine resident said she stumbled into managing the card room, but now, after 10 years in the business, both as a dealer and a manager, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Times staff writer Caroline Lemke interviewed Graham and Vince Compagnone photographed her.

We’re regulated by the Police Department and the City Council, so we can be open from 10 in the morning until 12 midnight. We’re closed on Sundays. We all have to wear badges. We have to go to the Police Department every year and renew our badges--they do a check on us and fingerprint us to make sure we’re not felons or running from the law.

An average day in here starts at 10 a.m. with a small game, a $20 buy-in game. These people have some coffee and doughnuts, and they’re ready to play at 10 o’clock. They have either reserved their seat the day before or they play daily. The way we make our money is by charging $1.25 a half hour for the rental of the seat. We’re not allowed to rake the pot or take a percentage of the pot like they do in Vegas. We have center dealers who don’t play, they just deal cards and make sure the pots are right and make sure no one is cheating.

At night we get a little busier, the games get a little bigger. During the day most of our players are elderly people, who, if they didn’t come in to this place, they would probably vegetate in front of a television and not use their minds or have a good time. They meet people. It’s an excuse to get dressed, get out of the house and come down here and meet their friends. We have some elderly people, if they don’t come in here for two or three days, we call them and make sure they’re all right. So, it’s a pretty good little social club here. It’s real nice.

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I came here to the Oasis to deal cards. The manager here just quit one day. He had put a sign on the door saying he quit and he wouldn’t be back. One of the dealers called me at home and said, “Kathy, what shall we do?” I said, “Well, sell the chips, get the games started and take that sign off the door.” Ever since that point I became the manager.

It was a difficult transformation for me because I had worked with all these people and now I was supposed to be their boss. I thought we could just work all together like a co-op, but that doesn’t work. Most people said I could do it, though, because I’m bossy anyway.

One thing I got out of Catholic school and a Catholic education--and I might have been lucky to have the nuns that I had--but they told me, whatever I do, don’t be a hypocrite, and whatever I do, do it well.

That’s why I love this business. It’s so real here. It is. There’s just nothing phony here. If you come in and you look sick, they will say, “You look sick. What’s the matter with you?” And, if you come in and you look cute, they say, “God, you look so cute.” They don’t hold back in here. It’s pretty honest in here. It’s real.

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There are times when it’s difficult working with people who are losing their money. They don’t mind spending their money, going out to dinner, but when they come in here and lose it and they want to win, sometimes it gets a little difficult. It’s also frustrating not to be understood or to be misunderstood in this business. So many people think we’re bad people. To me, this is a very respectable business. To a majority of people, they think it’s just awful.


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