Full House : VFW Seeks to Expand Ventura Card Room

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angelo Varlotta had been slouched in his chair for about an hour, waiting for someone to leave the card table so he could take his turn at gambling.

He drank two cups of coffee, read the newspaper and smoked several cigarettes while waiting to play the card game pan at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1679 in Ventura.

"Sometimes I wait two hours," said Varlotta, who plays every afternoon. "The players don't leave until they run out of money."

The VFW's two-table card room--which seats only 16 players--has become so popular that club officials have asked for permission to expand to six tables so that customers won't have to wait as long to play.

"We had 18 players waiting out here in the hall once," said Bill Russell, a member of the board of trustees for the VFW post. "That opened our eyes."

Under a 1958 morals code, Ventura banned all gambling except for those existing operations at the time the ordinance was passed. The city code also prohibited the expansion of any card rooms in Ventura. Thus, the VFW was frozen at two card tables, the Ventura Elks Lodge at six tables, the American Legion at three tables and the Players Poker Club at four tables.

But VFW officials are now urging the City Council to change the law so that all four organizations are allowed to operate as many as six tables. VFW officials say they serve 800 members with only two tables, compared to the Elks' six tables for 1,440 members, arguing that it is only fair that the VFW be allowed to expand.

VFW officials estimate about 40 players come to the card room at 3801 Market St. in the heart of the city's industrial area. The club, which also has pool tables and a bar, is open seven days a week to VFW members and guests only. The card room is open to VFW members and non-members.

"People sometimes get discouraged and leave when they see the wait," said Barbara Yanagihara, the VFW's card room manager.

Earlier this month, a three-member subcommittee of the City Council approved VFW's request. The council is expected to consider the ordinance change within a month, city officials said.

Councilman Gary Tuttle, who heads the subcommittee, said he favors allowing the VFW to expand its gambling operation because the group has been responsible so far.

"It didn't seem like it was causing any problems," Tuttle said. "We're allowing gambling, but we're not encouraging it."

Yet Varlotta said he believes the card game panguingue--the only game played at the VFW--is addictive. Pan, as the game is commonly known, is a popular form of gin rummy that is played with eight decks, with the eights, nines and tens removed.

"You gotta be a junkie to play this game," said Varlotta, a 78-year-old retired paint contractor who has been playing pan for 20 years. "It's like a disease."

Bob Zinskey, an oil field worker who comes three times a week, said his average wait has been 30 minutes.

Once a player grabs a seat, it's likely he or she will sit for hours, Zinskey said.

"If you sit down, and you're not winning any money, you want that rush," Zinskey said. "They may be sitting there for four hours waiting for that rush."

VFW makes its money by charging each player $1.50 or $2--depending on which table--every half an hour. Players pay $20 to $40 to buy into games. VFW officials estimate that the card room takes in about $250 daily by charging players only through the seat fees.

Until August, the VFW card room was a sleepy operation that was open only on Saturdays. Then VFW officials decided to expand the card room and hired Yanagihara to attract players.

Yanagihara said players have flocked to the club through "word of mouth" advertising. She said she has not had to do any advertising, compared to the Elks Lodge and Players Poker Club, which are also open seven days a week.

"I don't need to because I only have two tables, and they're full," Yanagihara said. She added that the VFW appeals to some players because it concentrates only on the popular game of pan.

If the council grants the proposed expansion, the new tables will be added within a month, VFW officials said. Poker and pan games will be offered.

The success of the card room has enabled the VFW to donate more money to charitable organizations and causes this year, VFW officials said. Operating costs for the card room are also covered from its revenues.

VFW board member Russell said the organization donated $1,000 to the American Heart Foundation, $1,000 to an arthritis foundation and $1,100 to bone marrow causes this year--higher amounts than the VFW has given in previous years.

City officials said that fact helped sway them in their recommendation to grant the VFW's request.

"It's different if it's a charitable organization," Tuttle said. "It's not like it's a for-profit business."

VFW Cmdr. Steve Davis emphasized that the proposed expansion is considered minor and that the card room is a low-key operation that has not caused any problems for the community.

"We're not talking about a total den of iniquity here," Davis said.

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