New guy in a full house

Times Staff Writer

“A-I-C,” said the gentleman sitting next to me at the $3-$6 Hold’em table at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Casino in Gardena. “Attitude, Involvement, Communication.”

These were the three things I needed to keep in mind in order to get good at poker. He told me to “listen” to the table. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it sounded like sage advice. Plus, the guy had a cane, which only made him seem wiser. He said he was in the entertainment industry and didn’t want to give his name.

Maybe you already know this, but there are a lot of people playing poker nowadays, spurred on by cable television, network television and the Internet. The game of Texas Hold’em, specifically, is all the rage. Poker tournaments are flourishing across the Southland. In Commerce, at the Commerce Casino, the Hold’em room goes on for days, the tables filled (this was on a weekday, at 3 p.m.) with people as diverse as the globe: Asian, African American, Russian, Southern California slacker with piercings. There was a woman wearing a paper mask over her mouth and gloves on her hands and a lot of middle-aged men contorting their seated bodies away from the table to steal a bite of lo mein, or of a submarine sandwich, delivered on little portable carts by the casino wait staff.

A poker neophyte, I had resisted learning the game for one simple reason: Card games give me hives. Psychic hives, not the skin kind. I love to gamble, but on sure things -- college football, the National Hockey League. Blackjack is a sucker’s game, and poker, while it involves more strategy and the ability to eat a plate of pasta while checking a pair of fives, held some allure but not enough for me to figure out exactly where Gardena is.


But I’d become curious: After all, hadn’t I seen hunky actor types like Ben Affleck and Ron Livingston looking even cooler (is it possible?) on Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” lately? Didn’t I aspire to be just like them?

Most of the card clubs in Southern California have instructional tables, which is to say they’re more than happy to welcome you into their bosom and begin the process of stripping you of your money. (Technically, the casinos aren’t taking your money, because players in Hold’em bet against each other, not against the house. The casinos make money either by taking a percentage of each pot or by charging an hourly chair fee.)

Before heading out, I called the mother of a friend who moved to Las Vegas some years ago. She plays a lot of poker. One night I had dinner with her at the Mirage Hotel and Casino, said goodbye, then showed up the next afternoon to learn she’d been at the tables since our meal the previous evening.

“Want my advice?” she said on the phone. “Get lucky.”


The Hustler Casino, which used to be the El Dorado Club until Hustler founder Larry Flynt bought the place in 1999, is on the corner of Redondo Beach Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, across the street from a pet supply store. It’s L.A.-as-edge-of-the-industrialized-world, something out of “Repo Man” or Tarantino. You see Burger Kings and train tracks but no trees.

And yet, it all sounds dingier than it is once you get inside the womb of the casino. Southern California casinos, at least the four I went into -- Commerce Casino, the Hustler and Normandie casinos in Gardena, as well as Hollywood Park -- are less assaultive than a Vegas casino, mostly because the rooms are smoke-free and don’t feature the constant clanging and ringing of slot machines. The clubs have been around for two decades, but now they’re more full-service. At Commerce there’s a sushi bar, and the parking lot has reserved spaces for carpoolers. At Hollywood Park a masseuse went from table to table, dispensing dollar-a-minute massages, her hands working the backs of men who’d been sitting for hours.

Instead of slot machines, what you hear is another language. Floor managers stand in front of giant grease boards, calling out the initials of people waiting for different games. “Last call E.A. three Omaha!” the voice comes over the loudspeaker. Or: “B.K., one stud.” Leave for a cigarette and you risk losing your spot on the board, although players already seated can usually take a smoke break without losing their place at the table.

“It’s a battlefield out there,” Wanzel King, poker floor supervisor at Hollywood Park, said as she surveyed her tables. King’s role is part traffic cop, part pit boss; it is her job to make sure games are formed in an orderly fashion, that the customers are behaving and that the ones waiting their turn get seated in a prompt fashion. “Hey, sweetie,” King called out to one man. “I’m definitely gonna try to start that four Omaha.”


I found the same sort of congenial atmosphere at the Hustler Casino, after I introduced myself to the floor manager as a rank beginner. He promptly showed me to an empty table, where first Tracy and then Lourdes, my dealer-teachers, ran through the rules of Texas Hold’em. I knew basic poker things -- three of a kind beats two pair, a straight beats three of a kind, a flush beats a straight. But I had to learn the particulars of Hold’em.

Each player gets two cards face down, followed by the first round of betting. Then comes “the flop,” three community cards dealt face up in the middle of the table that every player can use. There’s another round of betting, followed by the reveal of the fourth community card -- “the turn.” Players bet again; the pot builds. People fall out, stay in. The fifth and last community card -- “the river” -- is then dealt face up and there’s one last round of betting.

After about 20 minutes Lourdes declared me ready to play (her confidence was flattering), and all of a sudden, six people convened around me for a game of $3-$6 Hold’em. Later, it occurred to me that they’d seen me learning just minutes before.

Thankfully, the amount I could lose was predetermined. Unlike the no-limit games seen on TV, most Hold’em players prefer limit Hold’em, a more controlled version of the game with betting schedules. My $3-$6 table meant that players would be tossing three bucks on the table in each of the first two rounds, then $6 in each of the last two, assuming there were no raises. In limit Hold’em, four bets is the maximum allowed in each round. In a $3-$6 game, you can raise up to $12 on the flop, but I wasn’t planning to go there.


What was it Kenny Rogers said? You gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. I didn’t, or at least not really. “Emotion can be an action,” Tracy the dealer had counseled me, and while this rang in my ears as I played, it also began to seem like something to ponder in therapy, not at a green felt table surrounded by seven strangers.

It would be lovely to report that I had beginner’s luck. I did win a pot on a pair of kings, but then Lourdes left to deal at another table, and suddenly I found myself out 50 bucks. Basically, it goes like this: You’re dealt a 10 of clubs and a six of spades; your heart pounds, people throw in chips. Are you in or out? In? Here comes the flop. How do you feel now? In or out?

Across the table, Brett Thomas seemed far too relaxed. He is, in a way, an emblem for the new breed of poker aficionado -- 34 years old, lives in Santa Monica, a self-employed entrepreneur (he’s planning to open a car wash). He’s someone who has dabbled in poker all his life but found himself getting the bug watching Hold’em on the Travel Channel. “My grandmother loves playing poker,” said Thomas, who recalled 10-cents-a-hand games with the family at holidays.

Such stories give poker a warm-and-fuzzy feel. Indeed, it is easy to forget that all over the Southland, 24 hours a day, gamblers (some degenerate, many just hobbyists) are trying to get back the hand that got away. The shame and torment of losing begets the compulsion to win it back. Oh, yeah, gambling is addictive.


And so I found myself in Commerce, in a $1-$2 game, folding on a pair of 10s. Had I stayed in, I would have won the pot. I’d been up, now I was down. Unnecessarily down. I felt so stupid, so ashamed. Two 10s! Couldn’t I win it all back if I just hung in long enough?

A man nearby was eating a very attractive sandwich. At my own table, the young guy sitting across from me was on a roll. He was wearing a baseball cap backward and there appeared to be a silver stud below his lip.

He kept winning, and soon I wanted to be him. Which is not exactly the same as wanting to be Ben Affleck. Affleck, I’d heard, likes to play the no-limit tables at Hollywood Park. But not all of us can play that game. Some of us triumph and fail in smaller increments. Some of us find ourselves in Commerce, at 4 o’clock on a Monday, betting dollar chips, wanting to be the guy across the table. Which is when you know it’s time to leave.




Up the ante


Hustler Casino


1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena (310) 719-9800

Commerce Casino

6131 E. Telegraph Road,

Los Angeles (323) 721-2100


Normandie Casino

1045 W. Rosecrans, Gardena (800) 540-8006

Hollywood Park Casino

3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood (310) 330-2800


INTERNET,, Three of the more popular sites to play poker online. Download their software and compete with “play money” (beginners can learn without betting the rent); then fund an account and you’re playing real-time, real-money poker 24/7 against online players around the world. The online version of the popular magazine available in most casinos. How-to articles from pros, instructional books and videos, professional player rankings, updated tournament results and schedules, TV listings of poker-related shows, and even an online odds calculator (“What’s favored heads-up, pocket 10s or A-9 suited?”)




* “Late Night Poker,”

10:30 p.m. Fox Sports Net (73211) and 12:30 a.m. Fox Sports Net 2 (899964)



* “Showdown at the Sands Atlantic City Poker Tournament,” 4 p.m. FSN (81186) and 2 a.m. FSN (453543)

* “Celebrity Poker Showdown,”

6 p.m. Bravo (764544) and 2 a.m. Bravo (480281). This week Hank Azaria, Michael Ian Black, Peter Facinelli, Nicole Sullivan and Mo Gaffney compete on behalf of their favorite charities.

* “Late Night Poker”


10:30 p.m. FSN (89877) and

12:30 a.m. FSN2 (203113)


* “World Poker Tour,”


3 p.m. Travel Channel

In “Bicycle Casino’s Legends of Poker,” six of poker’s best line up in Los Angeles for a shot at the prize pool (4657991).

* “Showdown at the Sands Atlantic City Poker Tournament,” 7 p.m. FSN (30945) and 10:30 p.m. FSN2 (979246)



* “Showdown at the Sands Atlantic City Poker Tournament,”

1 p.m. FSN (84866)

Paul Brownfield can be reached at