Tom Gin slowly ran his fingers across the bottoms of the domino-like tiles, feeling the dots like a blind man reading Braille. He never looked down at the four black tiles he was dealt, arranging them instead by touch--and years of experience playing the Chinese betting game of pai gow.
He learned the game as a boy in his homeland and later excelled at it in the back rooms and basements of Los Angeles' Chinatown.
But this afternoon, in a far corner of the half-empty California Bell Club, Gin's luck had soured. The 58-year-old plumber said nothing, but his red eyes showed the strain of three hours of losing. Gin's final wager was on the line as he and other players crowded around the oval table to watch the dealer show his tiles--then reach for Gin's stack of yellow and black chips.
"Damn, the gods are against me," Gin groused to himself, grabbing his cigarettes off the green felt and stalking away, $650 poorer. "I'm a loser--but only today. I'll be back to win tomorrow."
Card club operators in southeast Los Angeles County and Gardena are gambling that Gin and hundreds of others, particularly Chinese and other Asians, will return again and again to fill their once-crowded game tables and once-bulging bank accounts.
Complex Betting Game
The hook is pai gow (pronounced PIE-gow), a complex betting game that club owners believe may revive an ailing industry beset by image, financial and credibility troubles--revive it by tapping a vast new pool of players who have been betting on pai gow for years at illegal games in back rooms, attics and private clubs from Chinatown to suburban Orange County.
New players, club owners say, will not only boost the industry's sagging revenues, but also enrich local cities, such as Bell, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens and Gardena, which have large stakes in the survival of the clubs because they collect a percentage of the club's take. One by one, the councils in those cities endorsed the game in recent weeks, clearing the way for pai gow play to begin despite a thick web of legal questions surrounding the game.
Local councils, hesitant at first, finally warmed to the game when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Cole ruled Jan. 16 that pai gow is essentially legal.
But the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has disagreed, creating a legal quandary that has handcuffed local police, who are struggling to enforce the state's century-old gambling laws, which were written before pai gow was played in California.
In Bell, police detectives on Jan. 29 made the first pai gow-related arrests, issuing misdemeanor citations to five California Bell Club employees for allowing bystanders to wager on a pai gow game, which is a form of side betting or bookmaking, a violation of state law. But some local officials are reluctant to move against the games.
"It's such a fine, fine legal line," said Huntington Park Police Chief Geano Contessotto, who has opposed pai gow at the Huntington Park Casino.
Monitoring the games has also proved difficult because of the language barrier between the mostly Asian players and the vice detectives who watch the tables on closed-circuit televisions or periodically wander the club floors.
Pai gow even threatens the very clubs seeking its potential riches. In a market already short on paying customers, pai gow has pitted the card parlors against each other in a dicey game to attract players.
"Pai gow is a Vegas-style chance game. It's illegal and the courts will eventually declare it illegal," said one card club executive, who asked not to be identified. "None of the (pai gow) games are clean. But if I clean up mine, how can I compete?"
Pai gow is being played in six of the county's seven card clubs, including the California Bell Club, the Huntington Park Casino, the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and the three Gardena clubs, the Eldorado, the Horseshoe and the Normandie.
All six clubs either started or resumed playing the traditional or Asian pai gow, originated in 13th-Century China, since Cole's ruling two weeks ago.
Commerce Votes Against Game
Only in Commerce have council members voted against allowing pai gow, saying the legality of the game, even with Cole's decision, is still uncertain.
Pai gow consists of 32 tiles, each with a different set of red and white dots. Eight players are dealt four tiles, which are then arranged into pairs. There are dozens of pairs combinations, each with a different value. The object is to have a better hand than the dealer, although, as in blackjack, the pai gow player and his opponent can tie or "push."
In traditional pai gow, one player acts as the house, betting against the seven others, while in the game's American version, the participants play one on one, not against the dealer.
According to California law, when one player bets against more than one player, it is considered a "banking" game because the individual is essentially acting as the house. Banking games are against the law.