Willis Martin rubbed his red eyes, grabbed his chips and cigarettes off the table and headed for the bar at the California Bell Club poker casino.
"It's almost 5 o'clock--the cocktail hour," Martin announced as he slipped a wad of $5 bills into a pocket-size tissue box, where he keeps his money. "Besides, I haven't won in an hour, and maybe a Scotch will change my luck."
The retired grocer spends several days a week in one of the shiny poker casinos that dot southeast Los Angeles County. Since his wife of 46 years died last year, he has taken comfort in the noisy, smoke-filled clubs. He has gambled since he was a teen-ager in Detroit, playing back-alley card games for sugar cubes.
But now his visits to poker casinos in Bell and elsewhere have an urgency.
"I come twice, maybe three times a week to play cards, have a drink or two and meet some friends," said the 67-year-old Martin, who lives in Santa Fe Springs. "It sure beats sitting home, thinking about yesterday--Martha, the kids and my working days.
"I can come here, laugh a little, win a bit of money and go home feeling good."
Operators of the county's seven Las Vegas-style casinos say social gamblers like Martin make up the bulk of the clientele who visit to play draw poker, lo-ball or pan, a form of pinochle or rummy. But experts like George Hardie, partner and general manager of the Bicycle Club casino in Bell Gardens, contend that players come from all walks of life.
"It runs from social players, who come once or twice a week, to professionals, who are trying to make a living at this," Hardie said as he surveyed the action at the club's 124 tables.
Bell Club manager Samuel Torosian said his customers range from "prosecuting attorneys to housewives." Added Rex Jones, a contributing editor for an industry newspaper, Poker Player: "Ninety percent of all Americans gamble. Most of our Presidents since 1860 have been poker players. It's a true American sport."
To Todd Richards, its more than fun and games. It's a job.
A graduate student at UCLA, Richards spends three nights a week at the casinos playing draw poker for grocery money. "On a good week, I can clear a couple of hundred dollars," said Richards, who never uses his real name at the tables. "It sure beats waiting tables or custodial work."
Although the casinos are open 24 hours, Hardie said mornings are usually slow. But the pace quickens in the afternoon, and come evening, the clacking sound of poker chips fills the casinos. Floor managers bark out when seats open at the tables, and attendants shuttle trays of food and drink between the kitchen and gaming area.
"On Friday and Saturday nights, it's like Grand Central Station," said one Bicycle Club dealer.
Players are drawn to the casinos because they can find a game at any hour and can play for high stakes, said Milt Corwin, a longtime partner in the Horseshoe Club in Gardena.
"It's an outlet for the person who is tired of playing for $2 or $3 at the Saturday night poker (game)," he said. "And some people don't like to take their friends' money."
A clean game and good lighting are essential to keeping a player going back to the same casino, said Herbert Stern, president of the California Commerce Club. He estimates that about 25% of a casino's customers are regulars.