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Legalized Vegas-Style Poker Offers Area Casinos New Deal

July 12, 1987|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

The man in the green baseball hat had come west to sample the new deal. Seated at a poker table in the Commerce Casino, he was one card away from taking a $60 pot. He needed a spade, and was dealt one, giving him a winning flush.

"I think I might stick around awhile," said the man, who called himself Cotton Joe, as he smugly stacked his winnings. A professional poker player from Las Vegas, Joe said later: "This game grows on you. You watch. It's going to be big here, real big."

Operators of the seven major poker casinos in Southeast Los Angeles County and Gardena are betting that seven-card stud and another form of stud poker, hold 'em, will become big draws. Within days of a Los Angeles court ruling in May legalizing the games, all seven casinos in the county began dealing them.

New Prosperity Predicted

Legalization of the games, outlawed since the late 1880s, has some casino officials predicting a new wave of players and prosperity.

Others contend they can compete for the first time on equal footing with casinos in Nevada, where seven-card stud and hold 'em are mainstays. In recent newspaper advertisements, the Commerce Casino tells readers, "Forget Vegas!" and play "America's favorite games" close to home.

"This is the best thing to happen to poker in California since the Gold Rush," proclaimed Sam Torosian, manager of California Bell Club in Bell, which, along with the Huntington Park Club Corp., filed the suit that won the prohibition on prosecution.

Card players and casino operators say the two new games are more exciting than lo-ball and draw poker, which for years were the only games allowed in California poker halls. Stud poker, including hold 'em, is characterized by dealing one or more cards face up, and in each game there are more betting rounds, generally producing bigger jackpots than in lo-ball or draw poker.

"They are faster paced games with lots of action," said George Hardie, general manager of the Bell Gardens' Bicycle Club, the area's largest casino with 120 tables.

Old Game 'On Its Way Out'

Because of the popularity of stud and hold 'em, Hardie said, "It's only a matter of time, but draw poker is on its way out."

In fact, a variety of Asian betting games, principally pai gow, has eclipsed draw poker and lo-ball in importance as revenue producers in recent years. The emergence of pai gow brought a racy, high-stakes Las Vegas-element to the clubs. With minimum bets at some pai gow tables of $100 a hand, high-rolling gamblers flocked to the clubs to play the game.

While some casinos such as the Bicycle Club have profited handsomely from pai gow, the legality of the game is being challenged in court, which is one reason some believe stud and hold 'em is so important to the industry's future.

"Should pai gow go away, seven-card stud and hold 'em will become very important to the clubs," said I. Nelson Rose, a private Los Angeles attorney who specializes in gambling.

Interest in seven-card stud and hold 'em is building nearly two months after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Vernon G. Foster's decision. Operators of casinos in Commerce, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Bell and Gardena say they are adding more tables for seven-card stud and hold 'em. And new players, some from as far away as Nevada, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, are frequenting the warehouse-size poker houses.

Las Vegas casino officials said that many of their regular poker customers, like Cotton Joe, have gone to California to play for profit.

"Lots of those who make a living at poker are in Southern California hoping to catch a few novices asleep at the deal and make a quick dollar or two," said Eric Drache, poker manager at Las Vegas' Golden Nugget Hotel. Drache is also organizer of the sport's richest tournament, the annual $4.8-million World Series of Poker held at the Horseshoe, a casino across the street from the Golden Nugget.

More Winners Predicted

While the new California games may pull players from Nevada tables, industry insiders like Len Miller of Poker Player, a weekly newspaper distributed in casinos in both states, say everybody will win in the long run.

"The number of potential poker players in California has been grossly underestimated," said Miller, the newspaper's executive editor. "Now they will come out of the private clubs or pass on the Saturday night games with the boys to play in the poker palaces. . . . And eventually they'll go to Vegas, because everybody wants to try their luck there. Everybody is going to profit."

In Bell, Torosian estimated that seven-card stud and hold 'em will generate about 20% of the Bell Club's annual revenues, which last year totaled about $6 million. (The club has been wracked by dissension among its owners and faces a takeover attempt by investors in South Korea.) "It will be a real shot in the arm," Torosian said.

The Commerce Casino and the Bicycle Club expect the new games to bolster revenues by 10% to 15% a year.

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