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The Last House of Cards : They Won't Allow Any More Like Pinky's

October 08, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer and

When he was 14, Pinky Donohoo blew off his right hand hunting rabbits.

With his left hand, he learned to shuffle and deal a deck of cards.

Poker has been a way of life for Donohoo ever since. And as Donohoo goes, so goes a way of life for anyone around these parts who finds succor in a lucky draw and a big pot.

Because, at 80, after nearly five decades in the same Ventura Avenue spot, Donohoo owns the last legally licensed poker club in Ventura County. Under a 1958 ordinance, card houses in the county have been forced to close as their owners have died.

"We are the 'Last of the Mohicans,' " said J. R. Preston, floor man at Donohoo's Players Poker Club. "This is a dinosaur."

Although employees occasionally joke about keeping life-support equipment tucked away in a closet, a quick look at Donohoo attests that the Ventura native shows no signs of folding.

A regimen of two or three martinis before dinner and a daily four-mile walk keep him healthy, he says. Big-game hunting, an upcoming trip to South America and a 25-year-old wife fill the rest of his time.

"Some people say, 'Take it easy,' " Donohoo says. "I say, 'I'll take it any way I can get it.' "

But if Donohoo is content to play the odds, the dozens of hard-core regulars who frequent his club are decidedly dejected at the prospect of its eventual demise.

Open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, the club draws a predominantly retired, male clientele to its four green-velvet tables. A coffee shop substitutes for a bar. Free breakfast is served weekdays before 11:30 a.m.

"It fulfills a need for the community," said Preston, a burly man with a jolly face and slicked-back hair. "When this place goes, there's going to be a hell of a void."

That void will be felt by people like Leo Siegmund, a 52-year-old former speech and theater teacher who has been a daily regular at the club for 10 years.

"It's a small-town poker club," he said. "There's a lot of gossip. We know each other. We know what everybody does. Here, you're less who you are than what you do."

Another regular, who goes by the initials B. P. and says he writes for a gambling magazine, also emphasized the social aspects of the club.

"A lot of times you feel like going to a place where you're comfortable," he said. "It's comfortable here. It's family."

And for one 83-year-old retired baker, who has been going to the club for more than 30 years, life practically revolves around his daily visits.

"I have no place else to go," he said, asking that his name not be used. "The only friends I have are right here in this place. I depend on this as a place to go . . . to pass the time."

Inside the white-stucco building is a clean, well-lighted space lined with wood paneling and signs warning patrons not to stand behind players while games are in progress.

Thirty-two people can be seated at once, usually to play low-ball, a form of draw poker in which the worst, or lowest, hand wins. Bets range from $4 to a maximum of $20, except on Saturdays, when there is no limit.

Although most seek the camaraderie, a few regulars have come to depend on the cards for their daily bread.

"I try to make a living here," said a 55-year-old former computer programmer. "I don't like to work. I don't have any big ambitions anymore."

The house makes its money by taking $2.50 from each player every 30 minutes.

Police say the business has not been a source of problems, and Donohoo says he keeps the play honest by occasionally spying through a one-way mirror in the ceiling.

"It's run on a strict basis," he said. "I don't let any goddamn cheaters play."

The son of a Ventura veterinarian, Donohoo bought the club in 1941 after spending his early years as a professional gambler frequenting card houses from San Francisco to New Orleans.

Initially, the club competed with three others along Ventura Avenue. Business boomed, thanks to a force of neighboring oil-field workers.

But in the 1950s, public sentiment turned against the clubs, eventually leading the county Board of Supervisors to sentence them to death by attrition.

The ordinance was challenged in 1981 when the owner of the Pass Club near Simi Valley died and her daughter was refused a renewal of the club's business license.

Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch, however, ruled that it was within the county's police power to restrict gambling and, as a result, a ban on the transfer or sale of such licenses was constitutional.

"I don't really mind," Donohoo said. "Wouldn't you be glad if you didn't have any competition?"

A few fraternal organizations in the county do have gambling licenses, but none offer games at regular hours. And friendship at Players is available to anyone, say the regulars; it does not hinge on secret handshakes, oaths or rites.

So, as long as Pinky Donohoo is around, Players Poker Club will continue as the only game in town, serving as a kind of community center for the lucky and the lonely.

"This is religion to these people," Preston said. "It's everything."

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