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UP ALL NIGHT / SOCIAL CLIMES

It's Vegas Without the Vegas

October 22, 1995|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Las Vegas strip, Atlantic City's Boardwalk and the neon lights of Gardena all mean the same thing to the patron looking to turn a little into a lot. And while the Normandie Casino and Showroom in Gardena has all the glitz and high stakes of betting parlors over the border, it has an additional fringe benefit: It's close to home.

One block west of the Harbor Freeway, this gaming hall may be the best-kept secret in Los Angeles. When the card club opened 51 years ago, the family-owned and operated club had just 12 tables. Now, still owned by the Miller family and headed by Russell Miller, it features 10 Asian and poker card games at 85 tables, weekend entertainment and dining in addition to a motto that sums up how the club has grown: "Vegas in L.A."

Here at the Normandie Casino glass chandeliers hang over card tables where dealers rapidly dish out the deck. As patrons sit back in the red-and-gold-trimmed chairs to survey their hands, cocktail waitresses deliver drinks, which start as low as $1.75 for domestic beer. Some order Wor Wonton soup with duck from the casino's Paddle Wheel Restaurant, which is open 24 hours a day and specializes in Asian cuisine. Hard-core gamblers, however, balk at taking their eyes off the cards to eat.

The Asian games at this one-story betting hall are as big a draw as a royal flush in a poker game. Nearly half the club is dedicated to Pai Gow Poker and Super 9 along with Black Jack Jokers and EO Eleven, two Asian-style games the club invented and patented, said executive host Al Nelson. At the Asian game tables, betting starts at a minimum of $5, and goes up to $200 in the Red Dragon Room, an elite high-stakes section of the casino. Lenny Weinberg, a self-described habitual gambler from Agoura Hills, plays in the weekly Asian game tournaments and has walked away with as much as $18,000 in one night. He said he likes the Asian games because they require common sense.

"It's always the luck of the draw," said Weinberg, "but the Asian games require more skill."

Those with more traditional taste can try their hand at poker, where betting starts at $1 per hand. The casino features 7-Card Stud, Omaha and Holdem among other games, and the stakes get as high as $80 per hand in the VIP section. Lucky winners may go home with a jackpot provided by the house when they win games during daily jackpot hours.

California has had card rooms since the Gold Rush days. Card rooms still exist throughout the state and are legal under state law. The difference from Nevada is that gamblers in California can't make bets against the house. At the Normandie Casino, bettors make wagers against each other, while the house provides the service for $1 per $100 bet.

On weekends the Normandie Showroom brings national talent to its plush pink showroom. Guests dine in tiered booths in a turn-of-the-century setting, while headliners such as Suzanne Somers, Juice Newton and Phyllis Diller provide the entertainment. In the lounge, local jazz and reggae acts perform Thursday through Sunday.

Regular Billy Sanchez comes almost nightly to the Normandie Casino. He's taken in a few shows and has taken home his fair share of winnings. He said he used to travel to Las Vegas to gamble, but for the last five years he's come to the Normandie Casino instead.

"This place is much better than Vegas," said Sanchez, of Lakewood. "It only takes me 20 minutes to get here. Vegas, it takes all day."

*

What: The Normandie Casino and Showroom, 1045 Rosecrans Ave., Gardena. (310) 352-3400.

When: Around the clock 365 days a year.

Cost: Bets range from $1 to $200 per game; Budweiser, $1.75; rum and Coke, $2.50; Wor Wonton soup, $5.75; valet parking, $1.

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