With a handbag over a shoulder and a bounce to her step, 47-year-old school psychologist Lisa Klenner bounded through the doors of the small casino in the Mojave Desert. Gerald Morris, the floor man of Diamond Jim's, greeted her with a familiar smile and coaxed her to a table where a game of poker was already underway.
Forty dollars worth of chips bought a chance to win a share of a $29,800 "Monster Jackpot" and to trade good-natured razzing with a diverse band of gamblers, including a man with an everlasting grin known as "Smiley."
"It's like 'Cheers,' where everyone knows your name," said Klenner, who lives nearby in Quartz Hill.
The boxy white casino with blue trim is off California 14 in Rosamond, an unincorporated speck of a town surrounded by desert scrub and the tawny mountains. Palm trees frame the canopy entrance and an American flag flaps outside in the parking lot.
"When people walk in the door we've never seen before, I point to the restroom, cause that's where they're going," Morris said with a laugh. "We're so far out in the middle of nowhere."
Diamond Jim's modesty hides what is a profitable enterprise, ruffled but unbroken by the crushing recession. The nearest competitor is the Golden West Casino in Bakersfield, about 76 miles up the road. There is a moratorium on new card clubs in the state, so a place like Diamond Jim's -- only a short drive from exurbs like Lancaster and Palmdale -- is a valuable asset.
So valuable that shareholders are now fighting over control of the friendly 24-hour casino, with lawsuits and accusations of misspent money and takeover attempts. The fight involves the former king of Los Angeles card clubs, a struggling Las Vegas-style casino in Belize and an owner who's being held in a Mexican jail in connection with a shootout.
The tale begins with George Hardie Sr., who founded and ran the Bicycle Club in Bell Garden. The card club was raided in the late 1980s by federal agents, who accused some of the club's partners of building up the casino with laundered drug money. Hardie was cleared and he testified for the prosecution.
The federal government took over, with Hardie as a manager. But in the mid-1990s, Hardie was accused -- though never criminally charged -- of allowing loan sharking and other illegal activities at the club. In a settlement with the state, Hardie agreed to surrender his California gaming license.
About five years later, Hardie brought together a group of shareholders under the name Wizard Gaming Inc. to buy the Rosamond card club, then known as Sal's Town. Without a gaming license, Hardie could not own or operate any casino in California.
He set up a trust to run the club and made his son, George Hardie Jr., the beneficiary, essentially giving him a 42% stake in Diamond Jim's. Hardie put more than $350,000 into the trust and lent at least $860,000 to the casino.
Though the state Gaming Control Commission gave Hardie Jr. a gaming license, it prohibited him from being involved in the operations of Diamond Jim's, citing his lack of experience and steady income, outside of what he got from his father. The license allows him only to be a beneficiary of the trust.
So one of Hardie's close friends, Bob Cuicchi, was made trustee of Hardie Jr.'s trust. In 2005, Cuicchi died and the younger Hardie asked Cuicchi's wife, Emily Jean, to become the trustee.
Emily Jean Cuicchi, 64, said state officials had warned her and her husband what could happen if Hardie were found to be involved in operating Diamond Jim's.
"We were told that . . . it would be the kiss of death" for their running of the casino, she said.
The 75-year-old Hardie insisted that he was just trying to take care of his son financially and that he was devoting his energy to opening a casino in Corozal, Belize, which he did in late 2006.
"I was in Belize 95% of the time. Why would I care about Diamond Jim's for?" Hardie said recently during a telephone interview from Las Vegas, where he was playing in the World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel.
Cuicchi said that after Hardie Jr. got his license, his father became demanding, asking for repayment of the loan he'd made to the casino. Hardie complained when the shareholders wanted to install a large sign for the card club on the side of the freeway and argued that a higher percentage of the profits should be dispensed to the shareholders instead of going into remodeling, said Alan Isaacman, an attorney for Wizard Gaming Inc.
In early 2008 the gaming commission rejected a request that Hardie Jr. be allowed to have a greater say in the operation of Diamond Jim's. Cuicchi was replaced as trustee and another shareholder, George Deitch, a former Bell Gardens councilman and real estate owner, took her place. Isaacman said Hardie was angry because Cuicchi would not go along with his ideas.