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Houses of Cards

Photos by Wild Don Lewis

When the weekly poker game at your buddy’s place isn’t enough, and the Internet doesn’t satisfy like it used to, that’s when you hear it — the call of the casino.

It may come from Las Vegas or one of those flashy places in Indio. But if it’s serious card action you seek, without spending a grip on gas, you can get your fix close to home at one of L.A.’s eight card rooms.

These places are nothing like Vegas casinos. There’s no festive, free drinks, woo-hoo-we’re- on-vacation kind of vibe, no sparkly slot machines or drunken bachelorettes. Instead, you’ll find yourself in a department-store-bright room, sharing the felt with serious players on the make for some serious cash. Most are regulars, though they deny it, and they wouldn’t dream of schlepping all the way to Vegas when there’s poker to play right here, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.



 Hey, ladies! The
male-to-female ratio at
Commerce Casino
is about 25-to-1.
Commerce Casino

This one’s the big daddy —the biggest poker club in the world, according to workers — home to high rollers, high-stakes tournaments and hundreds of tables. Of all the local spots, Commerce is the most Vegas-like, from the twinkling lights outside to the oversize, marble-look sphinxes in the foyer. It’s attached to a 200-room hotel, which makes it particularly popular with round-the-clock players. Inside, there’s a sports bar with nightly karaoke, a tea house that serves smoothies and boba drinks, men’s and women’s clothing stores, a Vegas-style buffet, and the “Lucky Dollar” gift shop, which sells Beanie Babies, snacks and T-shirts that say “Got poker?” There may be 35 No Limit Hold ’Em games going at once, and it’s not rare to see players go all-in with 10 grand or more. There are more women here, probably because there’s just more of everyone. The sheer size of the place is likely to intimidate beginners, so player-relations guru David Mosikian recently started “Bring Your Home Game to Commerce” — free lessons, lingo and food in hopes that y’all become regulars. Commerce’s only downfall is its ever-packed parking lot, which is like a mall at Christmas. Poker tables: 200. 6131 E. Telegraph Rd., Commerce, (323) 721-2100, www.commercecasino.com.

The Bicycle Casino

Insiders call it “The Bike.” Though the place got a brass-and-marble makeover in 2000, it retains the nondescript décor common among local casinos. Swirly green carpet runs into cream-colored walls dotted with a few plasma TVs. The lighting is classroom-style fluorescent, but at least it makes players wearing sunglasses inside look slightly less dorky. For gals who like a gambling man, the male-female ratio is pretty favorable (maybe 25-to-1). There’s a beauty salon inside in case you get the urge for a mid-game haircut, and masseuses troll the place offering tableside rubdowns. The best thing about the Bike is the speedy service and sexy waitresses, who wear low-slung jeans and tight T-shirts. Caught up in a moment of overwhelming thirst, I accidentally grabbed one by the waist — a willowy Russian brunette who I swear blew me a kiss. Poker tables: 95. 7301 Eastern Ave., Bell Gardens, (562) 806-4646, www.thebike.com.


Normandie Casino

This humble spot is the granddaddy of them all, the oldest card room in L.A. Opened in 1940, it once competed with Ernie Primm’s Embassy and Monterey clubs. It’s a neighborhood institution, driven by regulars, but lately the crowd’s gotten younger and more female, says shift manager and onetime professional card player Sherwin Shumsky. The place is totally retro, though they’ve tried to modernize with a few plasma TVs and a shimmery new sign outside to replace the one that caught on fire a few years ago. “I think they hooked the Christmas lights up to it and it just exploded,” Shumsky recalls. The snack bar is the cheapest around, and they often have live bands in the showroom. Poker tables: 20. 1045 W. Rosecrans Ave., Gardena, (800) 994-6637, www.normandiecasino.com.

Hustler Casino

Larry Flynt’s place is the newest kid in town. Opened in 2000, the $30 million club is already set to expand next year. Inside it’s all gaudy opulence: quilted red velvet walls sprinkled with Klimt replicas and plasma TVs, marble statues of Victorian figures and massive vases filled with fake flowers. If you drive an Escalade or Hummer, your car will be parked in front, beneath majestic palm trees near a giant fountain. Everyone else can search for a spot out back. The circular casino surrounds a glass-enclosed atrium where smokers can puff while they play. The crowd here skews younger than at other spots, and ’80s music camouflages the sound of shuffling chips or grumbling players. A gift shop sells cute lingerie and porno mags, and upstairs there’s a beautiful, mostly empty sports bar with comfy high-backed booths. Poker tables: 60. 1000 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (877) 968-9800, www.hustlergaming.com.



 Boba, the traditional
drink of the high roller.
Hollywood Park Casino

The recessed neon lighting and burgundy velvet chairs give this “racino” — the only casino-racetrack combo in the county — a groovy disco vibe. Scads of poker tables fill a room with TVs embedded in the wall, apart from where Pai Gow and Caribbean Stud are played. The whole place is library-bright and almost as quiet, except on Tuesday nights, when live jazz spills out from the Finish Line Lounge. Off-track betting is available at the gaming tables and, during racing season, you can see the ponies right outside. Poker tables: 80. 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, (310) 330-2800, www.playhpc.com.


Hawaiian Gardens Casino

Located on a main street, across from Taco Bell and down the road from Long Beach Towne Center, this busy card room sounds like shuffling chips and smells like a mixture of French fries and soap. It’s bright and intense — not much room for conversation. Just take a seat (there’s usually one open) and start playing. The whole place is housed in a tent-like structure, with red paper pineapples and golden lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The Hawaiian theme is seen in wall-size tropical photos and a small parrot habitat, where a sign reads “Please do not feed Ricky.” Tattooed Gen-Xers mix with weathered casino veterans and fresh-faced frat boys, while an Amazon blond masseuse gives rubdowns for a buck a minute. Poker tables: 100. 11871 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, (562) 860-5887, www.hawaiiangardenscasino.net.



 Just ask — Commerce Casino's
sphinx has the answer to the
ancient riddle of when to
hold and when to fold.
Club Caribe

With just 12 tables total, Caribe bills itself as “the best little casino in California.” It’s cozy and intimate, and one of only two spots where the soundtrack is more than the incessant clinking of chips. On a recent weekday, the radio was tuned to the soothing, adult contemporary sounds of KOST 103. The mellow mood and mismatched décor — Chinese calligraphy on one wall, a stock beach scene on another — makes the place feel as homey as a neighborhood watering hole. A huge wooden bar that offers happy hour from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily — plus a pool table and Wurlitzer jukebox — only adds to the charm. The ample parking lot is bigger than the casino itself, which is located down the street from a tire store and across from a dialysis center. Poker tables: 3. 7617 Atlantic Ave., Cudahy, (323) 560-5995.

Crystal Park Casino Hotel

The only casino with its own Blue Line station, this quiet little card room is attached to a 250-room hotel and a massive, mostly empty parking lot. The place isn’t crowded and there aren’t a lot of tables. Even nightly tournaments don’t add much oomph. A regular named Jay, who’s on disability and “plays nothing but poker every day,” likes the Compton club because it’s close to his Carson home and managers will comp him a room if he gets too tired to drive. (His registration is expired anyway.) The gift shop sells spicy prepared squid among its snacks. There’s also a good-sized sports bar inside with three pool tables and a jukebox full of hip-hop. Poker tables: 7. 123 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, (310) 631-3838, www.crystalparkcasino.com.