|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,