Although hardly anything remains of the era when California was the terminal part of the Old West, one survivor of those wide-open days lingers. Around tables in shiny casinos and seedy cardrooms in more than 140 cities, poker players eye the competition, calculate the odds, and still reach for cards that will make – or break – their luck.
Poker was a western game from its beginnings in New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s through its spread further west by riverboat gamblers. Poker’s fast pace was made for California’s Gold Rush camps, where sudden wealth and loss were facts of camp life after 1849. “California is the place where poker has been most favorably received and industriously cultivated as a science,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1888, who wrote about all the ways in which gambling had shaped the experience of California.
But the poker player knows science isn’t enough. “Luck is his religion,” Bancroft added, “and in it he is a firm believer and devotee. There is but one thing certain about it however, and that is sooner or later it will change. To know when this point is reached is the sum of all knowledge.”
The extended cultivation of poker in California was made possible by an omission in the state constitution of 1879, which outlawed all forms of gambling, including five-card stud poker (where two “up cards” are shown from which every player can make a hand). Conspicuously missing from the prohibition was draw poker (which allows one change of cards and two betting rounds, one before the draw and one after the draw). Draw was thought to be a gentleman’s game that demanded skill; stud was suspiciously too much like real gambling.
In 1891, the legislature prohibited all forms of gambling by law, listing card games by name while leaving out draw poker. Poker games persisted through the turn of the century into the 1920s, partly legal, partly clandestine, and partly merely tolerated. Some cities had passed anti-gambling ordinances, but periodic raids by constables and town marshals showed how much poker remained in California’s DNA.
In 1911 in an attempt to end the confusion over which cards games were allowed, California Attorney General U. S. Webb issued an opinion that recognized the unique status of draw poker. That game was not prohibited by law, Webb noted, and it was not a “game of chance” otherwise constitutionally prohibited. For Webb and at least some players, draw poker was (and is) a game of skill.
Webb’s opinion would be challenged, particularly whether “skill” or “chance” ruled the game, but it still protects California’s cardrooms where gamblers play against each other and not against the house. Instead of a percentage of the winnings going to the cardroom operator, players pay a fee to the house for each hand or hourly “rent” for the right to sit at a table and play poker.
There once were dozens of licensed and unlicensed-but-tolerated cardrooms and social clubs in Los Angeles County. In 1938, there were 40 permitted cardrooms just in Long Beach. In the city of Los Angeles, where cardrooms were kept out under strict zoning regulations, players could find a poker table in a legal cardroom just outside the city limits in Hawthorne, El Monte, and unincorporated Los Angeles County. But players didn’t have to go that far. Unpermitted card clubs, protected by the notorious Shaw administration, operated in plain sight.
Corruption, in the form of payoffs to city hall and bribes to cops on the beat, had followed players wherever poker tables were set up in Los Angeles County. Spasms of reform sent gamblers to new venues, eventually beyond the three-mile-limit to the casino barges of Santa Monica Bay. (These floating gambling halls were a fixture of the bay beginning in 1928. By 1930, a small fleet of immobile ships was moored in sight of the bright lights of Santa Monica and Long Beach. After much litigation, the gambling ships were forced into port and out of business beginning in 1939.)
By the time of Mayor Shaw’s recall in 1938, good government activists like Clifford Clinton in Los Angeles and Clinton’s counterparts in other cities had begun shutting down the cardrooms. With the loss of political and police protection, cardroom operators scattered, some of them to the little town of Gardena.
The most successful was Ernie Primm, who had already partnered with his backers to bring gambling to a poolroom on Gardena Boulevard. By 1937, Primm had moved to a larger site on Vermont Avenue in Gardena where the principal game was draw poker.
When Primm’s cardroom was eventually raided, Primm defended himself by referring to Attorney General Webb’s 1911 opinion on the legality of draw poker. At trial, the judge agreed with Primm and ordered his poker tables and chips returned. The Gardena City Council quickly authorized the licensing of Primm’s new Monterey Club. In Long Beach, 33 legal and licensed cardrooms were about to close, newly declared “public nuisances” by the city prosecutor.
Under its original ordinance, Gardena placed a $50-per-table tax on cardrooms, limited the number of tables, and pegged the number of poker venues to the city’s expanding population. By 1951, that meant Gardena would be home to five cardrooms (eventually it was six) with a maximum of 36 tables in each. More cardrooms, a higher annual license fee, and a new per-table tax generated at least one-third of Gardena’s city revenues in 1952. Primm, with his pool of backers, owned the most successful of the cardrooms and was said to run Gardena, too.
Primm tried to make poker a sedate pastime, but elements of the Gardena community continued to resist the city’s dependence on gambling. In 1946, Primm and other cardroom operators were successful in persuading Gardena voters to ratify their city’s status as the “poker capital” of California. Voters rejected every further attempt to end poker’s legal status (including County Proposition E in 1962, which would have outlawed all poker clubs).
It helped that Gardena was a mostly Japanese-American community with a significant number of immigrant residents. Few Gardena voters patronized the cardrooms.
The players weren’t high rollers. In the early 1950s, Gardena cardrooms limited bets to a maximum of $1 or $2. (At a few tables, the maximum bet was just 10 cents.) No drinking was allowed. Husbands and wives weren’t permitted to play together. There were limits on check cashing and playing on credit. Despite the low stakes, players were sometimes picked clean by the professional gamblers who could be found in every cardroom, often at tables where an illegal, no-limit game was underway.
Players typically paid the house 50 cents an hour for a seat at a poker table. When his luck dried up, a player might step out the cardroom into one of the cocktail lounges that flanked each of the poker palaces on Vermont Avenue. All of the lounges were said to be run by Shoeshine Nick, who was reputed to have Mafia connections. A desperate player might conclude a loan with one of Shoeshine Nick’s “associates” and return to the tables.
The loan sharks and bookmakers along Vermont Avenue were part of Gardena’s poker society. So was cheating – by cardsharps and cardroom workers who took money to look the other way when cheating was going on. Armed highjacking of no-limit games, muggings of poker winners, and the occasional murder troubled Gardena’s image as a quiet place to play cards.
Gardena’s cardroom operators – some (like Tony Cornero) with connections to organized crime – had a monopoly on legal poker in Los Angeles County through the post-war suburban boom, since Gardena was the only city in Los Angeles County with licensed poker. Even as nearby communities grew, Primm and his partners engineered a low-growth Gardena, preferring fewer voters and easily re-elected city council members.
The politics of poker worked both ways for Primm the other owners. Keeping licensed poker out of neighboring cities was at least as important as keeping poker legal in Gardena.
The cardroom owners wove gambling into the social fabric of the city through deals that made the patriotic and civic clubs the titular holders of the cardroom licenses issued by the city council. Primm gave generously to local charities, sponsored the city’s Japanese Cultural Institute, helped found the local YMCA, gave out gift baskets to needy families at Christmastime, and spread campaign funds to favored city council members. Other cardroom owners did the same.
And by involving dozens of nearly anonymous “point holders” as investors, Primm and other owners also made sure that many well-connected backers had a stake in keeping the cardrooms open. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1960 that each “point” in a poker club was valued at about $20,000. What that initial investment earned each “point” annually was left unclear.
Poker and Gardena were synonymous until 1980, when Bell became the second city in Los Angeles County to permit legal poker. The 60-table California Bell cardroom was followed soon after by clubs in Commerce, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens. Competition from brighter and grander venues began to steal the action from Gardena.
Poker and its players were changing too. The legalization of seven-card stud gave the new cardrooms a more interesting and challenging game than draw poker. The introduction in the late 1980s of Texas Hold’em ignited a fad for tournaments and big payouts that smaller Gardena cardrooms were finally unable to match. Asian players began to dominate the action, with a preference for games like pai gow (which incorporates two hands of cards for each player) and panguingue (a game like rummy) and pai gow poker, a variant of the Asian game invented in 1984 by the operator of the Bell cardroom. The new cardrooms in other cities had more games and amenities focused on Asian players and their likes and dislikes, from food to feng shui.
Primm’s Monterey Club closed in December 1980. Primm himself died in August 1981, having long ago left operation of his Gardena cardrooms to his partners and his son. The Rainbow Club, Primm’s other Gardena venue, closed in August 1983. The New Gardena Club shut down in October 1984, becoming the site of an outpatient healthcare facility. The closing of two more poker palaces by 1996 left only the venerable Normandie Casino, largely rebranded for Asian players, as Gardena’s only legal cardroom. Its Red Dragon Room featured high-limit Asian games.
Despite greater state scrutiny of card clubs and their operators since the early 1980s, effective regulation has been elusive. Three council members in Commerce were convicted in the mid-1980s on corruption charges tied that city’s cardroom. The Bicycle Club was seized in 1990 by federal authorities after it was shown that the club had been built with $12 million in laundered drug money. In 2016, the Miller family, owners of the Normandie Casino for nearly 70 years, admitted to anti-money laundering violations, had their gaming licenses revoked, and were given 120 days to sell the casino.
Although cardroom revenues swing with the highs and lows of the regional economy, cardrooms in Los Angeles County still make money – for themselves and the cities where cardrooms are licensed. The Bicycle Casino typically generates about half of Bell Gardens’ budget; the Commerce Casino about a third of Commerce’s. Hawaiian Gardens gets an estimated 70 percent of its general fund revenue from its card club. The recent expansion of the Gardens Casino – a 200,000-square-foot building with 225 tables – made it the largest cardroom in Los Angeles County.
Today, card players who can’t travel to fancier Las Vegas-style games at Indian casinos are able to sit down at tables at the Bicycle Casino, Commerce Casino, Crystal Park Casino, Gardens Casino, Hollywood Park Casino, Hustler Casino, and the Lady Luck.
The Hustler, opened by Larry Flynt in 2000, and Flynt’s renamed Lucky Lady Casino (formerly the Normandie) are the last of the cardrooms in Gardena.
 Bancroft, Hubert Howe. California Inter Pocula. San Francisco, The History Book Company, 1888, 719. Bancroft attributes this claim to an “able writer” but leaves him or her unnamed.
 Ibid. 707.
 Pamela Shandel, in “Inside Straight: A History of Poker from Bones to the Internet” (Master of Professional Writing thesis, University of Southern California, 1995), describes draw poker as a Civil War-era innovation, replacing the earlier “no draw” form. Stud poker became popular in the 1870s. The showing of cards in stud poker accommodated more players and made possible more rounds of betting.
 The validity of Webb’s 1911 test of draw poker’s legality was repeatedly questioned. Webb eventually qualified its meaning, telling mayors and chiefs of police in 1938 that he had intended in 1911 (and again in a 1937 opinion) only to permit friendly games among players who knew each other. (“Webb Demands Gambling Lid,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1938, p1) But his opinion, for the future of gambling in LA, did allow licensed cardrooms if the house did not share directly in the winnings.
 Mayor Frank Shaw was elected in 1933 and recalled in 1938. He was the first mayor of a major US city to be recalled.
 In the case Monterey Club v. Superior Court of Los Angeles (1941), Justice Thomas P. White found that the gambling “associated with draw poker, low-ball poker, contract bridge, and rummy does not necessarily make such pastimes ‘public nuisances’ as a matter of fact or law. Gambling is neither unlawful per se nor a public nuisance per se in California.”
 Sam Gnerre, in “How Gardena Became Home to Legalized Card Clubs,” described how the conflicts between cardroom operators and with Gardena reformers worsened over the years. “When the card club issue came before the voters in 1960, things got a little out of hand. In the run-up to the April 1960 election, a person or persons unknown planted a bomb outside the south entrance to the Rainbow Club in Gardena. … The explosion damaged the club and its neighbor, the Monterey Club, but no one was injured.”
 “Poker Palaces Cash In on Technicality in the Law,” Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1951. p1
 Veteran poker parlor operator Tom Parks, remembered “problems with loan sharks and bookmakers because it is the nature of the business. But that was not a big problem, but a problem, so we tried to keep those people away as much as possible.” (Pamela Shandel, “Inside Straight: A History of Poker from Bones to the Internet.” Master of Professional Writing thesis, University of Southern California, 1995), 315.
 “Loophole Became an Industry.” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1981, p22.
 The town of Primm, off Interstate 15 and across the state line in Nevada, keeps Ernie Primm’s name and gambling legacy live.