RED HOT POKER

By Albert H. Morehead

For my money, the most remarkable spectacle of Southern California isn't the fertile fields, the ice-capped mountains, the eternal summer, or the miles of motels. It's the poker clubs of Gardena.

Nowhere else can you see more than I,250 grim-visaged men and women sitting at 170 round tables (8 to the table), playing poker for money, while anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 others mill around waiting to get into a game. Nowhere else can you see thousands of dollars changing hands every second, in bets ranging from 50 cents to $50, while everybody concerned tells you with a straight face that "there's no gambling going on here — gambling isn't allowed."

Legally, this is true. Since 1911 California has held that draw poker (not stud poker) is predominantly a game of skill and not a game of chance. This makes draw poker legal, because Corpus Juris, the lawyers' bible, says that where skill predominates, the gaming Is lawful; where chance does, it is unlawful.

Nearly every municipality in the state promptly passed a local ordinance against poker. But Gardena (population 6,000), just across the southern city limits of Los Angeles, passed no such ordinance, and thus became the nearest place for the multi-million population of L. A. to make legal bets on anything but a horse race.

Poker is Gardena's largest industry, and the population is proud of it. The local tax rate is the lowest in the state. The poker clubs (limited by civic ruling to six) chip in to a fund that donates $2,500 per month to the American Legion and $2,500 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which in turn donate to local charities. The clubhouses are showplaces, costing an average of $300,000 each to build and spending $100,000 every two years or so for renovation and face-lifting. Each club has a restaurant that sells food strictly at cost — forty cents buys a meal, and a dollar buys a good meal — and no liquor may be sold or consumed at any one of them.

Club employees must be bona fide residents of Gardena. Managers get $30 a day. "Floor men" (experienced ex-gamblers, who walk around among the games, answer questions, settle arguments, and keep a sharp eye out for card sharpers) get $20 a day. Cashiers, all retired bank tellers, get $25, and guards, all retired policemen, get $20. "Chip girls" get $8 per day plus tips (which floor men aren’t allowed to accept, on pain of instant dismissal) for bringing chips to players who have unfortunately lost their stakes, and for serving sandwiches, coffee, etc. Tips average $5 a day and can freakishly run as high as $50 if a few big winners feel overcome by generosity or normal male reaction to female beauty, all of which makes a poker-club job the prime ambition of every Gardena damsel who is good-looking enough to qualify.

If it weren’t that Gardena has an uncommon number of good-looking girls, the poker clubs would lose much of their glamour and perhaps some of their patronage. The girls are uniformed in cute and revealing (but never suggestive) costumes over which they wear heavy canvas aprons with pockets for chips and money. They are carefully chaperoned, and on the slightest provocation will be escorted to and from work by the local constabulary — for example, if a male poker player should become too attentive. But woe betide the player who becomes too personal with one of the girls. Forever after he will find himself unwelcome at any of the poker clubs; and he will be effectively barred, too, by the elaborate recognition system that the clubs have worked out to eliminate players who cheat or are unpleasant enough to break up games.

Strictly speaking, unpleasantness in a game must be vocal. By normal definition, everyone is unpleasant, or at least unsocial. Of the thousands of regular players, hardly any two know each other by name. Introductions are poor form. Names are never exchanged. Players coin their own nicknames for one another, usually uncomplimentary ones like Fat-pants or Sourpuss, and if the name is inadvertently spoken in the recipient's presence, forever after the moniker belongs to him and will be freely spoken in his presence, especially if he is winning at the time.

Stakes are usually low. Nearly all the games are "fifty and a dollar" (50 cents maximum bet before the draw, $1 after the draw). A marked minority are $1 and $2, and only a handful are $2.50 and $5, or $5 and $10. Technically, $10 is the maximum legal bet and the $50 bet referred to above is illegal but on occasion any club will find itself with a $10 and $20, or even a $25 and $50, game, and local authorities condone such games as long as the club managers have the discretion to admit only players rich enough to lose without embarrassment or public squawking. There are the usual number of absconding cashiers due to poker-club losses, but they do not exceed the statistical expectations in places that have only race tracks, and besides all the Gardena officials from the mayor down flatly deny that there was ever even one of them.

Gardena poker has endowed the world with at least one unique innovation, which has become the most popular game there: Low-ball. This is draw poker in which the lowest hand wins, and the usual good poker hand isn't worth the pasteboard it’s printed on. (Four aces should be thrown away fast.) Some long-forgotten genius devised this game after figuring out the sad truth that 95% of all poker players think they are unlucky card holders.

Sixty per cent of the players are men, forty per cent women. The clubs open at 10 a.m. sharp, at which time there will be several hundred women sitting around and waiting; they close at 4a.m. sharp, by which time four players out of five, or slightly more, will be men, while the remaining women will be largely wives or at least will have escorts (in any other case the club watchdogs would soon invite them not to stay so late).

When the Los Angeles editorial columns inveigh against the neighboring iniquity, Gardena officialdom has a pat answer. Not one Los Angeles resident in fifty has ever seen the poker clubs; three out of four have never even heard of them. Check on this argument and you'll find it's true.

The Gardena clergy occasionally make a moral issue of the poker games, but in every election so for the pro-poker party has won by at least a 75% majority. The voter-In-the-street is very frank in confessing that taxes are high enough already, and besides two members of his family have good jobs in the clubs.