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Card clubs draw full house and hold ’em

It’s just before midnight and every table is packed. Forty-two people are
milling around the edges of the room, watching and waiting. But they are not
just there to observe–they are in line for a seat to play poker at Capitol
Casino, a popular Sacramento card club.

“We’re almost up,” says one of a pair of patrons who have been patiently
passing the time for more than half-an hour.

And this is on a Sunday–the club’s slowest night of the week.

Not so long ago, California card club owners were bemoaning their plight as
Indian casinos sprung up across the state with slot machines and special
permits for “house-banked” card games like black jack that are off-limits
for card clubs.

It was only a matter of time, they said, before card clubs would be driven
out of business altogether. Card clubs and horse racing interests spent $25
million to push a failed ballot initiative to break what they feared would
become the Indian casinos’ stranglehold on gambling in California.

But that was before the resurgence of poker.

Fueled by televised tournaments, celebrity championships, online games and
the fairy-tale success story of a man named Moneymaker, card clubs are flush
with activity.

“It’s amazing what TV has done for poker. Now it’s really booming,” said
Wayne Rogers, the swing shift supervisor across town at the Limelight card
club.

Six months ago, the Limelight switched to twenty-four hours a day of poker
on weekends.

“If you are making money, are you going to close?” asks Rogers, who often
plays on nights he isn’t working.

According to data compiled by the attorney general’s office, card club
revenues have been steadily growing, from gross revenues of $377 million in
1998 to $656 million in 2004. And those figures do not include the boom in
activity in the last year.

The number of cardrooms in the state did not decline between 2004 and 2005
for the first time since at least 1998, and the number of tables at those
cardrooms grew in each of the last two years after many years of decline.

In more than two-dozen interviews with gamblers, dealers, floor managers and
card club executives, everyone said that card club business is on the
rise–particularly in the last twelve months.

“Business is good,” says Kermit Schayltz, president of the Golden State
Gaming Association, which represents about 80 percent of the state’s card
clubs. “The last couple years, most clubs have seen at least a 25-50 percent
increase [in revenues]. It has been a pretty phenomenal.”

The attorney general’s office only began tracking revenues recently, after a
1997 bill by then-Sen. Bill Lockyer imposed stricter card club regulations
and required extensive background checks into everyone involved in a
California club’s operations.

One other provision of the bill, which established the Gambling Control
Commission, placed a three-year moratorium on new card clubs in the state to
protect existing businesses as Indian casinos multiplied across California.
But that provision has been renewed, repeatedly and quietly, to extend until
2010.

That means the windfall from the poker craze has been concentrated in
existing clubs.

“If you have fewer card rooms and more players, it is better for the card
rooms,” says Rogers.

Like the five-table Limelight, the majority of the state’s clubs are small
operations with fewer than ten tables, according to Schayltz, who owns the
eight-table Lucky Derby in Citrus Heights.

This state currently has 94 licensed card clubs, down from 152 in 1998. The
state’s card club revenues are dominated by a few mega-clubs like the
Commerce Casino, which has 243 tables, and Hawaiian Gardens, with 180
tables.

Besides the guarantee of no new clubs for more than a decade, card rooms
offer something most Indian casinos can’t: proximity. In Sacramento, for
example, there are several local clubs, but the closest Indian casino is
Thunder Valley, forty minutes away. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said he will not
approve tribal casinos in urban areas, unless forced to do so by Congress.

“Casinos tend to be so far out there,” says Becca Ridens, who works four
nights a week as a cocktail waitress at the Limelight. “We get the home
crowd in here.”

Still, poker enthusiasts and club owners alike point to one man with a
golden name who has fueled the revival: Chris Moneymaker.

In 2003, the then 27-year old entered an online $40 buy-in Texas Hold ’em
poker tournament and won, earning entry into one of the largest, most
prestigious poker tournaments, the World Series of Poker. The amateur
underdog made the final table at the 839-player tournament and unseated the
heavy favorite as more than 2 million viewers watched the final episode on
ESPN.

He won $2.5 million.

“That was probably the catalyst that created the phenomenon of poker today,
especially with a name like Moneymaker,” says Schayltz. “It was something
that only Hollywood would dream up but it was reality.”

Now, millions tune into televised poker championships, particularly of Texas
Hold ’em, the variation of 7-card stud made popular by Moneymaker and hidden
“lipstick” cameras that allow viewers to see what cards players are holding.
Millions more play poker online. The renewed popularity of the sport has
begun to wash away the stigma of poker as a sleazy hobby and slowly poker
aficionados are trickling into local card clubs.

Back at the Limelight, one of the dealers says that the club used to offer
free poker games and lessons on Sunday mornings–but doesn’t anymore because
many patrons can get all the practice they want online.

Ridens, the cocktail waitress, is amazed how the pace of business has
steadily picked up since she started six months ago–no matter the day, no
matter the time.

So what do all these Sunday night patrons do come Monday morning?

“I’ve been trying to figure that out since I got here,” she says. “They just
keep on coming.”


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