It's Cambodian Dance Party Night at the Crystal Park Casino, and the Cambodians are jammed into the ballroom. But the Compton homeboys are scarcely aware of the music drifting their way as they mill around the pool tables in their Kobes, buying rounds at the bar, and
chatting up the occasional unescorted female who is brave enough to wander by. Farther away, in the raucous gaming area, 25 card tables are settling into a rhythm, with most of the noise coming from the "California games" where Koreans, Vietnamese, Thais, Mexicans, Chinese and French (yes, French) are yelling and pounding the dice cups.
I can already see that on this night, like it or not, there is karaoke in my future.
Welcome to the United Nations of casino gambling, the only card room in California where a fourth of the players arrive by subway and where English is the rarest language of them all. State-of-the-art karaoke machines are mandatory.
Compton is not exactly famous as a tourist destination. It's better known for its black gangs, Hispanic gangs, lowriders, hip- hop scene, and cool street vibe.
But three years ago a Chinese-American businessman named Leo Chu bought an Artesia Boulevard hotel and card room that had lost its license, and ever since then there's been a tidal wave of tour groups from China, France and Korea that do Disneyland by day and then play "Super 9" (a pidgin form of baccarat) or "21st Century Blackjack" (you try to make 22 instead of 21) all night.
The homeboys have always ruled Compton, California, but the Crystal Park Casino homeboys could be Koreans, Vietnamese, Thais, Cambodians, Chinese, and yes, a few jive hip- hop captains of cool. "They're the same as any Los Angeles tour group," says Roberta Sabbagh, who handles the marketing for Crystal Park. "They take the Universal Studios Tour and all that. But they like being able to play cards at night."v Roberta is a veteran of California card rooms, having started out as a "chip girl" at the Normandie Casino in Gardena 18 years ago. "I'm fascinated by the history of these casinos," she says. "When I worked as a chip girl, there were the Horseshoe, the Monterey, The El Dorado, the Rainbow, and the Normandie, all in Gardena. And their marketing was food. They had the finest dining. Gentlemen would go to the races and then retire to the card clubs, and they all wore suits and ties. You had to have jackets to get in. Today only two are left--the Normandie and the El Dorado, which is now Hustler Casino."
The "fine dining" has made way for the inevitable cheap buffet (the one at Crystal Park is above average). And the dress code has given way to the chaos of multi-culturalism. The Crystal Park offers all the traditional poker games--Texas Hold 'Em, 7 Card Stud, Omaha, and, because of the neighborhood, "Poker Mexicano"--but the real juice comes from the Asian games. "We don't call them Asian games anymore," she corrects me. "They're California games."
They offer not only Super 9 and Pai Gow Poker, but the inscrutable and all-but-impossible-to-learn Pai Gow tiles. Since California card rooms aren't allowed to bank games, the casino takes a commission from each hand, and the winner is paid from the players' pool. (In the higher limit games, the casino collects a fee every half hour.)
In the world of Southern California poker casinos, Crystal Park is the ugly stepsister, hidden away in a remote part of the county, rarely attracting the big players. And that's part of it's appeal. In any game at Commerce Casino or Hollywood Park Casino (also owned by Leo Chu), there are going to be pros at every table. Crystal Park has more of a neighborhood feel, with retired people playing the day shifts and working-class Joes coming in for the graveyard. ("No matter what time it is," says Roberta, "we always have at least one Hold 'Em game going and one California game.") The casino offers a steady barrage of cash giveaways, drawings, "lucky seat" promotions, "bad beat" payoffs and the like, because these regulars tend to shop around go wherever the best odds are. Crystal Park is also one of the few card rooms offering a "frequent gambler" card. While you're sitting at a gaming table, your card is scanned once an hour, and depending on your level of play, you can redeem points for food, special events, or rooms in the hotel.
Crystal Park is the only casino within walking distance of a Los Angeles Metro stop (Artesia station)--"and we're very proud of that," says Roberta. "We're offering free tokens and passes for people who play here."
Obviously not a high-roller experience, but there's something laid-back and kind of charming about the place. The decor is a festive turquoise and purple and green, similar to what you would find in an all-suites businessman's hotel, and the entertainment might be Thai kickboxing one night, "Def Comedy Jam" type comedians another, and Vietnamese traditional music yet another. Especially popular is "God of Fortune" night, in which anyone seated at an Asian game is automatically entered into a drawing for a prize of $668.
I have no idea.
It's a lucky number.
It's an Asian thing.
It's a Crystal Park thing.
CRYSTAL PARK CASINO
123 E. Artesia Blvd., Compton, Calif.
Theme: Airport Hotel Moderne
Known For: Mean Mexican Poker games in which not a word of English is spoken.
Marketing niche: Locals.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Freeways, freeways and more freeways
Overall rating: 50
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $28 after an hour of Omaha: total
to date: -$169