Mike Caro looks like he's either been drunk three days or just had sex with a German aerobics instructor, I don't know which.
He's wearing a sports jacket but he's . . . well . . . disheveled. Yet he's right where you would expect to find him, hunched slightly forward at a poker table, one hand idly toying with his chips, hair mussed like Detective Columbo, one eyebrow arched like Groucho Marx.
Is that a glass eye, I wonder, as I watch his glance dart around the table. Naw, he's just a little cock-eyed, part of his claim to be "the mad genius of poker."
"The mad genius thing is an act," he tells me later as we have a bite in the Citation Restaurant at Hollywood Park Casino, where his Einsteinian white hair has settled down a little. "It's better for your poker if people think you're a little wild."
Mike Caro is one of those guys who can smell a big poker game anywhere within 500 miles of L.A., and he knows how to cadge a seat when the fish come to town. Recently, at the nearby Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, Calif., he played lowball for 96 solid hours, because he believed the table was full of inferior opponents and he couldn't stand to leave. "Not bad for a 56-year- old man who takes no drugs!" he boasts. "But my average session is only about six hours, and I play about five times a month."
For the last six years he's played most of those games at the cavernous Hollywood Park Casino, which is the only major casino attached to a race track and pretty much Mecca for the world's serious poker players. Far from being a mere card club, Hollywood Park features such amenities as a 24-hour health club, massage center, VIP lounge, concierge, beauty salon, barber shop, banquet facilities seating 2000, and night club. More important, the casino offers 24-hour action on every legal card game in the universe--including "Tonk," which I haven't seen since my grandparents played it in neighborhood games in Dallas years ago- -and it's one of the big three home bases for poker pros. (The other two are the Commerce Club in Commerce, yet another small Los Angeles suburb, and the aforementioned Bicycle Club. There are also older-generation players who still prefer Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas, site of the famous World Series of Poker, but most poker action has moved to L.A.)
Why anyone would play lowball at all, much less play it with Mike Caro, is a mystery to me. Lowball is a version of five-card draw that is so slow and boring that it's not often seen anymore except in informal home games. It was a game favored by Old West cowboys, but since it only has two rounds of betting, it rarely attracts the big pots you find in games like stud, Hold 'Em, or Omaha. But what makes that 96-hour game so crazy is that before 1987--when lowball was one of the few legal card games in California--Mike Caro was the best draw player in the world. In fact, for his 52nd birthday--the key birthday in a poker player's life, for obvious numeric reasons--Hollywood Park hosted a special five-card-draw tournament to acknowledge his lost art.
The poker capital of the world just might be located at the huge card casino attached to, but not owned by, Hollywood Park race track in Inglewood, California. Actually Caro was instrumental in his own demise. In 1983 the Huntington Park Casino--located in what was a virtual ghetto- -went to the Huntington Park City Council and asked the town to take its side against the California Attorney General to challenge the state's gambling statute. Since the forties that law had been interpreted to mean that only two card games were legal--five-card draw and lowball--because only those two games were games of skill, not chance. If the more popular "skill" games, like Texas Hold 'Em and Pai Gow, could be legalized, it would be a boon for the Southern California casino economy.
Eventually the city of Huntington Park did agree to take on the state, and Caro was enlisted as a witness for the legal challenge.
"Statute 330S is a very strange law," he says. "It says, 'These specific games are not legal,' and then it lists them. And among them are 21, Red Dog and 'studhorse poker.' Only draw poker was considered a game of skill, presumably because all the cards are concealed." (Actually, the probable reason is more mundane. In 1871, when the law was passed, California legislators were avid draw poker players and didn't want their private games interfered with.)
It took four years, but finally the casinos prevailed on the skill-vs.-chance argument. "So I did myself in," says Caro. "I was known as the best draw poker player in the world, but there was no more draw poker. It all became Hold 'Em, seven-card stud, and Asian games."
It also created a new era of card-casino "superclubs" that replaced the old poker palaces based in seedy Gardena, which had been the only place to legally gamble in Southern California since the thirties. Hollywood Park is the youngest of those clubs, born just seven years ago when Inglewood city planners were considering card casinos as a way to beef up the economy. Hollywood Park complained that poker competed directly with horse racing, and like all tracks, they were steadily losing daily attendance already. The city officials suggested that Hollywood Park itself operate a card casino, and quickly the track changed its tune. The one obstacle--a law that says corporations can't own casinos in California--was changed to exempt race track ownership only. Then two years ago Hollywood Park was bought by Churchill Downs, and the new owners needed to divest the casino due to laws in other states. At that point the casino was acquired by Leo Chu, a millionaire Chinese immigrant who had sold his family textile business to indulge his avocations of model railroad collecting, antique car collecting, and card games. He also owns the Crystal Park Hotel and Casino in nearby Compton.
By that time Caro had already been hired as Hollywood Park's official spokesman, despite his lack of enthusiasm for horse racing. "I don't have a lot of patience for that sport," he says. "For me it's like waiting 30 minutes between hands." But he plunged into promoting the casino, pushing his lifelong dream of establishing there the world's first "Poker University."
"People laugh when I say it, but I'm serious about having a full curriculum of poker teaching," he says. "It doesn't exist yet, but we have beginner classes every day and an intermediate class once a week. There is no other class like this. The beginner class is eight weeks, once a week, for two hours a week. And it starts at the very beginning. The first lesson: what a deck of cards is.
"I think the time is right for this, because today there are thousands of professional players. And the sport has gone from the homespun wisdom of 20 years ago to now computers everywhere. You don't have to be able to run the computer simulations yourself--you do need to know what the results are. But poker isn't just stats. It's psychology. It's a game that forces you to lie. And so it requires patience and training."
Lying is, in fact, Caro's specialty within the limited world of poker instruction. Twenty years ago he started a cheater monitoring service, recently extended to Internet on-line casinos where poker cheating is fairly common. (The simplest way to cheat is simply to be connected by phone to another player in the same game, so that you have knowledge of all the cards and discards in both hands. Caro's company has developed a computer program that can monitor discords and detect collusion.) At Hollywood Park, says Caro, there is no cheating at all. "The security room here is massive. There are more than 200 video cameras watching every game."
But legal chicanery is another matter entirely, and Caro is an expert on that, too. "Caro's Book of Tells," published in 1984 and recently reissued, is the definitive work on the body language signals ("tells") that good players use to determine the strength of their opponents' hands. And it's the result of a lifetime of study.
A Denver native, Caro played his first poker game in junior high school. "I had just enough bus money to visit some relatives in Austin, Texas," he recalls, "and while I was there I got into a dollar-limit home game. My uncle and aunt took all my bus money! I had to go back home to Denver with no cash at all. No candy on the bus, no food at all. They wouldn't give me even a dollar--I suppose to teach me a lesson. By high school I was a player."
At the age of 22 he moved to Los Angeles, lured by the six legendary "poker palaces" of Gardena. It was at those now vanished card clubs--the Horseshoe, the Rainbow, the Monterey-- that he became an expert at the psychology of the game. He played in Las Vegas for a short period in the eighties, then returned in 1984 to run the poker operation at the Bicycle Club.
"When I opened my office at the Bicycle Club, the games were clean as clean can be," he says. "But people would come into my office and confess to me what they had done in Gardena. They knew I had played there and so they assumed I knew they had cheated me. And they all said, 'I promise I'm playing on the square now.' But I had never known they were cheating! I learned all kinds of ways to cheat that I had scarcely been aware of.
"It was much easier to cheat at the round tables they had in the older clubs. They would write out their code words. Words for king, queen, jack, etc., and they would mention these words at the table so that their partners would know what they had. I once confiscated a schedule that had been developed for a team of 20 people! I realized I had been cheated severely for 14 years. I probably personally lost $100,000 a year to cheaters."
Most of the recent poker champions have been aggressive, if not arrogant, in their tournament play, believing that that style intimidate other players. But Caro is an old school player. "I always talk to the losing player and make him feel like it could happen to anybody," he says. "I'll say, 'I made the same play last week.' Because my philosophy is to always give the other player permission to play poorly. Never make it painful for somebody to lose."
Debbie Parks, the public relations director for Hollywood Park Casino, knows something about that, too. Her first job in the business was as a poker shill for Johnny Moss, the famous Texas pro who ran the poker room at Binion's Horseshoe in Vegas. She was paid $40 a day to look pretty and attract action, playing with the house's money.
"Johnny taught me how to do it," she says now. "He taught me how to play for hours without losing."
But there are no shills at Hollywood Park. Walk inside on any weekday morning and listen to the buzz. With an average of 3,000 gamblers a day, they don't need them.
HOLLYWOOD PARK CASINO
Theme: Jetsons Basketball Arena
Total Investment: $40 million
Known For: Muay Thai kickboxing championships, in which the top fighters of Thailand take on the top fighters of Armenia
Marketing niche: Locals, poker pros, horse players
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Medium
Tables: 65 (Texas Hold 'em, 7-Card Stud, Omaha, Stud Hi-Lo Split, Pot Limit Hold'em, Super Pan 9, Pai Gow Poker, Pai Gow Tiles, L.A. Blackjack, California Blackjack, Century 21 Blackjack, Tonk).
Surrounding area: Two miles east of Los Angeles
International Airport, next to the Great Western Forum and Hollywood Park race track
Overall rating: 90
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $45 after an hour of seven-card stud: total to date: -$111