Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino may be the most elegant place in the world to play poker.
Part European castle, part modern art museum, it greets you with gold-framed Gustav Klimt paintings in the foyer and pampers you with plush wing chairs you would expect to find in a 19th- century French brothel. There's an Alice-in-Wonderland playfulness about it, too, with its checkerboard carpet of red and black and its rich velveted walls.
Even the long oval card tables resemble banquettes set for a Roman feast instead of a down-and-dirty session of Texas Hold 'em.
But the place can be eerily quiet. Unlike the rowdy blue- collar card clubs elsewhere in Los Angeles, this poker palace has the low hum and tension of high-stakes players at work. Most of the men--and it's a very male casino--rarely get up from the tables, having their food and chips delivered on trays instead. Only three times a week does the noise level rise perceptibly, and that's when the man in the gold-plated wheelchair himself arrives for his sessions of seven-card stud.
"Did you see Larry?" says the excited girl in the "Shorty's Stuff" gift shop. "He's here. He's playing this afternoon."
Porn king Larry Flynt likes to play poker so much that last June he unveiled what has turned out to be the most expensive casino per square foot ever built. His total investment is $40 million for what used to be called a California card room, a casino forbidden by law from offering slot machines or Las Vegas- style table games. Located in the old gambling town of Gardena, a bedroom community of 60,000 just south of the chaos of Watts and South Central L.A., the Hustler is not just off the beaten path-- for most upscale Angelenos, it's not even in the solar system. But like most things the famous pornographer has done in his lifetime, he's betting on the come. Hustler Casino is only the first stage of what he hopes will someday be the most famous gambling hall in the west.
"If slot machines were legalized here," he says with customary candor, "this place would be worth $300 million overnight."
Flynt is sitting at his favorite table in the Royal Court, the casino's Continental restaurant, where he's consented to a rare interview about what is, for the time being, a sort of playtoy investment. ("I publish 32 magazines, so there's no way this could be a big part of my life.") But soon, he says, he expects to file a federal lawsuit against the state of California on behalf of all the state's card rooms, demanding that they be given the same rights as the state's Indian casinos. The outcome could be wide open gambling right on the doorstep of Hollywood.
"We think Proposition 1A is unconstitutional," he says, referring to the referendum a year ago that gave Indian tribes the right to put Las Vegas-style table games and slot machines in their casinos. "It's unfair under the equal protection clause. The governor could have signed a bill promising the private gambling clubs the same deal the Indians have, and then there would have been no problem. But this puts us at an unfair disadvantage. It's unfair competition. I've been talking to the other owners as a group, and our suit will be ready in a couple of months."
The card-club owners do have a point. Many of these clubs have been here since the Depression--Hustler is a descendant of two previous clubs that date back to 1938--and the new Indian uber-casinos could easily run the card casinos out of business. In the northern California town of Redding, for example, there are only two casinos--the Indian-owned Win River and the privately owned Casino Club--and so the tiny Casino Club, with its 12 gaming tables, was doomed to almost certain bankruptcy on the day Proposition 1A was approved by voters. The six Los Angeles casinos are hanging on mainly because the nearest Indian casino is sixty miles to the east, but they've already lost some of their high-stakes players.
If anyone can bring Gardena back, it's Larry Flynt. None of the Beautiful People who attended his grand opening last June made the comparison, but Larry Flynt is not unlike the founder of Gardena gambling, Ernie Primm. Primm envisioned a gambling mecca here in 1936 and overcame the efforts of every law enforcement official in Los Angeles County to stop him. Primm was a tooth- and-nail street fighter, and so is Flynt.
But this time it's not the county sheriff that's the enemy of Gardena. It's the governor, who won't be anxious to allow any further gaming development in a state that already has 100 casinos and card rooms. And it's not only slot machines that give the Indians an advantage. In the event of a fight, the Indians now have access to Wall Street money. Native Americans are allowed to partner with big public corporations, whereas card room gaming licenses are issued only to individuals. (Nevada had the same rule up until the eighties. When the rule was abolished, allowing publicly traded corporations to own casinos, Wall Street moved in and established the booming modern Las Vegas with its billion-dollar resorts. Many of those mega-corporations, including Harrah's and Trump, are now partnered with California Indian tribes, so taking on the Indians is increasingly the same thing as taking on Vegas and Atlantic City.)
Even more significant, the Indians are not governed by California's no-smoking laws. It might seem like a small thing, but poker games sometimes go on for days--poker pro Mike Caro recently played a 96-hour game at Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood--and so the players don't want to constantly be leaving the table to smoke. In no-limit games, the absence of a cigarette can cost a man thousands of dollars if his nerves start to show, so he'll more than likely drive a hundred miles to an Indian casino with a smoking area rather than play in his neighborhood joint.
Flynt designed Hustler Casino himself and finessed the smoking problem by building it around a glass-enclosed atrium. On sunny days--and they have more than 300 a year in Los Angeles-- the smokers play in the atrium, where they're technically outdoors. And, like everything else at Hustler, the atrium happens to be beautiful.
"I wanted to bring a little of the Vegas flair to Southern California," he says. "A lot of the other card clubs are mundane. I was trying to tap a greater Los Angeles market. If you ask people in LA where to gamble, they say Las Vegas. A lot of them don't even know these casinos are here."
In almost every way, Hustler Casino is a return to Gardena's roots. The very first legal casino in California opened here when the city of Gardena granted a business license to the Embassy Club in 1938. The owners of that club, Ernie Primm and Frankie Martin, had run illegal underground casinos in downtown Los Angeles during the Depression, when four dozen clubs operated under the corrupt reign of Mayor Frank Shaw. Many of them were converted Prohibition speakeasies frequented by movie stars and business moguls, but there were also sawdust joints that were able to thrive in a Philip Marlowe world full of cheap women and crooked card players.
That all changed when a Goody Two Shoes character named Clifford Clinton, the owner of Clifton's Cafeteria, headed up a reform movement that ran Shaw out of office and forced the bookies and gamblers to look elsewhere for action. Some of them bought gambling ships and ran them out of San Pedro. Primm and Martin kept changing locations and getting shut down by the sheriff, until they found the perfect "front," the Alamo Social Club in Gardena, which gradually turned into a more or less open gambling establishment with the approval of the cash-starved Gardena city government.
Ernie Primm is still fondly remembered among Gardena old- timers as a two-fisted operator who thought of the city as his personal fiefdom. But what first made him famous was his own Larry Flynt-style lawsuit, a 1941 court case that eventually turned Southern California into the poker capital of the world.
First Primm changed the Alamo Social Club to the Embassy Club when he got his license in 1938. Then, flush with success, he opened a second Gardena club in 1940 called the Monterey. The county sheriff decided that, city license or no city license, he was going to shut Primm down, so the Monterey was raided and closed. Primm went to court with a lawyer named Sammy Rummel, who studied the 1872 statute outlawing gambling in the state. What Rummel found was that the legislature had listed all the games that were illegal, but had failed to list poker as one of them. It turns out that the omission was intentional. The legislators of 1872 all played in poker games and didn't want their gambling interrupted by the new law.
Since they had intentionally omitted poker, it stood to reason, Rummel argued, that any game not listed in the statute was also intentionally omitted and therefore legal in California. A Superior Court judge agreed, and with a stroke of his pen, California card rooms were legalized at just about the same moment Bugsy Siegel arrived in Los Angeles to set up his illegal horse-racing wire. Many of the gambling ship operators and card- room owners would eventually follow Siegel to the new Nirvana of Vegas, but the ones who stayed behind decided to make Gardena their beachhead.
Over the next forty years the six card clubs of Gardena came to rule the city, providing at one point 80 per cent of Gardena's annual budget. The Embassy, the Monterey, the Normandie, the Rainbow, the Horseshoe and the Gardena were posh supper clubs, with men in suits and their women in gowns, known for their fine food and gaudy crystal chandeliers. They were also known for being full of cheaters and con men. Since the casinos were forbidden from banking the games, the players competed against one another, and the owners either rented the table by the hour or took a percentage of each pot. This left them with very little motivation to police the games, since throwing someone out meant a loss of income.
"I played in Gardena for 14 years," says Mike Caro, who at one time was the top five-card draw player in the world. "There were cheaters everywhere. At the old Rainbow Club, there were always colluders--people working in teams, with signals and codes. The club generally ignored it, but there got to be so many of them that the management finally felt they had to do something. So they issued an edict, a printed notice, and it had a list of names on it, and the edict was that only three of the people on this list could be in one game at any one time. Well, of course, we were outraged! They were giving us a list of the guys they knew to be cheaters, and saying they could only work in teams of three. So to calm us down, they modified their decision: only two of those guys could be in a game at a time. I was cheated severely.
"A few years later I became director of poker operations at the Huntington Park Casino, and guys would come in and confess to me that they had cheated me in Gardena, and then say 'But I swear I'm straight now.' They wanted to make sure I'd let them play. But I had no idea how severely I'd been cheated until they confessed to me! In the bigger games, a poker professional is supposed to average $450 an hour, but I usually wasn't at that level. I probably lost $100,000 a year to cheaters."
In 1958 the Gardena clubs almost self-destructed. It started when the ever aggressive Primm decided to build his third club, which would be the seventh in Gardena. All four of the non-Primm clubs felt he was too powerful already and that this would put them at a further disadvantage, so they fought him at his license approval hearing. But the City Council backed Primm anyway and gave him permission to open his new club, to be called the Starlight.
Then, in a plot twist worthy of a Carl Hiaasen novel, the opposing clubs decided to stop Primm by subterfuge. Even as construction began on the Starlight, the other club owners invented a phony "citizens group" that circulated flyers and took out advertising, decrying the immorality of gambling and calling on the citizenry to stop the cancer called Ernie Primm. The flyers demanded a referendum of the voters to establish the number of legal gambling establishments at six, and to revoke Primm's license.
To their subsequent horror, the fake campaign worked too well. Instead of a referendum to stop the Starlight, a referendum was called to abolish all gambling in Gardena.
Quickly the owners jumped to the other side, forming another fake organization to argue for the economic benefits of gambling, citing the generous amounts they give to local charities, and extolling the low property taxes made possible by the casinos.
In April 1958, just a few days before the election, a bomb exploded at the rear door of Primm's Monterey Club on a day when the club was closed. A guard was injured, and to this day the crime has never been solved. But instantly public opinion turned against the clubs, as the people of Gardena feared all-out organized-crime wars enveloping their little suburban world.
With the election approaching, the panicked club owners felt they had no choice but to circle the wagons. They went to Primm, confessed their scheme, and told him they would do anything to help if he would use his political clout to defeat the referendum. Primm pulled every string he could, and in a very close election, the clubs eeked out a victory by a mere 810 votes, or 54 to 46 per cent.
By this time even Primm was scared. As a gesture of goodwill he returned his license to the city, and the number of legal licenses in Gardena remained at six, as it does to this day.
But now the clubs had a bigger problem. The "Battle of Gardena" had gotten the attention of Governor Edmund G. Brown, and he asked Attorney General Stanley Moss to try to draw up a law that would outlaw card clubs statewide. Fortunately, the legislators from Northern California objected, because by this time there were 400 small card clubs in their region, many of them run by churches and American Legion posts. In order to get a bill acceptable to the legislature, Brown rewrote it to apply only to counties with a population over 4 million. The only such county at the time was Los Angeles, and the only town in that county with card rooms was Gardena. This became Proposition E, to be sent to the voters on November 6, 1962. The clubs went to court, claiming a proposition that singled them out was unconstitutional. A judge agreed that it was unconstitutional, but said he was powerless to stop a proposition that had already been placed on a ballot. The clubs ended up winning the election anyway, by a 2 to 1 margin.
And so Gardena reigned as the only place to gamble in Los Angeles until the late seventies. But their glory days were wiped out by yet another referendum that they didn't even notice at the time. When Proposition 13 passed in 1978, California cities lost the ability to raise property taxes more than 1 per cent per year. This forced many cities to seek out other sources of revenue. So the neighbors of Gardena suddenly took note of that easy casino money pouring into city coffers.
The tiny community of Bell became the second city, after Gardena, to approve card rooms when it licensed the Bell Club in 1979. Shortly thereafter, the city of Bell Gardens licensed the Bicycle Club. Then followed the Commerce Club in Commerce and the Huntington Park Club in Huntington Park. But this was a new breed of casino. The new clubs were bigger, plusher, and had no table limit, whereas the Gardena city ordinance limited each club to 15 tables. Players deserted Gardena in droves and one by one the great poker palaces began to close.
The floodgates opened wide in 1987, when the Huntington Park Casino won a long drawn out lawsuit again challenging the old 1872 gambling statute. This time the court ruled that all games of skill were legal, including the three most popular games in Las Vegas--Texas Hold 'Em, Seven-card Stud, and Omaha. On the day these games were legalized, poker players from all over America moved their base of operations to Southern California, and Las Vegas declined as the poker capital as Los Angeles ascended. By the close of the eighties all the casinos had added Asian games as well--Pai Gow tiles, Pai Gow Poker, Super Pan 9, and a card game called "21st Century Blackjack" or "California Blackjack" in which there is a no-bust rule, jokers in the deck, and a goal of making 22 instead of 21. (Traditional blackjack was still a banned game.)
Meanwhile, in 1978, the same year that Proposition 13 triggered the casino building boom, Larry Flynt had been shot by a crazy man outside an Atlanta courthouse and paralyzed for life.
"I had always loved to gamble," says Flynt, "but after I was shot, I needed to find things to do to stimulate me. So I started gambling even more. I read just about every book on poker and blackjack. My favorite game is seven-card stud. Every other poker game is a version of seven-card stud really. I consider it the granddaddy of poker. Other games are interesting but I don't play 'em. I spent all my life playing stud, so why should I get involved with the Hold 'Em sharks?"
Flynt not only became a good player, but he became a high roller well known to the Vegas casino hosts. "Of course they don't like you to play poker in Vegas," he says, "because they don't make enough money on it. They won't give you perks for poker. So I play blackjack in Vegas. The Venetian sends a plane to get me and I go there and there's a certain understanding that I'll put a certain amount on their tables. But if I had a choice, I would play poker. I like to play stud with $3000 minimum bets on the first two rounds, and $6000 on the later rounds. It takes that level of money for the game to be interesting to me. Legally I can play poker here, because the games aren't banked by me, but I can't always find a full table of people who want to play at that level. So usually, if I'm here, we'll play 1,000 and 2,000, or 1,500 and 3,000."
By the mid-nineties there were only two Gardena poker palaces left--the Normandie Casino, which had opened in 1942, and the Embassy Club, which was torn down and rebuilt as the El Dorado Club when George Anthony bought it in 1968. But the El Dorado's building had grown decrepit as Anthony's regulars deserted him for fancier places like the Hollywood Park Casino, which opened at Inglewood's Hollywood Park race track in 1995 and had an array of restaurants and amenities that Gardena could never match. He eventually declared bankruptcy, and Flynt saw his chance to get into the gambling business. He petitioned the court to purchase the license of the El Dorado Club, eventually paying $7 million to cover half Anthony's debt and the cost of the license itself. He briefly considered using the El Dorado's building, but it was too far gone, so he spent $33 million demolishing it and putting up his dream poker hangout on the same property.
"It wasn't as easy as I thought," says Flynt now. "We got off to a rocky start. All the employees we hired turned out to be rejects from the other clubs, and it was a nightmare. It took three or four months to get all the bugs out, but we've been profitable for the last three months--since November."
Ironically, it wasn't poker that helped Flynt turn the profit corner, but the Asian games, 21st-Century Blackjack, and a game called Mexican Poker which, as the name implies, is played almost exclusively by Spanish-speaking customers.
"All the Asians that come in here, I don't know where they get their money but they like to gamble. Our blackjack game is very lucrative--more lucrative than Vegas blackjack. People come in here who have never played blackjack but they've heard of it and so this version is not strange to them."
It's time for Flynt's Saturday-afternoon stud game in the VIP lounge. "Have you seen my sports bar upstairs?" he asks as he signals an assistant to push his wheelchair away from the table.
Like everything else, the sports bar is state-of-the-art, with $11,000 plasma-screen TVs in gilt frames.
Yes, indeed, the sports bar is very impressive.
He beams in acknowledgment. The original Gardena gambling license--passed down from Ernie Primm to George Anthony to Larry Flynt--is in very good hands. Gardena is just getting started.