Another Gold Rush!

Apr 8, 2003 12:06 AM

Back in the 40s and 50s, California wasn’t the flourishing Mecca of card rooms that it is today. The few that existed were mostly private clubs where cronies got together to bond and see who was the best card player.

The humble beginnings can be traced back to Brooklyn Avenue where the card room/pool hall sat on top of Woolworth’s. Farther down the block, another smaller card sprouted forth and then another.

The Brunswick tables had ¾-inch slate. The fixtures were all fluorescent and hung down low to the table. The card room had wooden tables and chairs and plenty of ash trays. Smoke filled every room. Men wore suits and hats. The players used chalk boards to keep score and settled up when the game was over.

At that time, no money could come across a table and no dealer ever dealt a hand! It was not unusual to see the police dropping by and checking the scene for the appearance of impropriety (i.e. money on the table, bookmaking, etc.).

The Rainbow Club, Monterey Club, Normandie, just to name a few, were the in-places for poker playing back in the 60’s and 70’s. They’ve seen Gardena’s growth and have been part of the ever-increasing popularity of poker.

The card rooms had a Damon Runyan ambiance, and the players had the names to go with them: Cowsy playing at the table with Pimple-Face Charlie and the Eggman, or Roach and Cherry eyeballing the games until they hit their comfort level on when to plunge.

The face of gaming has changed in California! Nowadays, you walk up to a dealer and exchange cash for chips in any of the fabulously huge casinos built in the last decade.

Should you notice a law enforcement agent on the property, you will see him entering Security or talking to the Internal Control/Surveillance person. Everything is high tech now and money plays!

With unbridled growth, California began to realize it needed regulation and put together legislation to form the regulatory arms of enforcement. Propositions, lobbyists, associations and groups formed. Not content to be the new kid on the block, the pioneers envisioned California as the next gaming capital of the world.

If California’s dream comes true, it will be because of men like Haig Kelegian.

Kelegian is co-owner and general managing partner of the Bicycle Casino, part owner of the Commerce Casino and chief executive officer of Ocean’s 11. Equally important, Haig’s tenure on the California Athletic Commission did much to promote boxing in that State.

From his lofty position in the world of California gaming, Kelegian has a unique view of the landscape.

"California is going to explode!" Kelegian said.

He should know. Kelegian’s been there through 28 years of gaming in the State, during which time he passionately brought many innovations to the industry.

For instance, Kelegian developed a system for recording players’ time spent at a table, bets wagered, wins and losses recorded, to create a database for The Bicycle Club ”” a first in the industry.

In Las Vegas, this rating this system is what casinos live and die by and the value of this type of database and player tracking is key to the casinos’ operation.

Kelegian knew the importance of such a system which put him over the cutting edge in the technology of maintaining player records.

The future of California gaming is intricately tied to Native American casinos. Kelegian believes that’s what’s fair for tribal casinos should also be made fair for California casinos, which operate under Class II licenses, which do not permit slot machines.

"Whether its blackjack, poker, Pai Gai poker, baccarat or Caribbean Stud, these type of card games are our table games," Kelegian said. "Whereas, the Native Americans have a minimal amount of table games, they are primarily slot machine arcades."

Haig is a believer in the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms that it ensures. He envisions, and hopes for, equality between the Native American casinos and the California card room/casinos. He believes card casinos might include gaming machines in the future, especially if they tie into the existing tables games allowed in those card room/casinos.

Card clubs should also be able to offer traditional blackjack, Kelegian said.

"Since Native Americans can play 21, we had to have a game and so we created 22," he said. "In hindsight, I think that was a mistake.

"What we should have done was play blackjack instead of No Bust Blackjack," he continued. "Because the law clearly says no to 21, it does not say no to blackjack."

Another edge the Native Americans casinos may have over card casinos is their exclusion from the Feingold-McCain Bill, Kelegian said.

"Native American casinos can give as much money as they want to politicians," Kelegian said. "Equality and justice should apply to everyone, not just the Native American casinos or offshore Internet gaming."

That’s not to say Kelegian opposes tribal casinos.

"I’m 100 percent a proponent of Native American gaming," he said. "Native Americans have done a great job. I think they deserve to make as much money as they can."

Kelegian added that he simply seeks a level playing field for all gaming operators.

"The politicians should do what’s good for all Americans and what’s good for tax paying American citizens," he said.