Risky Business

Broadly speaking, gambling is illegal California. But there are exceptions, and for nearly 100 years the courts have been deciding what they are.

Lately, however, the people who make money off those exceptions have become uneasy about taking their chances in the judicial crapshoot. Poker club owners, who provide playing space and equipment to customers who compete among themselves, want to see their rights clearly set forth in the law.

Last amended in 1891, the state’s gambling laws prohibit slot machines, games in which players oppose the house, and a fuzzy category called “banking games.” State law also bans 10 specific games, such as monte, that were popular in the late 19th century but are rarely played anymore. Meanwhile, a number of new games have come into vogue, and state courts have had to judge whether they should be permitted.

Seven-card stud, for example, has been ruled acceptable. But there is some controversy concerning two games, pai-gow poker and super pan 9, that are especially popular among Asian immigrants, from whom club owners receive much of their income. Although the house does not participate, merely charging the players a fee for each hand, these games resemble blackjack in the sense that each player competes with the dealer. In any given round, several players or none may win.

But since players take turns dealing, pai-gow and super pan 9 are not, strictly speaking, “banking games.” That nice distinction did not stop Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies from arresting players of the two games at several clubs in early 1989. After a judge questioned the charges, the cases were not pursued.

But businesspeople such as George Hardie—whose Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens takes in some $80 million a year, most of it from pai-gow and super pan 9, would like to be free of such harassment. Hardie wants the law to tell him where he stands by establishing clear guidelines for permissible gambling—for example, allowing games in which the house does not participate and the odds do not consistently favor a particular player.

A bill sponsored by Republican state Sen. Robert Beverly would allow the house to take a percentage of each player’s winnings as its fee. On the other hand, it would prohibit games such as pai-gow in which a dealer competes with the other players. Still, by establishing a clear rule, the proposed amendment

would eliminate the need for courts to review every new game or variation. The bill is backed by cities that permit poker parlors and reap tax revenue from them. It was intended as a compromise between the interests of club owners and the demands of law-enforcement groups, which reflexively oppose any liberalization of gambling laws.

Although he accepts the political necessity of keeping certain games illegal, Hardie is not pleased about it. “I think the players should have the choice,” he says, but “we’ll never have full-scale casino gambling in the state of California.”

That would require a campaign to change the state constitution, which would attract opposition from every entertainment business worried about competition from casinos in California, including local race tracks and the gambling industry in neighboring Nevada.

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