Luck and loss at the Palomar Card Club

Roses are red, violets are blue, never draw to an eight, and never two

Palomar Card Club

I’d been unlucky in love. Ergo: time to try poker. I hadn't played in many years and then I played badly, impatiently. But that didn’t matter. Only the adage alluded to above mattered. And one other thing I was counting on: beginner’s luck.

There used to be about 60 card rooms in San Diego. Last May only 3 remained, Ace’e Duce’e, the Lucky Lady, and the Palomar Card Club. All were on El Cajon Boulevard. After dropping into the Lucky Lady (upscale and the largest), Ace’e Duce’e (small, downscale, dusty, and now closed), I walked into the Palomar. Something felt like home. I scanned the house rules posted on the wall. Most I understood: No profanity please. Cards must be cut before dealt. Others I didn’t understand but liked anyway: A card must be burned before the draw. I pictured that literally. This was my favorite: A hand is considered dead once it touches muck. I felt more at home.

Card player

Card player

What is it about poker? Poker and America, in particular? It is our most popular card game. Our national character seems embodied in the game. It’s a game in which an individual (if he’s smart enough, can calculate people and odds decently, has some basic mathematical sense, and can bluff — which takes guts) can win even without the best cards. In poker you can and do get dealt a bad hand just as in life you can and do get dealt bad hands. And just as in life, there’s still a chance to win. We Americans love that: the bravado it takes, the skills, the combination of intelligence and street-savvy.

Unlike most card games, poker is American-born. The poker we know today was first played in New Orleans in the late 18th Century. The French-speaking Cajuns called the game poque, probably derived from the word pocher, which means to bluff. Another theory, however, is that its derivation comes from the old pickpocket slang that referred to a wallet as a poke, because in its earliest incarnations poker was thought to be a cheaters game — much in the way we think of three-card monte today. Eventually, poker became popular on the Mississippi steamboats and from there it spread west across the frontier. This is where most of us first became familiar with poker: cowboy movies. In these games people got shot, usually for cheating, everybody smoked cheap-looking cigars, tables got flipped. At the very least, somebody got tossed through the swinging double doors and landed on his face in the street.

Nothing like this happens at the Palomar. In fact, it’s a quiet, almost homey place, albeit with a slight sense of something gone, lost, like an old aunt’s last apartment. It carries the whiff, for me, of a once-popular beachside resort now shuttered for the winter but not to open again, at least in its former glory, even when summer returns.

The Palomar is paneled in the kind of wood one used to see in basements renovated into the uniquely American “playroom.” The carpet shows a few threads. The card tables (four at the Palomar, though it’s rare when more than two are active) are felt-covered and have padded edges, elbow-comfortable. There’s a soda machine, another with cigarettes and candy. There’s free coffee, a few potted fake plants on a shelf, a TV, always on with sound off, hanging from the ceiling in one corner. Also, a small shelf of books for people waiting for a seat in a game.

No alcohol is served at the Palomar. There’s a bar next door, under separate management. Smoking is not allowed. There’s a green strip of outdoor carpeting on the sidewalk in front, slashed this way and that by hundreds of cigarettes’ black burn marks.

Several signs are posted on the walls: “For ATM use see doorman”; the symbol for “No” superimposed over the word “WHINING”; another one that begins,“ The loaning of money in a card room is a losing proposition. Most often it results in the loss of money along with the loss of a relationship.” Yet another begins, “Any player that has an account with us must comply with our rule that simply states: if you are on a tab with us and you have a win you must apply all your win against your tab.”

The people make a unique blend. Many are older, retired. When I first talked to Bob Cloper, who owns and runs the place with his wife Nikki, he pointed to the game going on and went around the table. One man was an airline retiree, another a retired Budweiser executive, a retired landscaper, a current church handyman, etc. He said they came here as a pastime, like some people golf or play bingo or shuffleboard. Living on fixed incomes, they play conservatively and usually never win or lose big.

This is not casino gambling. In places such as Las Vegas huge sums are routinely won and lost, most often lost. But gamblers like to remember wins, their own or the legendary ones. Only a few years ago an Australian high roller took a major casino in Vegas for $20 million in about 40 minutes playing blackjack. He and others like him are referred to by the casinos as “whales,” superhigh rollers. There are estimated maybe 50 gamblers at this level in the world. These players, because they can lose millions at a time and not only not shoot themselves but also come back again, are treated like royalty: free luxurious hotel suites — whole floors rented, held in reserve for these players — private jets to fly them in and out, 25K shopping sprees. It’s not unusual to give a big loser a Rolls-Royce as a consolation prize.

Some of the recent winners of the World Series of Poker, held yearly in Vegas, with a one-million-dollar top prize, are Russ Hamilton, Johnny Chan, and Huckleberry Seed. Seed is only in his late 20s, very young for a top player. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to get in a poker game with a man named Huck Seed: poker and America must live in his bones. Johnny Chan’s a player everyone I talked to knew. They spoke of him reverently. He used to play in and around San Diego.

There are no whales at the Palomar. Johnny Chan or Huckleberry Seed probably won’t be dropping in for a few hands. The action wouldn’t be action enough for them.

During the several days I hung around the Palomar and other card rooms, talking to Bob and Nikki, dealers and players, I heard some hard luck stories, was warned several times with variations on “Don’t start if you haven’t played before, it’s addicting, don’t start.” One dealer told me to call this piece “Who don’t gamble shouldn’t get started.”

The first player I talked to at length, Anthony, a 33-year-old African-American man, started playing only six months ago. The day before he turned an $11 stake into $186. With part of this he bought a one-way bus ticket home to Toledo. His mom is ill and he has other people there. He said he could feel the addiction taking hold, could sense himself “fiending” for a hand. He told me, somewhat enigmatically, “Gambling don’t let itself come to you, you got to go to it.”

The only game allowed nowadays in San Diego card rooms is called lowball. These are the rules set by the city council. I asked a dealer why only lowball and he said, “I cannot explain someone else’s illogical thinking.” In card rooms, unlike casino gambling, you don’t play against the house. You pay the house for a seat at the table. That’s the house’s sole source of profit. The Palomar charges $2.25 per half hour in a 25-cent ante, $3.00 and $6.00 raise game and $3.00 for the higher stakes — $5.00-$ 10.00 raise — games. It’s also customary to tip the dealer when you win a pot. The usual tip: 25 cents.

Lowball is poker with just the opposite objective as stud poker. Instead of the highest hand winning it’s the lowest hand that wins. This felt to me like putting my shoes on the wrong feet. In lowball a 2 beats a jack, a queen beats a king. There are a few irregular rules to learn. The first is that the ace is the lowest card, not the highest. At least an ace is still a good card to get, I thought when I heard this. The second irregularity is there are no straights or flushes, only the card’s value counts. The best possible hand in lowball, therefore, is a straight: 5,4,3,2, A. Even if the hand were also a flush— which would make it a great hand in regular poker — the player wins because flushes don’t count. A single pair beats two pairs, two pairs beats three of a kind, and three of a kind beats four of a kind. This seemed almost sacrilegious to me. If two players hold the same pair, then the player with the lowest remaining cards wins. Hands are evaluated by the face value of the cards, so a hand with 9,8,6, 4, 2 will beat a hand with 9, 8, 6, 4, 3. This can make people who are regular poker players a little nuts. Since I didn’t know much about regular poker either, I didn't worry.

The dealers are the captains of the game. They rotate every half hour. At the Palomar and the other San Diego card rooms the dealers often play, in fact, are sometimes required to play, with their own money, to fill out a game of eight people. They buy their chips on a tab from the house, and on payday their losses, if any, are deducted from their salaries. Most of the dealers are players and know their way around card rooms and gambling. Several told me their interest started by visiting card rooms where their parents played. One dealer I talked to at length, Deneen, in her early 30s, tall, very attractive, got her job through her mom, also a dealer. They both work at the same club in Chula Vista. (Note: the rules are different at the Chula Vista clubs, and games other than lowball are permitted.) She said the first time she played cards (gin) with her mom she played to win a record album. “I spent all day playing, back and forth, back and forth. It took about three hours but I finally got the record.” She’d also serve coffee at her grandparents’ poker games. Deneen isn’t a player anymore. She told me her mom taught her to play with patience, cautiously. Her mom doesn't play this way herself. Deneen says her mom plays “very recklessly, she’s a call-in station.” I asked her what this meant and she said it meant she’d call somebody rather than fold, even though she knows she’s probably beat, because she has to see the hand.

That’s the dream-of-luck part of the game, I thought, the mysterious, compelling, fickle thing that gamblers cherish, that’s where the thrill of it resides. That’s the place where gamblers feel the fire in their bellies, that’s where the hope is. That’s also where the fear, the elevator-falling feeling resides. Most of the people I talked to, however, even the ones who were busted, urged me to play cautiously, conservatively. One of the first axioms I heard about playing lowball was this: Roses are red / Violets are blue / Never draw to an eight / And never two. Meaning you never draw a card — you fold — if you hold anything higher than an eight in your hand, and never draw two cards. Fold before you do either of these and you’re only out 25 cents, your ante. Even though the thrill of gambling never hooked my gut, that didn’t sound like much fun to me.

I got plenty of sound advice: “It’s all about money management, never lose more than you can afford to lose — have a limit and never go over, even if you’re winning. If you get up a couple of hundred, stand up and leave.” Not fun. Play conservatively. That very word, except in the context, say, of saving the lives of ducks and possibly turtles, makes me shudder with revulsion or causes my eyelids to grow heavy. Besides, I knew that even if I could master patience and caution, it would probably take me a long time to grasp the basic skills — of calculation, of attention — to be even a halfway decent player. Not that these skills are terribly difficult. I just happen to be one of those people who lacks the part of the brain that allows one to do things mathematical or even too logical. I believe as a baby my brain was entered — probably through my still unclosed fontanel — with some kind of surgical instrument resembling a melon bailer and that part of my brain was scooped out. At the same time, it seems, this surgeon also removed the part of the brain that allows one to learn foreign languages. Why this was done to me I don’t know. Except for failing algebra three times and experiencing humiliation in France, this affliction has not greatly diminished my life.

Bob and Nikki Cloper

Bob and Nikki Cloper

I wanted to know about luck. Everybody believes in it, everybody’s burned by it. Deneen was talking about one player: “I don’t know why, it just happens. Some people I just deal to.” Meaning she gives them good hands. I asked her if she believed in luck. “Yes, definitely, because I’ve dealt people rushes. They can’t lose. Other players ask for a deck change. I put in a deck change. They still win.” I ask how many hands. “It can go on all night, not every hand, but very consistently, it can actually go a couple of months on a rush.” (I was getting excited by this kind of talk.) She went on. “There was a woman who would win $200 every day. She’d make her $200, get up, and leave for the day. For years. She was a very good player. And it’s money management. You don’t play any more than your $200. That’s enough for you. Stop.” There it was again — money management — right in the middle of a luck story. I asked if the woman’s luck changed. “Well, yeah, everybody’s does.”

I kept hearing luck stories though, particularly beginner’s-luck stories. One of my favorites was about a player named Brain Surgeon Mike. Most regular players sport a nickname, usually occupation-connected, sometimes inspired by how they play or a personality quirk. After I heard this story about Brain Surgeon Mike, I surmised it came by way of saying one thing and meaning another. Mike walked into a card room as a dead beginner and started to play. He won left and right even though he played his hands as regular stud poker— the highest hand wins — and the game was lowball! He’d win with lousy hands, he’d win when everyone else folded. Finally, someone figured out what he was doing and told him he was playing the wrong game. He said thanks, but he didn’t care, he was winning. Brain Surgeon Mike, I heard, has since become a regular and good player. He doesn’t win as much. Recently a new player at the Palomar, a nurse from Canada who’d never played before, won big her first couple of nights. Lately, she’s been losing.

I liked these stories. I figured I had it all going for me: recent bad luck in love, I’m a beginner, I’m games-of-skill challenged. Once, when making a total of one point — using a blank — in a game of Scrabble, someone said I was the only person in history to ever do that. I was momentarily proud until informed this was not a compliment.

During my week at the Palomar, I let it slip I wanted to get in a game before I left town and I had a $200 gambling budget. I saw a few eyebrows flicker when I said this, and I swear one man licked his lips.

I wanted to hang around some more and talk to people at the Palomar. Nikki and Bob, the mom and pop of this place, 68 and 66 respectively, were married 45 years ago and have two sons in their early 40s. One son worked as a dealer for them. “The best dealer we ever had,” Nikki told me. They’ve owned the Palomar since 1983. Previously, they owned the Red Horse, a card club near Imperial Beach. They . are not novices in the business. Before that they lived in Colorado, where Bob worked as an engineer for IBM. Nikki loathed the weather there and finally gave Bob an ultimatum. “ ‘If you want to come, fine, if you want to get a divorce, fine, if you want to commute, fine. I don’t give a shit what you do, Bob, I’m leaving.’ And he says, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ll move to California, San Diego, and we can open up a card room because you like to play cards.’ ”

This was typical of her talk: direct, calm, no-nonsense. She refers to herself as the bouncer of the place. Although violence is very rare, she did recall one incident in the mid-’80s when two men rose from the table arguing and one of them pulled a knife. “I walked up to him and said, ‘Give me your knife right now.’ Just like you say to your kid. And he says, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and he just gave me the knife. Men won’t argue with me too much. I can break up a fight, whereas if a man did it they’d end up in a fight.” I asked her what she liked about the business and she answered similarly to the others—owners, dealers, players — the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the family feeling. Many of the players are regulars, coming in for years. When I first watched games I looking, works as a dealer and didn’t notice the subtle ways plays regularly too. Christmas they bantered and teased each Tree Joe’s another regular, other. The tone around the He’s 53, originally from Sicily, table never felt tense. One and came to San Diego to work woman, a Filipina named as a tuna fisherman, then as a Esther, has an expressive face welder, traveling the world that I misread at first. Her working construction jobs, looks of disapproval or scorn He’s an intense player, but were really just her way of teas- when someone said to him, ing. She’s a tiny woman, good “Lift your cap [he’s bald], I want to tell the future,” he did so and laughed, loiter, I hitched a ride with him back to where I was staying. Gambling hasn’t always been good to him. He said he’s lost a million dollars (not at the Palomar!) gambling in his life, last two houses, a restaurant business. On this particular day he was up about $39. When I offered him some money for gas, he accepted, but I could tell it embarrassed him.

Reading a newspaper

Reading a newspaper

I kept watching another regular, Al, I believe his name was. He never took off his green fedora. A ponytail poked out from beneath it in the back. He’s a big man, probably in his late 60s or early 70s, and he looked like he’d spent a long time around poker tables. He’s the one player here whom, when I closed my eyes, I could imagine in the stereotypical setting most of us have of poker games in a 19th-century frontier town. He’s not one of the movie’s stars, not the sheriff or the slick cardsharp. He might not even be at the table in the front of the scene. He’d be at another table, bare but for a bottle of whisky, a deck of cards, stacks of chips. Al, too, turned out to be shy, modest, a joker, a teaser. It dawned on me these were the proper personalities for cardplayers: close to the vest, poker-faced, but beneath which resides a kind of familiarity, a comfort in their own skins, when they’re together. Of course, at the same time, they’re all trying to win. Not one person told me he liked to lose.

I began to realize the camaraderie many people mentioned came partly from a sense of feeling misunderstood and stereotyped. Most of them scoffed at or resented the negative notions of card rooms and their denizens. Some of them, particularly the owners and dealers, feel squeezed to get out of San Diego. San Diego card rooms have shrunk from 60 to 2, as I mentioned. This is due to the newer casinos on the reservations but began in the early ’80s when city legislation was passed that placed all card rooms on “grandfather” status; i.e., no owner of a card room can sell that card room or even will it to his heirs, as one could any other business. “This is strictly San Diego politics,” Bob said. “Whose name is on that license is the only name that will ever be on that license. And when all of those people die there will be no more card games in San Diego, which is what San Diego wants.” I asked him why lowball is the only game allowed, and he said there’s no logical reason. “At this point the only reason is that the city council wants to get rid of the card rooms. And if you go to the vice squad [which oversees card rooms] to ask anything, before you get the question out the answer is no. If I say could we or would we be allowed It’s like running into a brick wall, and this doesn’t seem fair.”

Nikki mentioned to me earlier that one of the rules prohibits them from hanging curtains in their front windows. This offended her aesthetic sense but it struck them both as what is known in the army as a chickenshit rule. The point is so the police can see the surface of every card table from the street. Bob said, “It’s ridiculous for two reasons. They can’t see what’s going on because they drive by, not walk by, and even if they walked by and looked in the window they don’t know enough about the game to tell if anything’s going wrong anyway.” Bob said the stereotypes about card rooms—that unsavory characters are drawn to them, prostitutes, drugs — are just not true. He feels there’s a stigma attached — people feel about card rooms the way they used to about bowling alleys, pool halls.

President Warren G. Harding used to invite intimates to the White House to play poker by saying, “Come over for food and action.” Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce and later to be a bad luck and busted president, always declined and wrote in his diary, “It irks me to see it in the White House.”

I never saw even a hint of anything like prostitution during my time at the Palomar or other card clubs. Bob said, “I think a prostitute would go broke if she tried to ply her trade in here. These guys are interested in gambling and never the twain shall meet, so to speak.”

I wanted to know more about Bob and his personal interest in gambling. He told me, “My father used to play cards, and he was terrible. When someone bluffed in poker he said they cheated. I used to play cards with other kids for everything from chestnuts to bottle caps to comic books. I’ve always enjoyed gambling and am extremely happy in this atmosphere.” I wondered if he liked other kinds of gambling, horse races, etc. “I’m not interested in horses at all. Primarily cards. I like dice. I go to Las Vegas on occasion and I enjoy dice, but it’s a no-brainer. A monkey could play dice, but it’s exciting to me. The horses are too slow. You have to wait a half hour between races.”

The quickness of the hands in the games I watched and played in surprised me — a little over a minute on average, with eight people playing. The appeal of this is simple: you lose a hand and there’s another chance to win coming right up. “Playing poker,” Bob said, “everybody can be successful, at least on occasion. They may end up a loser for the night, but during that night they’ve won 10 or 15 hands, and each time they won they were better than everyone else at the table.”

Bob, when he goes to Vegas, is considered a high roller, but not a whale. No private jets or posh hotel suites, but he does get comped a lot — free hotel room, meals. I asked him what his best night ever was. He said maybe seven or eight grand. Most people I asked this question — What was your best night ever? — quoted surprisingly low numbers. Either everyone was modest or was concerned the IRS might be listening, or the fabulous strikes, the break-the-bank nights, seldom occur. One story I heard appealed to me because of the big winner’s strange kind of benevolence. He had a great day at the Tijuana dog track, wins 100 grand. He takes 70 grand and pays off his house. He takes the other 30 grand to a card room and loses it, 10 grand a day, exactly (his form of money management) in three days. He doesn’t care, betting recklessly, just giving it away. People are paying for player’s seats to get in the game. He is just having a party. I heard this story two or three times.

Warning sign

Warning sign

I asked Bob what he most liked about the game. He too said, “The camaraderie. The challenge. I like the rhetoric that goes on at the-table. The people.”

I wanted to know if cheating was common. Everyone said it was very rare. Bob said in games where the dealer worked for the house incidents of it were greatly diminished. The List cheater he caught was two and a half years ago. Deneen, the dealer from the Village Club in Chula Vista, said she’s seen one incidence of suspected cheating in ten years on the job. If someone is caught or thought to be cheating they simply pick up his chips. I asked Deneen if this meant the house kept the chips and she said no, the floor manager picks them up and the player always follows his chips. I imagined them leading the man out to the curb this way, piling the chips neatly on the sidewalk, and saying good night.

I asked Bob to tell me some specifics about cheaters. He said the most common was some form of using an extra card. If a player holds one card more in his hand than everyone else, it’s an obvious advantage. The trick is where to hide this card. One way is a little pocket inside one’s shirt, between the buttons usually, called a silky, because they are often made out of silk, a very light fabric. Bob once caught a player called Cadillac Eddie using an ingenious device. He was a new customer, nobody knew him, and he was winning. He wore an ugly green-and-white plaid jacket. In its sleeve he had sewn something known as “horsehairs,” a kind of Velcro-like substance that allowed him to hold the card in his sleeve when he wanted it secured. Using some kind of elbow movement he could release the card into his palm when he wanted it. Bob nabbed him. Cadillac Eddie was escorted from the premises. Mostly for cheating but also, I hope, for fashion offenses.

Since I’d asked Bob about his best night gambling, I also asked him about his bad nights. He’s had many. When I’d inquired earlier about the secrets to playing poker he said there were ten rules and the first five all had to do with patience. But even an experienced player, a cautious money management-minded player goes crazy sometimes. It’s called “going on tilt”: “And, you know, you try to avoid that, but a lot of times you feel you are stuck pretty well because of a series of perhaps smaller bets. All of a sudden you say, gee. I’ve been betting $5 and $10, but you are stuck $300. Now this is not a good thing to do but people tend to go on what we call tilt and start playing poorly and too aggressively, trying to win back what they’ve lost — when a person who normally plays well all of a sudden throws a switch and they become a madman.”

I asked Bob and Nikki about their all-time favorite or oddest Palomar character. Bob mentioned a man named Sailor Allen, now living in a retirement home. A quiet, dignified man, a gentleman, and a terrific player. I like to think of him talcing a few bucks now and then, in a hand of pinochle, from the other inmates of the old folks’ home.

Both Bob and Nikki mentioned — as did a few other people — Dog Mary. She’s now deceased but at the time she frequented the Palomar she was in her late 50s and owned 27 Chihuahuas. She made her living renting trailers to people on welfare. She reserved one trailer for the dogs. “They had satin sheets and everything,” Nikki said, “and she had false fingernails, the acrylic fingernails about one and a half inches long and they curved. One day she cuts them off and she... you know the old-fashioned chains on a toilet, the little round beads, well, she had a gold chain like this and strung her old fingernails on it and wore it as a necklace. And that wasn’t bad enough — somebody stole it.” I asked Nikki if she was a good player — all the while wondering what her hands must have looked like wrapped around cards, wondering, Did whoever stole the necklace remove the fingernails before he tried to pawn it? And what happened to those Chihuahuas when Mary passed? Nikki said she wasn’t a particularly good player.

These were the kinds of stories I wanted to hear, what I came here for: the people, the lives around this particularly American game. I got that, but what some of the people, particularly the owners and the dealers, wanted to talk about as well were the politics. Bob had made it clear earlier he felt beleaguered, that he felt his business was treated unfairly, that people had the wrong impression about card rooms, gamblers. On my last day he handed me a page and a half he had written that week called “The Great Indian Gaming Hoax”:

  • The Indian Gaming situation in California has been presented to the public in such a distorted fashion it has become ludicrous. The governor has made it plain that the Slot Machines are illegal and that the Indians may not offer them to the public. This was made clear years ago. Despite this edict the Indians have been allowed to run these machines, to this day, while laughing at the numerous deadlines that have been set for the termination of their use.
  • Slot Machines are the most devastating of all the gaming devices in use today. A three-year-old could be trained to play one in less than a minute. They require absolutely no skill. The “house” can set them to return whatever percentage the “house” wishes. To my knowledge there are no restrictions as to what minimum percent of payout they must be set at. It is impossible for a player to figure out what this percentage might be, on his own. They are quite addictive and have been the financial ruin of thousands of uninformed citizens. They have been the cause of suicides, bankruptcies, and even murders. Many people have lost their homes, jobs, marriages, etc., as a result of the addiction they present.
  • I know of no “Gaming Control Board” that the Indians have to answer to as far as cheating, illegal operations, or crooked games. California law prohibits any “house” from “banking” any games of chance such as “21" (Blackjack). The Indian Gaming Casinos, Sycuan to name one, blatantly “banks” “21." They will not allow a customer to bank any of their games and in addition to the edge they enjoy as “banker," they charge the customers a fixed percentage (1%) of each bet the customer makes. The Viejas Indians aren’t quite as blatant; they have a uniformed dealer deal the “21" games and another non-uniformed employee act as the banker. The non-uniformed employee is supplied a red chip rack with ample chips to handle this task. The rack being red in color to identify the “banker” as being an employee of the casino.
  • Where is the justification in allowing such a small, select group of people the exclusive right to run this type of gaming? They are even exempt from taxes because of their Sovereign status. If we are forced to allow them this position then let it be, but at least remove the exclusivity they have. Allow others the right to compete with them. The casinos are here anyway. At least let there be open competition in the industry. Receive some tax revenue.
  • The small percentage of their profits that they donate to the various charities and municipalities is nothing compared to the ruin and devastation they cause in our state. They claim they are no longer on welfare rolls. This may be; however, they have been replaced on our welfare rolls many times over by the poor unfortunates that have lost all they owned by gambling at these casinos. It is no wonder the Indian Gaming has been so successful; they are “the only game in town,” by law.
  • Throughout history one nation has taken land and property from another nation without restitution. I would imagine in days of old, before the “white man” arrived, one Indian tribe would raid the village of another tribe, take horses, food, etc., without any restitution. If this taking of their land is justification for the Indians to have this “exclusive” on what is an illegal entity for anyone else, why then don’t we do the same for the American Blacks? They were brought here against their will as slaves. Perhaps we should give them some restitution also. We could allow them the exclusive right to run illegal drug concessions in our state. I’m sure they would be as successful as our Indian brothers have been.
  • What about our Mexican populace? This land of California belonged to them originally. We could allow the Mexicans to run Brothels, legally. They too, would surely be successful. O.. .oh! I almost forgot our citizens of Japanese ancestry. The suffering they endured during the Second World War as a result of their internment. Alas, it seems we have run out of profitable illegal entities.

For most of the week, I hung around the Palomar hut didn’t play, partly because I wanted to get a feel for the place first, to get to know the people a little. It was also because I didn’t quite grasp the game yet — lowball — but as I said earlier this should not scare off any other beginner. Most people would grasp the basics a lot faster than I did.

I was worried because I was told the only possible thing that might annoy regular players about a rookie would be if he took too much time to make decisions — if somebody slows up a game it means fewer hands get dealt during the time each player pays for his seat at the table.

Card room

Card room

When I finally sat down I was nervous, but the other players were patient and helped put me at ease. I don’t think it was only because they knew I had a few hundred dollars I was likely to lose. I asked Bob earlier if there’s a card-room name for guys like me, and he said, “Maybe they’ll refer to you as fresh meat, but not to your face.” I was hoping it didn’t stick. Fresh Meat Tom did not have quite the same cachet as Sailor Allen or Christmas Tree Joe. Not even as much as Brain Surgeon Mike or Dog Mary.

Most of the players I’d seen before, some I’d talked to. Al was in the game. Christmas Tree Joe was in. Esther was scowling at a man eating a sandwich. Kathy dealt the cards. I’d talked to her quite a bit. People were helpful, offered advice. The men on each side of me, once they’d dropped out of hands, would look at my cards and help me make decisions — when to bet, raise, check, fold. I figured out the last on that list pretty quickly, but I didn’t want to do that. Getting out of a hand in ten seconds wasn’t fun for me. I made some reckless bets and I made some reckless and stupid bets. The man to my right kept reminding me to always keep my hands on my cards. The man on my left explained, patiently, why I made a dumb move. I won some hands, four or five, got down $40 or $50, won most of it back. Lost it again. The biggest hand I won, maybe $25 or $30, sent a bit of thrill up my spine. But I didn’t have the blazing run of beginner’s luck that I’d hoped might happen. Neither did I lose much — about $60 by the time I was done, including table time, tips to the dealers. I felt like a minor big shot giving the dealer two five-dollar chips when I finished. If I hadn’t played so stupidly, recklessly, I probably wouldn’t have lost half of what I did. Not bad for a few hours of entertainment, camaraderie, something new. I didn’t get the feeling I was looked upon as new meat — even when I overheard someone on the pay phone behind me saying, “There’s a rookie here with a couple of hundred to blow, come on down here fast and get in the game.”

If you want a taste of something a little different, a piece of an era that will soon be past, if you’ve had some bad luck in love or you’re just feeling lucky, stop by the Palomar. Tell them Fresh Meat Tom sent you. Tell them he said we’re all looking for luck.

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