Poker draws new faces

July 9, 2006

Article Launched: 7/08/2006 10:43 PM
Indian casinos, tournaments drive card game’s renaissance
Barbara Correa, Staff writer
Long Beach Press Telegram
Devon Miller is just 21. But when it comes to cards, Miller has more in common with the 50-plus crowd at the Commerce Casino than he does with his fellow twenty-somethings.The common denominator is poker. And Miller has played enough of it to go hand to hand with professional gamblers who made their first bluff 30 years before he was born.

“I already have the money and experience to play with those guys,” said Miller, whose gambling career was inspired by the film “Rounders,” a poker drama starring Matt Damon as a teenage gambler.

Before he turned 18, Miller had to use a fake ID to get into the Cache Creek Indian Bingo & Casino outside Sacramento. He honed his skills there before moving to Los Angeles to be near the Commerce Casino, which boasts the highest-limit poker games around. Miller doesn’t plan to play poker forever, but for at least the next five years or so, it will continue to be his full-time gig.

Miller represents one shade of the new image California casinos are marketing to reinvent the booming gaming industry. It’s a shift away from the stereotype of a seedy, smoky card room filled with older men to a mainstream entertainment venue frequented by younger players who are just as likely to be women, Asian or Latino as they are to be white and male. This new influx of gamblers is turning gaming into one of the fastest-growing industries in the state.

A report by the California Research Bureau released in May found that gambling in California posted gross revenues of $13 billion in 2004, with Indian casinos accounting for more than $5 billion of that total. At California card rooms (which include non-Indian casinos), revenues jumped almost 75 percent between 1998 and 2004, to $650 million.

A lot of the growth can be attributed to Indian casinos winning full legal rights to operate and expand in the late 1990s. But it also has to do with the renaissance of poker, which has evolved into a sport played out in high-profile tournaments like the World Series of Poker and Celebrity Poker Showdown. Online venues for poker players have also fueled the trend. This wave of attention on the game has spread quickly, bringing a new clientele to Southern California’s poker tables.

Marlene Hoffman, a real-estate agent in Montebello, has been driving her father to the Commerce Casino for years. Not until six months ago did she sit down at the table.

“Fifteen years ago, there were no women,” she said. “They just had a women’s tournament here, and there were 175 women. I was shocked.” Women play tough, she added.

“These men think they’re going to back you off, but once you show them you’re not afraid, they back off,” she said.

Edward Solis, a warehouse supervisor from South Los Angeles, had been playing Mexican poker for years in garage games. But about a year ago, a friend got him to come play at a casino. Now he’s hooked.

“I was coming three or four times a week,” he said, “but my wife got laid off, so now I come once a week.” He said he is up overall, winning almost $400 on a good day.

Commerce Casino manager Tim Gustin has been working at the house since 1988, and has seen the level of acceptance of gambling change over the years. “It’s become an accepted form of entertainment.

“The clientele used to be mostly older guys who learned to play in the service. Now it’s a lot of young people, ethnically mixed.”

At the Commerce Casino, the clientele is about 80 percent Asian; predominantly Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean, said Gustin. He welcomes the diversity and said he would still like to see more women and Latinos at his tables. Asian players also dominate the Indian casinos. But the tribal properties are marketing to a different crowd than the card clubs.

“Slot machines are 80 (percent) or 90 percent of revenue” at tribal casinos, said William Palermo, chief executive officer of Gaming & Resort Development Inc., a consulting firm whose clients include Indian casinos, card rooms and cruise lines.

Some of the largest tribal casinos have invented themselves as full-fledged resorts, complete with spas, high-end dining establishments, and entertainment unrelated to gambling to appeal to a broader demographic than the poker-centric card clubs.

The casinos’ most reliable group of patrons are Asian and come from a cultural background that embraces gaming as part of everyday life.

To appeal to this group, Indian casinos tend to feature at least some Asian decor and Asian restaurants. The wide variety of table games such as Pai Gow poker reflects the influence. Pechanga Resort & Casino near Temecula even brought in an expert in feng shui — the ancient Chinese art of positioning objects in buildings and other places for internal harmony — to oversee an upgrade of the resort’s high-stakes hotel rooms.

In addition to their Asian appeal, the Indian casinos are increasingly targeting a younger, couples date-night crowd.

“The radius of these casinos is a couple hundred miles,” said Palermo.

People will make day trips from across Southern California to the deserts east of San Diego or Riverside for the action, not just the gambling, but to eat and party, more along the lines of the Vegas model. “The Indian casinos are starting to notice that’s a good market, especially for the evening,” said Palermo.

They also count on busloads of seniors during the week, and they face a balancing act of not offending one group to please another. So far, the something-for-everyone strategy seems to be working.

“They’ve had an impact on Reno and Tahoe,” said Palermo.

The casinos — both Indian and non-Indian — really don’t compete with online gambling sites, such as, as much as they complement them. “Online is more of a training ground for people to whet their appetite and get comfortable playing,” said Palermo.

Devon Miller agrees. He said younger players are going online to get educated and gain confidence before going out to play in person.

Still, he plays most of his poker now from his home in Hollywood. “I don’t have to deal with traffic. I’m not bored ever when I can play at home. It’s so much more convenient,” said Miller, who said he’s won just under $1 million since he started playing. “I play so many tables, my earn rate is higher with less risk.”

But there’s nothing like gambling face to face at a casino. And that’s where Miller has forged the relationships that have helped his own game and won him friends as well. “The older guys think it’s nice to have a younger guy around,” he said. “They’ve invited me for barbecues and they give me tax advice, real-world stuff. I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that stuff otherwise.”

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