"Card room are given a black eye by the public and they shouldn't be!" The woman's police-issued identifcation badge, complete with a photograph, says her name is Helen. Helen has been a "housewoman" in card rooms for over 20 years and is tired of the bad image the community paints of her livelihood.
Helen's room is bright and clean and is located in Ocean Beach. It is a far cry from the downtown card rooms that one usually imagines — the eerie, depressing rooms squeezed between the bars along Fifth and Fifth Avenue. There, a man in grey frayed trousers and a dull white shirt with the sleeves rolled up usually lounges in the doorway. One wonders whether he is posted there to keep people in, or out. If any light filters out through the dusty windows, it is as pale and colorless as the people inside. Several rooms have their curtains partly drawn, or the front window is so grimy it is difficult to see the table tops from the street. The patrons of the downtown clubs are usually local winos, young sailors, and men with meager paychecks trying to win big, just one time.
Clubs like the Newport Avenue Card Club serve the many neighborhood poker fans who don't want to go downtown. "Our room is here to offer our customers service and protection," confirms Helen. She leans on the poker chip counter, joking with the men at the two full tables. Helen has a city-wide reputation as a fair housewoman. All her decisions are respected as final, and she is a competent poker player whenever she has to fill an open slot at a table.
A coffee can on the counter boasts four huge, pinkish orange roses given to Helen by a patron. "The regulars who come here become very friendly, almost like a family." She glances at the clock. Almost eight o'clock. Helen nods to her assistant Sammy, a girl, who leaves the counter to collect the 50-cent fee due every half hour. Sammy collects two 25-cent chips from each player, and gives each man a smile.
"I used to be a cocktail waitress," Sammy explains as she counts up the piles of chips and carefully marks the total on the tally sheet. "The customers here are so much nicer to work with."
Helen says a pretty girl like Sammy could make a great living as a chip girl if she moved to Vegas or Reno Sammy blushes and stacks the chips carefully in the cabinet. She stacks the chips in alternating colors. There are only about a dozen of the black and white $100 chips.
Any card room is a utopian microcosm. The people sitting side by side have left their jobs, families and trouble, as well as their prejudices outside the door. On this Thursday night, at one table, a dental technician from Point Loma sits next to a long-haired, freshly graduated law student. On the student' left, an impeccable groomed oriental man in stark white slacks concentrates on his hand. He is a portrait painter and, according to a friend, has painted portraits of Jackie and John F. Kennedy as well as Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Next to the painter, a 21-year-old who has had polio since he was four is perched in his electric-powered wheelchair. To his left, a city clerk dressed in a white wash-and-wear shirt piles his chips meticulously. "Where is my straight flush tonight?"
The California Supreme Court has deemed draw poker a "game of skill," so draw poker and bridge are the only card games legal to play in a card room. According to regulations passed shortly after World War II. San Diego card rooms operate under strict police control. The owner and his employees must pass a police investigation and cannot get a license if they have any record of felonies. Minors are not allowed to play. A limit of five tables, each with seven chairs, is allowed in each room, and no more than a dollar an hour may be charged. Draw poker is usually the only game in progress because, card buffs say, bridge takes too much concentration and energy to be enjoyable.
But good poker playing is exacting, too, according to a man named Harry who used to own a plumbing business in New Jersey. "I'm a hardened card player. I make my living at it. I work three or four days a week and make good money." In his paisley shirt and grey doubleknit slacks, Harry looks more like an insurance salesman than a professional poker player.
"I don't stick with one room, and I never play unless I know the people or at least their reputations. I stay away from the crummy dives downtown, unless there's abig no-limit game." Harry claims he's seen as much as $1000 in a downtown no limit bet. His own biggest win was $500 in five minutes at the table.
Harry wants to see the business cleaned up even more. "There's still about a dozen crooks working the area. They usually work in pairs. I see 'em cheating suckers by passing cards to each other, holding out high cards, and cold-decking...that's arranging the deck in a good way when you shuffle." Beads of sweat collect on Harry's forehead and begin trickling down his sharp narrow nose. "The vice squad doesn't supervise the card rooms enough. They come in dressed in suits and ties as out of place as a black in the Ku Klux Klan. They might as well have 'Police' written on their foreheads."
"You can spot a Fourth Avenue player right away, and I hate 'em." He stands up and tucks his shirt beneath his wide leather belt. Harry won $385 last night and wants to find a higher stake game than the five-dollar-ante ones here.
As Harry leaves, a small, white-haired man wearing a big felt hat enters, slow-motion, and leans on the chip counter. He holds an eight-inch cigar in his pale, gnarled fingers. Long curved fingernails. Blue smoke envelopes him like the Caterpillar in Wonderland.
"This is Roy; he used to own this place." Helen smiles and pats his blue veined hand. "He's been in this business for a thousand years."
Roy looks around at the 14 men busy at the tables. "I remember when we had the Card Room Association," his voice sounds like crackling paper, "used to stick together then. Met once a month. But about 15 years ago it fizzled out. Guess it was the degrading downtown card rooms." He munches on the end of his cigar, his cloud eyes far away. Roy walks out to stand on the sidewalk, as still as a cigar store Indian.
Behind another police-issued badge, Joe Geier sits with his wife of 31 years, Edith, in their brand new Alabama Club Card Room.
The club has been open one day and they are waiting for word of mouth to do their advertising. Card players have an excellent inter-city grapevine for poker news, they say.
"I moved here because I didn't like skid row," explains Geier. he maintains a perpetual poker face as he speaks. "I got tired of opening up in the morning and having 15 or 20 drunk bums begging for money."
Edith Geier nods in agreement, her white plastic earrings bouncing and dangling. "I rarely went to the old place. It was so ... depressing, that's the only word."
Soft music is piped into the carpeted and wood-panelled room. The orange chairs are extremely comfortable, adn teh tabletops are bright green.
"We hope to run a certain type of club, to attract older people." Edith looks to her husband for a signal that she is saying the right things. He nods, and she continues. "This club will be a pleasant, clean, and bright place to play cards."
Joe Geier moves to the back of the room and flicks a switch. Suddenly all 17 panels of cool fluorescent lights are glowing.
"I don't think there's a place in town so lit up," he beams proudly. They plan to add a few couches and a coffee table, so players can relax between bouts at the table.
"This is a personality business," says Geier. "We have to attract a group of regulars who will like the way we treat them."
Just how car room regulars will react to a new personality for card rooms is still unclear. Perhaps the lights and the cleanliness are just what most regulars are trying to escape. But then maybe a more "respectable" uptown crowd will be enticed into the pastime of shuffling, dealing, and betting by the cleaning up. Who knows? The last thing I heard is that two card rooms are opening up in Fashion Valley.