It’s a sunny spring morning, but inside the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, pedestrian concerns like the time and the weather fade into the background. Mornings are usually slow at the Oaks, but all that means is that three or four of the forty green felt gaming tables are devoid of players. A card room’s clientele is a very devoted bunch; day after day, the Oaks sees the exact same people hunched over their hands of Omaha Hi-Lo or Texas Hold-Em. Some players sit grimly, glaring at their hands; others, the kind accustomed to sporting slicked-back hair and dark glasses at 10:00 in the morning, saunter around easily, flashing the stacks of poker chips that wordlessly announce their obvious reign over the gaming floor. It’s a place of fate and luck and nerves. In the front of the room, it’s just child’s play–the low-stakes gaming tables with five different varieties of poker at which one can’t lose more than a couple of thousand dollars. In the back, fates soar and are mercilessly crushed at the double hand poker table, where it’s not uncommon to see the deeds to houses and apartment buildings change hands in the course of a night.But one thing is for certain about the Oaks, and card clubs in general: they’re nowhere near their glitzy Las Vegas casino cousins. Card clubs are heavily regulated by the state, right down to the games they can offer. For instance, the state doesn’t allow ordinary blackjack to be played, so the Oaks offers something called “21st Century Blackjack,” which gets around the rules by playing to twenty-two. The things that define the Vegas casinos–the roulette wheels, the slot machines–are nowhere to be found in a California card room. Card rooms are also banned from having any financial interest in the outcome of the games they do offer–unlike Vegas casinos, where the house banks against their players, card rooms make their money by charging each player a sort of rental fee for the privilege of playing there. Those are the characteristics that supporters say make card rooms purveyors of good, clean adult fun. But those same characteristics are also limitations that make card rooms like the Oaks tremble in fear when they hear of Indian casinos encroaching ever closer on their circles of influence.
So when a proposal came from the Sonoma-based Lytton band of Pomo Indians to transform Richmond’s Casino San Pablo card room into what the industry parlance calls a “Class III” casino, card-room interests, including Oaks owner John Tibbets, leaped into action. Nearly a year after the voters approved the state constitutional amendment in March 2000 that cemented the rights of California Native American tribes to host Nevada-style gambling, the Oaks, three other card rooms, and two concerns that run charitable Bingo games filed suit, seeking to declare Proposition 1A and its resulting constitutional amendment a violation of federal law.
David Fried is an attorney litigating the case, which names Governor Davis and a laundry list of state officials as defendants. Fried says the lawsuit was sparked primarily by the case of Casino San Pablo. If the casino were to be transformed into a Class III Indian gaming facility, it could put the card clubs–which supporters liken to quaint, almost family establishments–out of business. “What forced us to file this lawsuit is to prevent the creation of an urban Nevada-style casino in San Pablo,” Fried says.
But the principle of the law is also at stake. Fried argues that Proposition 1A violates federal law by allowing Indian tribes to engage in activities not legal for the rest of the state’s population: The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows tribes to conduct gaming only at the level legally allowed by the state. So in Nevada, where Class III gaming is legal, tribes would also be able to set up shop with one thousand slot machines. But in a state like California, where citizens can only conduct Class I and II gaming, Fried argues, Indian tribes should operate under such restrictions.
If you’re under the impression that card rooms are a hotbed of crime, let Emeryville Police Chief Ken James disavow you of that thought. “I would say we have greater crime problems in our retail centers than in our card room,” James says, citing shoplifting and parking problems as issues that take up more police time than scuffles at the Oaks. The Emeryville Police Department also has the authority to screen all Oaks workers, and the city has an eighteen-page ordinance that further restricts card rooms to one stretch of San Pablo Avenue. On the other hand, a city has no authority over an Indian casino unless the tribe and the municipality negotiate an agreement to that effect.
And yet the only group that has popped up to defend the rights of the card rooms seems to be run by the card rooms themselves. The Coalition Against Neighborhood Nevada Gambling calls itself a neighborhood group, but it is funded by concerned “Northern California businessmen,” including card-club and racetrack concerns. The coalition has been running a television advertisement featuring Richmond mayor Rosemary Corbin warning of the crime, drugs, and prostitution that will flourish if Casino San Pablo adds slot machines to its repertoire. Never mind that Corbin opposed the card room when it was first built in 1995–it’s still preferable to a casino.
So preferable, in fact, that her group has plans to actually bolster the failing card room. Instead of creating an Indian casino in San Pablo, says coalition spokesman Mark Capitolo, it would be better to simply try to fix what’s left of Casino San Pablo, which has been facing a steady decline in patronage and revenue of late. “We actually did a little bit of work on the issue of trying to get the existing card club to start operating under better management,” Capitolo says. “Why not give it a chance to try and generate better revenue?” Capitolo is a paid consultant to the group, and doesn’t actually live near the card room, but he says he’s visited it once. “It looks like a casino–green tables; the dealers have uniforms. It’s a little more subdued. Frankly, it’s just a lot of really interesting people, focused on their game.”
Besides, Capitolo argues, card rooms are superior to casinos because they don’t impoverish poor communities as quickly. “The house doesn’t bank the money,” he says. “When the house banks money, they take everything that the players lose. There’s no even distribution of money. But at a card room, the players at the table win and lose money amongst themselves.” It’s a kind of a neighborhood redistribution of wealth–with a deck of cards. One person might win, and the other might lose his rent money, but it’s all going back into the general local revenue stream.
If the card clubs’ lawsuit triumphs, either all 61 of California’s Class III Indian casinos will be knocked down to Class II card rooms, or card rooms will be allowed to install slot machines. But it’s more likely that Casino San Pablo will see its transformation into a full-fledged Nevada-style gaming spot before there’s an end to the suit, for which a court date has not even been set. And if the lawsuit fails in its mission, will that be the end of the local neighborhood card room? I suspect that somehow, the ancient art of gambling won’t go extinct just yet.