Gardena: Poker Capital of the World

facebook_1461345592678 (1)Robert Turner as part of Larry Flynt’s  Original Hustler Casino Management Team

The Normandie Casino has been rumored to be an acquisition of the Hustler Casino by Larry Flynt. If this happens, the Gardena poker legacy will be gone, and all that will be left is one corporation controlling the remaining two.

Poker was started in Gardena in 1936 by legendary card club owners Ernie Primm and Russ Miller, the patriarch of the Miller family who owns the Normandie Casino.

The six clubs of poker that made up the Gardena landscape are now just a memory, and if Larry Flynt takes over the Normandie Casino, the last of the original six, a poker era will varnish forever.

As I reflect back, it has occurred to me that I managed four of the six casinos in Gardena, a small city ten miles outside Downtown Los Angeles. When poker boomed in California with the legalization of Hold’em around 1986, many characters came out to play in Gardena, including myself.

A Storied History: The Horseshoe Club

Horseshoe Club Gardena

Some were very famous for their play while others were notorious for having a shady past like Shoeshine Nick. Legendary poker author Mike Caro was also part of Gardena history.

Caro recalls of that time, “Old Gardena was a poker garden where money grew, but there was also treachery, and you had to avoid the cheating. You dealt your own cards, which was fine, but so did they, and there was always danger.”

Caro continues, “The producer — weak players who provided you profit — came, and many went broke or disappeared. But along came new producers, so you survived. It was five-card draw, high or low, and the draw could determine your fate for now. But there was always tomorrow. So, we won.”

“Gardena called itself the Poker Capital of the World. And it really was,” Caro concludes.

I agree with him. When I was General Manager of the Horseshoe Club in 1986, I had many problems to solve including rampant cheating, which I solved with stationary dealers. Before that, each player took turns dealing, which led to mechanics and teams plying their trade at the expense of the producers.

Some of the problems I had to deal with at the Horseshoe not only had to do with the players but also involved the owners. One day I discovered a security guard in the count room area taking chips out of the drop boxes.

After an investigation, it was determined that one of the owners had given him the key. That particular owner was the general partner of the casino; I knew my days were numbered there. The casino was sold, and my contract was bought out. It was closed for remodeling, and it never reopened.

Poker Legends in Gardena

Huck Seed

1996 WSOP Main Event Winner Huck Seed

 

But while I worked there, I added new games, such as seven-card stud and Pot-Limit Omaha (PLO), which was spread in California for the first time at the Horseshoe. These games attracted the best poker players in the world. Regulars in these games were Freddie Deeb, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan.

Hellmuth would fly into Los Angeles, take a taxi to Gardena to play PLO and sometimes he would go broke and turn right around. The first time I met World Series of Poker Main Event winner Huck Seed was in Gardena. He was playing $15/$30 Limit Hold’em and was a consistent winner, who showed greatness even at that time.

The first World Championship of Omaha was played in Gardena at the Horseshoe. It featured a $500 buy-in, and people came from all over the country to play.

I left Gardena for nine years while I managed other clubs, such as the Regency, the Bicycle Club and Hollywood Park Casino. I returned to Gardena in 2000 to open Hustler Casino with Larry Flynt as his executive host in charge of the house players and, of course, promoting Omaha.

Eric Drache and Yosh Nakano created a huge stud game hosted by Larry Flynt himself at the Hustler with great players from all over the world. Regulars in that game included a who’s who of poker royalty—Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey, Thor Hansen and Danny Robison.

In 2006, I was hired as the poker manager of Normandie Casino. I remember Mike Sexton roasting me for my sixtieth birthday and referring to my Horseshoe days in 1986. He said, “Robert Turner came a long way in his poker career—right across the street.”

At one time, the Horseshoe was located right across the street from the Normandie Casino. It is pretty funny that after twenty years I had come right back to where I started, the other side of the street.

Today the Normandie is facing some serious fines and legal issues, so passing the torch to Larry Flynt may be their best opportunity.

Only time will tell where Larry Flynt takes Gardena, the former poker capital of the world. He owns it all now.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and casino/billiard marketing expert. Robert is most well-known for creating the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development. He has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM.  He is currently working as a casino consultant.

Robert can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and coaching. Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Subscribe to Robert’s blog “Beyond the Numbers” to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Before the Poker Boom: Poker in the 90s

Trump

In the 80s poker had become primarily a west coast phenomenon, but thanks to poker pioneers like Steve Wynn, Jack Binion, Lyle Berman, George Hardie and even Donald Trump, poker would expand across the United States in the 90s.

I became casino marketing director of the Bicycle Casino in 1991. Knowing I was from Alabama, the Bicycle Casino’s founder George Hardie sent me to Tunica, Mississippi, to scout the area for a large poker casino he had planned to develop there.

As I looked out at the cotton fields and the raging Mississippi river, I remember looking forward to running a poker room in the south; it would be going back home for me. I had hosted many games in that area for years and finally would have a chance to offer the players a legal and safe environment to play where they would not have to worry about law enforcement or hijackers.

Hardie had options on land around Robinson and the Tunica area, which would later be sold to Lyle Berman. Berman is one of the best Omaha players in the world. He would visit the Bicycle Casino to play in the Diamond Jim Brady tournaments and became good friends with Hardie. Hardie had an ambition to build the largest poker room in the world in Mississippi and purchased a piece of property called Buck Lake around Tunica.

Hardie had lobbied to have the nearest casino to Memphis, Tennessee. He would later sell that property to Berman, who built the Grand Casino in Tunica in 1996, which helped establish poker in Mississippi. Jack Binion also purchased land to build the Horseshoe casino, which opened the previous year. Poker had finally arrived in the south.

Ken Lambert Jr., Regional Director of Operations for the Heartland Poker Tour, recalls opening day of Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Tunica where he was director of poker operations, “We finally opened in February of 1995 to long lines of excited players. The lines extended hundreds of feet. It was a cold day, but to warm as many of the guests as he could, Jack emptied out his gift shop and began handing out any type of cold apparel that was on hand.”

Lambert continues, “I had 10 poker tables opened and ready to go as players rushed to the room to be the first to play a hand in Tunica at Jack Binion’s Horseshoe. Not long after opening, the poker room expanded to 12 tables and the rest was history. We had the biggest players in the world come play. The new dealers were dealing games they had only heard about, $4,000/$8,000 limit Hold’em and the Pot-Limit Omaha had a $75,000 max bet.”

When the poker explosion happened in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt like Forrest Gump. I was lucky enough to see landmark events in poker history firsthand and even established a record myself. I became the first player to have four consecutive cashes in the WSOP Main Event in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. My highest finish was 6th in 1994. Ronnie Bardah set a new record in 2014 with five consecutive cashes in the Main Event.

On the east coast, poker was also having its own boom. In Nolan Dalla’s article “The Early Years of the Atlantic City Poker Scene,” Dalla says, “The epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened the sparkling 50-table room in the Summer of 1993.”

Poker Hall of Famer Jack McClelland was hired by Donald Trump in 1996 as poker tournament director to establish a major poker tournament on the east coast. Trump created the United States Poker Championship tournament, which was a prestigious stop on the professional poker circuit for years and was televised on ESPN. McClelland recalls Trump as a no-nonsense, get-it-done-right kind of guy. He really enjoyed working for him.

I remember going to the opening of most of these new poker rooms in the south and on the east coast. Poker now had a showcase across the United States. This developed thousands of new poker players. Poker had arrived as a must-have amenity in casinos to reach out to a new demographic of gamblers.

The 90s was a great decade for me personally, as I found success both in casino boardrooms and on the felt. In part 2, I will discuss the poker boom in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn, with the help of Bobby Baldwin as his president, opened Bellagio, which would be a game changer in the history of poker.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiards/casino marketing expert. Robert is most well-known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

Robert has over 30 years’ experience in casino marketing and player development. He can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and coaching. Follow Robert on Twitter @thechipburner.