Poker Road Trip: Southern California

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By Christopher Cosenza

Historians can trace the roots of poker to another continent thousands of years ago, but if aliens visited our planet today they’d think California is where poker was born. Of course, why aliens are interested in poker is for another time; all we know is they prefer draw games.

The state is so big and the cardrooms so plentiful that we’re forced to break this road trip into three parts: Northern, Central and Southern. This month we’ll explore Southern California, and break that up into two parts as well: L.A. and SoCal. We couldn’t visit all rooms, so please remember to check our Where to Play pages in the back of the magazine for tournament and promotional details.

Los Angeles

In L.A. you’ll find cardrooms (no slots, but versions of blackjack, pai gow, baccarat, etc.), while tribal casinos (mostly south of L.A.) have slots but roulette and craps still must be played with cards. L.A. is home to the three largest cardrooms in the country so it’s only natural to begin here.

Bicycle Casino | 562-806-4646
thebike.com | @bicyclecasino
Host to the popular online show Live at the Bike, this massive cardroom has a major tournament in eight of the 12 months of the year, including the first WSOPC event in L.A. (See recap Page 14). The gaming floor is huge and has a good variety of games and limits. One of the casino’s few weaknesses is about to become a strength as it’s planning to open a hotel, which will be a game-changer. With the Bike no longer having to watch tournament players leave to play cash games where they sleep (Commerce), things are about to get real interesting in L.A.

Hawaiian Gardens Casino | 562-860-5887
thegardenscasino.com | @gardenscasino
The famous tents will be renovated soon, but the fun, stress-free atmosphere will remain the same. Hawaiian Gardens is a relaxed poker room with friendly dealers and surfboards that hang from the ceiling to indicate what games are where. Tournaments are daily ($30-$150) and promotions include a prize wheel and jackpots. Be sure to tell the live parrot who lives in the glass case at the entrance that Ante Up says, “hey.”

Hollywood Park Casino | 310-330-2800
playhpc.com | @playhpc
In an effort to reinvigorate action, HPC renovated and moved its poker room closer to the main entrance, throwing a grand-opening party in November (See anteupmagazine.com for details). HPC is unique in that it’s the only L.A. casino that has thoroughbred racing on site. Also, new to the room is ocean poker, which is hold’em played with a sixth community card, known as the ocean card. Lots of action! And don’t forget the Winter Hold’em Series (Feb. 24-March 4).

Commerce Casino | 323-721-2100
commercecasino.com | @commercecasino
With nearly 200 tables (many are California games) the Commerce is beyond massive, sporting the title of world’s largest cardroom. The low-limit area is appropriately in the lower level where you’ll find mostly hold’em and some stud, while a second room closer to the hotel hosts the bigger games and the mixed variety. The Commerce cash games are hard to beat in part because it’s the only casino with a hotel (Crowne Plaza) in L.A., so it’s no surprise it hosts some of the largest tournaments in the world outside the WSOP, including its signature event, the L.A. Poker Classic, which is running this month.

Normandie Casino | 310-352-3400
normandiecasino.com | @nc247
After some recent renovations, the Normandie is prime for your poker dollar. From the entrance’s oversized canopy to the golden decorative ceiling panels and long brass bar, the Normandie has a warm, almost dinner-club feel that’s welcoming. Unlike many cardrooms, the brush stand is centrally located right at the entrance, giving you instant access to what’s being spread. Tournaments have increased, including a popular $10K guarantee bounty event that costs $100. Other smaller guarantees are spread throughout the week.

Hustler Casino | 310-719-9800
hustlercasinola.com | @hustlercasinola
Touches of the elegant life Larry Flynt likes to live can be found all throughout Hustler, including gorgeous chandeliers. The layout is circular, with a high-limit area in the middle and tables surrounding it. It’s one of the smaller L.A. cardrooms so there aren’t a lot of huge tournaments, but it holds at least three series a year (January, March, October) and was running a fine Player of the Week promotion during our visit.

Crystal Casino | 310-661-4808
thecrystalcasino.com
The Crystal Casino is just southeast of Los Angeles, right off Freeway 91 (10 minutes from LAX) and is a new player to the L.A.-area market, with more than 230 hotel rooms, boasting “best poker rates” on its website. The 14-table poker room’s best tournament is the $30 event on Fridays and Saturdays (7 p.m.) with a $5K guarantee, 1K chips, $10 rebuys and add-ons.

Southern Cal

Barona Casino | 619-443-2300
Barona.com | @baronacasino
From a greeter who waves as you drive in, to the free lemonade (or hot apple cider when it’s cold outside) offered when you enter the building, a relaxed, friendly atmosphere is everywhere at Barona. And it carries over to the poker room, where staff members wear golf shirts, including Tim Malinowski, a young, motivated manager who has been here since the beginning (nearly 20 years). We saw NLHE, plus $3-$6 and $4-$8 hold’em games with kills and crazy pineapple. Tournaments are modest ($40) with nice guarantees ($2K on weekends). The room moved to its more spacious, quieter location near the food court a few years ago. Feel free to call ahead; they’ll put you on the list.

Agua Caliente Casino | 888-999-1995
hotwatercasino.com | @aguacalienteCRS
This Palm Springs casino is an impressive property, and manager Jerry Sandau is doing some fine things with his poker room. During our visit he had just rolled out new comfortable chairs and a $75 tournament that featured $25 bounties. When the room is busy they have pagers to make sure you don’t miss your opportunity to play as you wander the property. And don’t forget to take advantage of the free-drink station.

Sycuan Casino | 619-445-6002
sycuan.com | @sycuancasino
It’s been nearly a year since this room was renovated, and it looks as new as ever. The tables were extremely active and even had a juicy $1-$3 stud-8 game. World Series of Poker qualifiers started up again recently and the room continues to have a strong tournament presence. Manager Tim Briggs makes sure promotions are plentiful, including drawings and progressive jackpots. Dealers were strong and friendly.

Ocean’s 11 Casino | 760-439-6988
oceans11.com | @oceans11_casino
Billed as the largest poker room in San Diego County, Ocean’s 11 has good action, largely in part to the proximity of Camp Pendleton. It just celebrated its 15th anniversary on Jan. 28 with $200 cash drawings all day. The split-plan room is having a renovation, but you won’t miss the huge mural of the original Ocean’s 11 guys (think Sammy and Dean, not Brad and George). They have tournaments and promotions every day.

Pala Casino | 760-510-5100
palacasino.com | @palacasino
Poker room manager George Arsenis, who’s been at Pala for about two years (but in the business for 17), does a great job with his beautiful 15-table room. What stood out most were the busy tournament schedule and the thoughtful promotions, namely the Chase for the Dough. The more hours you clock the more money you get from the $15K pool. Arsenis strives for a family atmosphere, and judging by how many regulars are in the room every day, we’d say he has achieved that. There are plenty of small tournaments with quality guarantees or even added money.

Pechanga Resort & Casino | 951-693-1819
pechanga.com | @pechangacasino
This gorgeous property has a large poker room, and in the center is a raised area for some of the cash games. Above that is a huge three-sided scoreboard TV to display the day’s most important sporting events. It complements the flatscreen TVs that ring the massive room — you’ll never feel squished at Pechanga. Manager Richie Lopez does everything in his power to listen to his players and make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Dealers were friendly and efficient. Comps are $1.50 an hour and chiprunners, like in so many California rooms, come to you if you want to cash out.

Morongo Casino | 888-667-6646
morongocasinoresort.com | @morongocasino
This 21-table room, separated from the casino and glassed off, spreads a great five-card Omaha/8 game and has a fine staff. When we arrived they were holding their semiannual staff tournament and personable manager Duane Sandoval was having a blast with his crew. There’s a thirst station in the room and plenty of action at the tables. Tournaments are daily ($30-$100) and there are a lot of promotions, including a bad beat in hold’em and Omaha.

San Manuel Casino | 800-359-2464
sanmanuel.com | @sanmanuelcasino
This place was jumping on a Wednesday morning. A freeroll tournament (they host $33K and $100K freerolls regularly) helped the cause, but there were plenty of cash games in this cardroom, which was sprawling. On March 1, the poker room hosts the second annual Rivalry charity tournament between players from the L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. Proceeds benefit the teams’ respective charities. (See story Page 10 for details.) Also, ask about the double jackpots and money wheel.

Harrah’s Rincon | 760-751-3100
harrahsrincon.com | @harrahs_rincon
As a longtime World Series of Poker Circuit host (March 15-26), you can expect WSOP touches throughout the room, but what’s not expected is the location. This poker room is on the second floor, away from the main casino, for an intimate setting. During our visit, the Pay for Play promotion was introduced ($5 per hour in promo chips for first 20 hours played, $10 for hours 21-40). We were told the comp system rates poker players the same as $10 per hand blackjack players, which is tough to beat. There are modest daily tournaments ($30-$125) at noon and 7 p.m. and, of course, Total Rewards are outstanding.

Viejas Casino | 619-445-5400
viejas.com | @viejascasino
The 15-table poker room has had some changes recently, including moving to the second floor in a glassed-off area free of casino noise. We were told some new promotions were rolling out, including $2/hour in comps and $10 free just for getting into a game. Players get preferred parking and there were a ton of promotions, including freerolls. Ask about the “overs” game and look for the cashier just outside the poker room. Tournaments are cheap and generally twice a day.

Lake Elsinore Casino | 951-674-3101
lercasino.com | @pokeratthelake
While just about every poker room manager will tell you their room is the friendliest, Lake Elsinore puts it in writing. The slogan on its website reads: California’s Friendliest Cardroom. Affordable tournaments are king at the Lake, including $20 events that have a $1K guarantee every day at 10 a.m. except Friday (when they have a $3K guarantee re-entry event for $30) and Sunday. These events have two $5 rebuys and a $5 add-on, plus $20 per-table bounty and 1,500 starting chips. Levels are 20 minutes for the first three rounds, 15 minutes thereafter. Ask how you can qualify this month for a 50-player $25K guarantee event. Also, the Lake has bad beats in hold’em, Omaha and stud games.

Soboba | 951-665-1000
soboba.net | @sobobacasino
Just as Ante Up rolled off the presses Soboba wrapped up its $125 C.A.S.A. charity event, featuring 2007 World Series of Poker champ Jerry Yang (who also put on a free 30-minute Q&A clinic and gave away autographed copies of his book with every entry), on Jan. 28. The 14-table poker room has a relaxed atmosphere and even Player Appreciation Days (ask for details). There’s a snack bar with breakfast and dinner specials, and the usual games are spread (limit and no-limit hold’em, Omaha with and without kills).

Quechan Casino | 877-783-2426
playqcr.net
This 10-table room opens daily at 10 a.m., but at 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. The tournament that caught our eye was the $75 event with a $5K guarantee twice a month on Saturdays. Another cool attribute for Quechen is its website lists the poker room’s “13 rules to live by,” a nice way for you to brush up on what to expect when you visit. One rule you might want to be familiar with is Rule 13: Blind chopping is not permitted. So if you’re in a cash game don’t muck those cards thinking you’ll get your small blind back.
There are plenty of promotions to go around as well, with Aces Cracked Wednesdays and Splash the Pot Thursdays, among others.

Lucky Lady Card Room | 619-287-6690
luckyladycardroom.com
A smallish San Diego room (five nice tables), Lucky Lady has convenient parking and the same 10 a.m., $25 NLHE tournament every day. It has 4K chips, one $20 rebuy in the first three levels (4K chips) and 15-minute blinds. You can usually find $3-$6 limit hold’em and NLHE up to $5-$10, and there’s Omaha and lowball (upon request).

Village Club | 619-425-3333
vccardroom.com | @villageclubcr
The Village Club, just east of I-5 in Chula Vista (about halfway between downtown San Diego and Tijuana), has been around since 1946 and has the usual hold’em and Omaha cash games on its seven tables. Jackpots have paid more than $1 million since inception. The events are affordable and World Series of Poker seats have been given to tournament winners in the past.

Palomar Card Club | 619-280-5828
palomarcardclub.net
A seven-table room, Palomar is in San Diego and offers valet parking and plenty of large-screen TVs. The best promotion is the Early Bird Special, which pays $40 after playing cash games from 9 a.m. till noon. Also, $3-$6 limit players earn $20 food comps all day. Speaking of food, they have vending machines and a deli case, but if you’re not happy with the selection then they’ll run out to a local eatery and pick up your order.

Spotlight 29 Casino | 760-775-5566
spotlight29.com | @spotlight29
Just southeast of the Palm Springs area off I-10, Spotlight has eight tables and tons of promotions, including many centered around, yes you guessed it, $29. We like the Two Dollar Tuesdays, however, when the max rake on limit games is $2, including Omaha. The poker room also hosts the Coachella Valley Championship, recently concluded with its $100K prize pool.