The Normandie Casino has been rumored to be an acquisition of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Casino. If this happens, the Gardena poker legacy will be gone, and all that will be left is one corporation controlling the remaining two.
Poker started in Gardena in 1936 with legendary card club owners Ernie Primm and Russ Miller, the patriarch of the Miller family who own the Normandie.
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 vanish 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.
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 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 involved the owners. 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.
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 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 – 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 60th 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 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 billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Twitter: @thechipburner. Email: [email protected]