The History of Hold-em in California

The History of Hold-em in California

The Beginning – 1987

In 1986 there was only 3 places in America where it was legal to play hold-em.  They were Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe, all in Nevada.  It would be 6 years before Atlantic City would legalize poker.

It was January 1987, and my  phone rang.  It was Alan Elrod, a friend of mine who was a movie distributor.  “I heard that California is going to allow hold-em.  Let’s go check it out.  I’ll drive,” he offered.  Alan was one of those drivers that darted in and out of traffic to make headway.  He would curse at the other drivers and stress you out as well.  As I was contemplating this dubious offer, he urged, “Come on, the cardrooms there are huge.”  I agreed to go, and he said, “good, I’ll come pick you up.”

When I first stepped into the Bicycle Casino,  I was blown away.  The place seemed to have more poker games than all of Las Vegas.  With over 100 poker tables, the place was packed.  What was even more fascinating was their top section.  There was 4 $75-150 lowball games and a $100-200 game that had 40 names on the list.  In Vegas, we had to combine games to have a $50-100 or a $100-200 half stud and half hold-em game.  The only time there was a $100-200 hold-em was during the WSOP in the spring and the Hall of Fame in the fall when the Akron crew would come to town led by Akron John.  After the Super Bowl, there was the Amarillo Super Bowl of Poker so there was action then as well.

The general story was that the Huntington Park Casino had spread Texas hold-em.  The Gaming Commission had raided the place and shut down the “illegal” game.  The casino had taken it to court.

Gambling in California was regulated by and still is Penal Code 330.  It has been updated but back in the day it allowed only games of skill but banned house banking games and a list of 14 games.  On that list was stud horse poker and 21.  Blackjack is allowed, just not to 21.  The ban of stud horse poker kept California poker limited to draw games for over 40 years.

Stud Horse Poker

Huntington Park Casino brought several experts as witnesses.  The most notable was Mike Caro, the “Mad Genius.”  Every one of them said they not only had never heard of stud horse poker but had no idea what it was.

The consensus was the judge was going to rule in favor of the casino.  As I left the Bike after losing $10k in a 3-day session, I knew I would be coming back.

Hold-em is Legal

It was announced that the judge had ruled that hold-em and other poker games was not stud horse poker and would be allowed.  The Gaming Commission still had to set up the regulations.  By the time, the Bike was ready to spread hold-em, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) was right around the corner on May 1.  It was still the calm before the storm, so I decided to head to California.

I had known Steve Margolies from previous tournaments in Nevada and we started an interest list.  Finally, we started a 5 handed 50-100 hold-em game with Mike Caro and Mark Weitzman, a lowball superstar.  David Hayano, a professor at CSUN who used to come to Lake Tahoe in the summers to play hold-em was the 5th player.  The table was next to the steps leading down to the floor so many players stopped by to observe but then would continue to their lowball game.  We played for several hours but I can’t remember if we ever picked up another player.

When I returned after the WSOP, I knew the only way to have the lowball players join in would be to play half and half.  It has worked in Las Vegas when we combined stud and hold-em.  The key to starting a poker game is to have everyone think they had an advantage.  The lowball would have to be higher as there was only 2 betting rounds so, we started with $100-200 hold-em and $200-400 lowball.  Lowball had 3 blinds so I thought we should have 3 blinds in the hold-em.  It didn’t take long for the action to heat up.  Frank Henderson had placed 2nd in the WSOP Main Event, and he played a key part in getting the action going.  He had a theory that it was ok to trail (call a raise) with a draw to a 9 if you could lay it down after the draw even if you made it.  I didn’t point out that he would have a worst draw every time.  He was from Houston, Texas where no limit hold-em was king.  Limit hold-em which is a completely different game was not his forte either.  I missed the early days of online poker, but I doubt if there was or ever will be another time in history when there would be so many novice high limit players with big bankrolls.  The $100-200 lowball games would have 40 names on the list so over 40 would be a reasonable estimate.  My lowball was not as good as the California pros but I had a huge advantage on the Vegas players because their only experience was with 2-7 lowball.  They thought a 9 was a great hand and would never break a 10.  Often you could have a draw to a good six or a wheel with the joker and get 5-way action for multiple bets.  I observed top players like Puggy Pearson 4-bet with a pat 9 instead of folding repeatedly.  Because lowball is an 8-handed game, the high limit hold-em games were kept at 8 handed also.

Many of the Vegas players thought the time collection was too high since California was twice as high and that kept many of them from coming over.  The action was tremendous but there was one notable game I almost missed.  I had gone out to dinner and had decided to stop by to check out the action.  We didn’t have the benefit of cell phones or apps to stay updated.  As I walked in, a group of players were starting a game.  I got the 8th and last seat.  Most of them were lowball players but they had decided to play straight $300-600 hold-em.  Frank Henderson was live, and Eric Drache was not a hold-em player either.  I was salivating.

One hand that came up early occurred when I was on the button.  The entire table had limped in, so I called $200 more with the 8-3 of diamonds since I already had a $100 blind.  Frank on my left raised out of the middle blind.  The entire table called.  The flop came KQ2, all diamonds.  Frank made a continuation bet and there were 3 callers.  I wanted to raise out a medium flush draw and knew that Frank would reraise with a set, so I raised.  He just called; one player folded but the other 2 called again.  The turn came a blank and it was checked to me, so I bet, and they all called.  The river paired Queens.  Frank bet out and got 2 calls.  I thought Frank had only trips with the A of diamonds and if either of the other 2 had filled up they would have raised, so I raised.  He moaned and gave a crying call.  The kings called and the other trip queens, tanked but finally folded after he showed his hand.  I said flush and turned it over.  Frank showed the AQ of hearts.  The other player didn’t have a diamond nor did the other trips.  On 4th street, everyone had been drawing dead in a $14k pot!

The game had started at 10 pm and by midnight I was up $50k.  The sick thing is that about 2 am it was short-handed, and we changed the game to $400-800 stud and hold-em.  I went up and down and when I finally quit at noon, I was back up to $45k. I could have blown a huge win.  Youth is wasted on the young.

I had also bought a brand new house in early 1987 in Las Vegas.  Putting in the pool cost $22,000.  I got a quote for landscaping which was also $22,000.  Since the WSOP, I had been successful in L.A. so I thought I would go over for the weekend to win enough to pay for the landscaping.  I put in 3 sessions and when I was ready to return home, I tallied up my winnings.  It was exciting but I thought I must have made a mistake, so I did it a couple of more times.  Yep, in $200-400 limit, I had won $90,000 in a weekend!  Now I could not only put in the landscaping but wooden shutters instead of cheap blinds.  I also bought an elegant dining room set from Ethan Allen’s.

In 1982, I spent the summer in Vegas but swore never to do it again.  The previous 4 summers I had spent in Lake Tahoe, but that was before L.A. opened up.  This summer, I lived in the Embassy Suites in Downey for 3 months.

A Dangerous Pastime

A Dangerous Pastime

On television all over the world, poker is no longer a subculture but mainstream.  Back in its infancy in the 70’s and still to this day, poker players came from all walks of life in every shape, size, ethnicity, and gender.  It is a competition, but it is a competition to win your opponent’s money which brings a timeless adage into play: “Money is the root of all evil.”

Razz-ma-tazz Terry                                                                                   

His afro was bushier, his moustache more fuller drooping down like a fu manchu, and his complexion was coarse.  He didn’t wear glasses, but his eyes were steely.  Wearing a lumberman’s shirt, he was boisterous.  Despite his friendliness, he had a hard look.  You could tell by his demeanor that patience was not his virtue and playing tight was not in his playbook.  This image of Weird Al reminds me of Terry from my days in the $2 lowball game at the Recreation Card Room in Vancouver, WA when I was 20 years old.  He was also the 1st murderer I had ever met.

The cardrooms in Washington State were limited to 5 tables, 5 card games, and a $2 limit.  It was considered to be a marketing tool and had to close at 2 am when liquor could no longer be sold.  That opened the market for after hours games.  In Oregon, poker games were a misdemeanor whereas in Washington, it was a felony.  It made sense to go across the Columbia River.  One of the games I went to was in North Portland. It was a dilapidated house, but we had a table, chips, cards, and players and the game was on.  I don’t recall Old Man Charlie, but I heard he used to carry about 3 thousand cash on him regularly.  His body had been moved but the police tracked the scene of the murder to the basement where we played.  He had been sleeping when he was stabbed 17 times and robbed.  Terry’s girlfriend turned state’s evidence and he was sentenced to life.

The Oregon City Motel

 The $2 limit games became too small and there was action in a motel in Oregon City.  The only reason it was so far away, I surmised is that the Portland police were not keen on poker games in their city.  It was 30 miles from Vancouver.  It could have been the Bates Motel, but the parking lot was a large dirt and gravel area.  It was late in the morning and we were down to 3 of us.  Skyrocket, due to his propensity to run up his chips and then explode was winning most of the chips.  Big Ron was 6’8, 300 lbs., a bad player and a poor loser.  He had recently been released from prison for murder.  Yes, he had a bad temper.

The pot had been raised pre-flop by Skyrocket and there was an ace on the flop but not much else.  I wasn’t in the hand, but I felt this might be the last hand.  After they both checked to the river, Skyrocket bet Ron’s $100 remaining chips.  Ron went into the tank for 5 minutes.  It was obvious he didn’t have much.  When he finally grudgingly called, Skyrocket said, “I only have an ace, no kicker.”  To me that sounded like a slow roll, so I said, “Of course, that’s good.”  As I’m watching Skyrocket pull in the pot, I hear an edgy voice ask, “Do you want to bet your f**king life, it’s good?”  I turn my head to my right, and Ron has a brass knuckle with razors on the end of each knuckle a few inches from my face.  As tired as I had been, my amygdala sprung into action.  I know there is a loaded shotgun 20 feet away propped up in the corner of the room.  The problem is I had never held it, nor did I know where the safety was located.  That 1 or 2 seconds it took, may very well seal my fate as he was physically too heavy for me to handle. All this took but 1 second, and I said in a calm, cool tone, “No I don’t.”  Ron put down his arm and said, “Ok, then” but he looked disappointed.  I did borrow a .22 from a friend when I returned to the game that night, but I didn’t think that was going to be enough.

Another night I was playing with Dan.  He was cross-eyed and could have played a pirate.  He was about 6 feet and slightly overweight with a thinning hairline in his mid-thirties.  He was a bad player but didn’t complain as he kept rebuying.  After he finally went broke, he left only to come back a couple of hours later.  He asked if anyone wanted to buy a box of sterling silver.  It was dark out by the trunk of his car, but I could see a very large number of flatware, so I asked him how much?  He said $500.  I didn’t know the value of the sterling silver although I would in a couple of years but that’s another story.  I decided it didn’t matter because Dan couldn’t win, and I had been the one beating him.  After he went broke, he left again and this time he came back with a trunk full of hollow ware.  Although the hollow ware took up the space of the entire trunk, I realized it was less silver and offered him $400 which he accepted.  It didn’t take long for me to felt him again.  I thought I had a great night.  I put the silver up in the back of my closet and was exhilarated by the cash I had won.  The silver would become a silver lining, but the Dan saga would become a horrific tale.

Several months had gone by when I heard Dan stabbed a player in downtown Vancouver.  If he would stab someone right on the street, I wondered what he could have done in a remote, dark parking lot?  I considered myself lucky and to not put myself in jeopardy.  Then the terrible news broke one night.  A friend name Diane was telling me that a mutual friend was fighting for her life with ¾ of her lungs blown away.  Darlene and another girl were dealing blackjack to Dan in a remote house in the woods.  He said he was going to his car to get more money.  Coming back with a shotgun, he had both girls lie face down and shot them both at point blank range.  The other girl never moved but Darlene was able to crawl to her car and drive a mile to the nearest neighbor for help.  That was over 40 years ago, but Darlene has been happily married and made a success of her life.


 I can’t remember his exact name, but it was a name that was Ivy League.  He was a 6’4” college basketball player of mixed parentage, handsome and an engaging smile.  He was so cautious that he would chide me when I took off as soon as the light turned green.  You’ve got to allow for the drivers that are trying to beat the red light, he said.  We partnered up in a couple of after hour games, but poker was not his forte.  I could see he wouldn’t even be able to repay the $1500 he owed me, and we went our separate ways.

Several months went by  and then I heard about his painful end.  He had gotten mixed up with a father and son who were passing stolen money orders.  They found out he was turning state’s evidence and brutally tortured him.  When the authorities fished Carlton out of the lake, his knees were disjointed and one of his eyeballs was popped out of the socket.  The father and son were sentenced to life when one of the girlfriends turned state’s evidence.

Deaf Arnie

I heard he was killed by a machine gun when his game got hijacked but I was never able to verify this story.

Herbert J Coddington III

 I developed a loose theory that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to name someone the III as they may have problems developing their own identity. These next 2 people are examples.

Herb was an antisocial poker player.  He had no social skills at the table and would overreact aggressively to anyone that was smoking near him.  He soundproofed his cabin in Lake Tahoe, where he took a teenage model to sexually assault and murdered her chaperone. They tracked him by his license plate.

Ernest Scherer III

I labeled him a sociopath early on.  I had lost $20k in 20 minutes after just starting a game and then I had to go into a meeting.  I wrote a marker to cover the $20k I owed Ernie.  When I came back out, the game had broken and Ernie yells at me for his money and complained because I was keeping him from watching the opening kickoff.  To say the least, I lost it with him.

I had just lost 20k and he was upset he missed a kickoff.

He and his father had a strange relationship.  They both played a couple of times together in my game.  The father played very tight, too tight.  Ernie was exactly the opposite.  They both played their normal game regardless of the opponent.  The father didn’t show any emotion on his son’s reckless play.  Ernie was extremely polite to his father which seemed contrite and out of character.  He obviously did not want to upset him but was being overly cautious.  One time Ernie was losing about $25k in a very good game at my place, the Bike.  His father was playing at the Commerce Casino and preparing to go to the airport to fly home to Northern California.  Ernie insisted on cashing out to drive him to the airport.  If it had been me, I would have paid for his taxi or hired a driver.

The brutality of the manner in which he butchered his parents would churn anyone’s stomach.  After 3 months had gone by and he hadn’t been arrested, he thought he may have gotten away with it.  There was never any sign of remorse or mourning.  I’m sure his only regret was he was so close to getting his hands on $1.5 million.



When My Team Puts A Tee in The Ground We Finish

It was August 1989 and 32 poker players had gathered in Lake Tahoe for the 2nd Annual Yosh Nakano Invitational Golf Tournament. The venue was the picturesque Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course bordering the beautiful lake. Some of the top poker players in the world were there but poker was the devil I knew. I was a babe in the woods in this field of some of the top golf hustlers in the world. When I announced in my invitation “Gentlemen, the game is Golf”, little did I understand what that entailed.

The par 3 17th green at Edgewood Tahoe

I never won playing my own ball. I was never given nearly enough strokes and I always played against someone’s “career” best. Somewhere along the way, I began to realize what Curt Knight meant when he said he was too honest to play golf. Duh! I should have given up golf, but quitting was not in my nature. I had heard about scrambles, but I had no idea what that meant. Since Google was not around yet, I began asking around about scrambles. After I gathered sufficient information, I thought perhaps this was a way I might have a chance to win or at least get a fair match. Forthwith came the 1st Annual Yosh Nakano Invitational Golf Tournament in 1988 hosted by Caesars Tahoe.

This year the weather was ominous on the morning of the practice round. The skies were dark and overcast and rain looked imminent. Worse than that, it was very cold- freezing cold. I was worried the weather would ruin the tournament. Breakfast was very animated as players tried to negotiate matches. Finally, Doyle said his team would be Chip Reese, Rich Dunberg, and John Esposito as his A player. My team was David Baxter, Gary Lundgren, and Champ (David Roepke). We would play a 4-man scramble match play with one automatic press on each side. This means that if one team was up 2 holes, another bet would automatically start. The betting format was called a Nassau. There was one bet for the front 9, one bet for the back 9, one overall bet, and 2 presses on each side. If no one doubled the bet, one team could win as many as 5 bets. I had just met Champ, but I was told he was a scratch. David and Gary were high 70’s shooters. I was a nonfactor in golf, but I was the “action” that would bet enough to “lure” Doyle and Chip to play the match. This was essentially a 3 on 4 match, but if my team was willing to gamble so was I. I asked, “What do we do if it rains?” Doyle in his typical Texas bravado fashion drawled, “When my team sticks a tee in the ground, we finish!”

Looking around the pro shop for raingear, I came across woolen golf caps that had flaps for the ears that could be tied down. I don’t remember what else I wore that day but we looked like a motley crew going ice fishing wearing those caps, not golfing.

It started drizzling after only a few holes. A couple of times, it hailed. The rain was bad enough but when it is also frigid, the misery is accentuated. It was going to be a long day. On the flip side I had another new experience which was hog’s heaven-playing with a scratch golfer as a partner. I would hit a tee shot and go pick my ball up. After the iron shot, I would again pick up my ball and go to the green with my putter. I didn’t realize golf was so easy! Now once on the green, it became tricky. It’s impossible to putt on a wet green. You must putt the ball up above the water toward the hole. We must have been able to do that better than Doyle’s team because after nine holes we were up either 4-2 or 3-1. That means we had won 2 bets and had a decent lead for the 18. By then the rain had been falling steadily and we headed into the clubhouse to warm up and get out of the rain albeit momentarily.

Back inside, Doyle’s team looked decrepit. They were sprawled in their chairs, with somber faces as we came in beaming and ordered hot chocolate. After we finished our hot drinks, I asked Doyle if they were ready. Esposito who has a loud firm voice said, “Listen, I have a wife and kids to think about. I’m not going back out there. I am not going to die over some stupid golf match.” I’m sure we were all relieved not to have to go back out into that wretched weather but I couldn’t help one parting jab. “Doyle, I thought you said when your team puts a tee in the ground you finish?” Little did I realize that Doyle was already plotting his rematch.

At the end of Day 1, we are sweating Doyle’s team of Randy Kunert, Bernie, & Tab who has a 20-footer for birdie on the 18th. Doyle has bet Esposito & I his team against every other team for $5k each. If they make it, he breaks even. If they miss he will lose $25k. It came down to their last putter, Tab who drained it. L-R John Esposito, Yosh Nakano, Mike Picow, Tommy Fischer, Puggy Pearson, Joe Bernier, Rich Dunberg (ear flaps cap), Wally Nakano, unk, Joe Nakano, Fred, unk.

In Memoriam Gary Mark Lundren Nov. 15, 1957- Mar. 7, 2018

I know I was a heavy load, but you carried me as your partner from Industry Hills to Ojai to as far as Australia.  We played in the rain and hail and finished 36 holes sometimes in pitch dark.  60 is too young but the science of glutathione (GSH) was not available to us in our youth.  We paid the price for our lifestyles that led to glutathione deficiency.  That led to oxidative stress which caused my diabetes.  For you it manifested itself in cancer.  Our product came out in 2010.  I will always wonder if it could have helped.  RIP.

The $7500 Joke

We were playing $400-$800 limit HORSE with Jerry Buss at the Bike where I was the High Limit Host. A couple of the guys told a joke.

I said I got one. A guy goes to his doctor and says I feel terrible, Doc, can you check me out? The Doctor said let’s take some tests and see what is the problem.

The guy comes back but gets worried when he sees the Doctor has a very sad face. “Doc, what’s wrong?” The Doctor says I’m sorry but I have very bad news. Well spit it out, Doc. The Doctor says you have AIDs, syphilis, and cancer and you have only 6 months to live. The guy drops to his knees and starts crying and pleads to the Doctor, “please, please, Doc, there must be something you can do for me?” The Doctor thinks and says there is one thing I can advise. The guy excitedly says, “What is it?” “Well, you could marry a fat broad that will constantly nag you and move to Des Moines, Iowa.” The guy is puzzled by the advice and asks, “how will that save my life?” The Doctor says, “it won’t save your life, but it will make the next 6 months seem like eternity.”

“I’ll bet that,” I hear. I looked up and it’s Johnny “World” Hennigan. “What?”, I asked. “Bet what? That was a joke.” “I’ll bet that I can spend one month in Des Moines,” World responds.

Interesting I thought. World was an action junkie who was betting $5k a game on the NBA. In the game we were playing regularly each hand cost $4k. John had “forced” me to bet $5k that he could quit smoking for 2 weeks. I don’t like to bet on activities where someone will have to do something unhealthy for me to win so I declined. He reminded me that he had given me a tip where I was a favorite and won $45k getting 3-1 odds. After he threatened not to give me another bet, I reluctantly accepted. 20 minutes later he asked for a settlement. “No, John, after we went through all that, let’s just keep the bet.” 10 minutes after that, he tossed me a $1k chip and said the bet is settled and went out to smoke. Willpower did not seem to be his strength.

The key to winning this bet would have to be size. The amount could not be too large but it would have to be big enough for him to accept. $10k was still a buy-in for a tournament so the size of the bet would have to be between $5k and $10k. I offered $7500 and he accepted. This was in the spring and he had until the end of the year to complete the bet- spend 30 consecutive days in Des Moines. Of course, I didn’t realize it but he had already outsmarted me.

As soon as I saw the phone call the next morning was from Huck Seed, a feeling of dread came over me. I realized that I had overlooked a very important stipulation. Huck erased all doubt when he chirped, “Yosh, that was such a great bet I bet 15,000 on it.” I had failed to stipulate that John could not bet anyone else. I wished you just asked me for a piece I told Huck because now he has $22,500 at stake. We decided we were still favorites and Huck gave me the authority to settle the bet.

A few months go by and I get a call from John. “Well, I just checked in to the Holiday Inn and checked out the local pool hall. Looks like a pleasant place and I’m looking forward to drying out here for 30 days.” “Well, have a good time,” I replied.

Every couple of days he calls me with an update. After a week, I can sense the edginess and he brings up that he would be open to a settlement. “No John, if you win it you win it. Good luck to you,” I said. Now the calls seem to be more frequent and the edginess is clear as he keeps imploring me to offer a settlement. I keep saying no offer.

After 3 weeks in Des Moines, he calls me and he is very agitated. He says he has spent 3 weeks and even though it was killing him, he was determined to win the bet and finish out the last week so I should settle. He did spend 3 weeks and with only one more week left, it did appear he was going to win so I asked, “what are you offering?” “I’ll take half and you can be sure I will make it another week!” That was a savings of $3750 for me and $7500 for Huck. I know people that would have enjoyed the sadistic pleasure derived from making John suffer for another week but I decided a dollar saved was a dollar earned. I figured I was making $3750 so I said, “okay John the bet is settled”. He got the hell out of Dodge and did not stop at Go!

This is a room at the Des Moines Holiday Inn. John may have bluffed me. After 3 weeks he may not have been able to stand another week.

This story was not intended to offend any of the fine citizens of Des Moines, Iowa or any women with a weight problem. In fact, Chuck and Gena Norris endorse Meta-Switch for sustainable weight loss:

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