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.
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.