Why are there casinos in Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens?

Picture the inside of a casino. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? You don’t have to be a high roller in your spare time to stake a claim here. Thanks to pop culture and its gambling obsession, most of us — even the youngsters — would probably have to say something along the lines of “Vegas, baby!” Makes sense, given the notoriety of the Vegas strip as a hotbed for casino-style gambling and all the gilded glory that’s supposed to come with it.

So, when KCRW listener Chris Koenig drove past a couple of casinos less than 30 minutes outside of downtown L.A., she thought it was pretty weird. “Why are there casinos in Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens?” Koenig asked Curious Coast. “I thought the draw to Vegas was due to no legal gambling here.”

Gambling is technically legal under federal law, though Nevada is one of just two U.S. states that permits casino-style gambling across the board. (Louisiana is the other.) Other states, like New Jersey and California, still allow Vegas-style casino gambling to a certain extent, but it’s regulated pretty heavily and restricted to certain areas. In New Jersey, for example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a casino anywhere outside Atlantic City. In California, the casinos that emulate the typical “Vegas, baby!” gambling experience are relegated to tribal land, per the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

But Koenig was definitely onto something. Drive from downtown L.A. to Downey and you might see views similar to theVegas strip. First, there’s the Commerce Casino off the 5 in Commerce. Then, there’s the Bicycle Hotel & Casino off the 710 in Bell Gardens. And finally, just as the 605 is about to careen into south bay, there’s also the Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens nearby.

The thing is, if you’re in California and come across an establishment that’s calling itself a “casino,” chances are, it’s probably not the kind of casino you expected. In fact, technically speaking, the casinos Koenig saw in Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens aren’t actually casinos at all. They’re called card clubs, or card rooms.

Unlike Nevada, only certain forms of gambling are considered legal around Southern California. (And comparatively more of them are considered legal in tribal casinos, since native tribes are recognized by the state as sovereign entities.) State law regulates casino-style gambling by distinguishing “games of skill” from “games of luck.” So, while places like the Bicycle or  Gardens casinos might look like Vegas transplants to passersby, in reality, they’re a little different.

The differences basically boil down to the variety of games offered. After stepping inside, seasoned gaming aficionados will probably spot the most obvious one right away. There are no slot machines at card clubs like these.

Oh, and you know that saying, “the house always wins?” The infamous house edge takes a backseat in the card club schema. Where traditional Vegas-style casinos typically offer what’s called “house-banked” games — which means the house either pays or takes the player’s bet, and maybe wins a little bit too often — card clubs like the ones in Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens offer “player-banked” games, instead.

Player-banking allows card rooms to house forms of gambling that would otherwise be considered illegal under state law. How’s that, exactly? By eliminating the “house” concept entirely, and instead asking players to play against each other. Which means any and all card club patrons have a chance to wager as the dealer.

As far as the rules of the game are concerned, player-banking doesn’t have such a huge impact. You can still pull up a chair for a heated round of Pai Gow or blackjack during an evening spent inside the Gardens Casino’s cavernous first-floor game room, which has 225 tables equipped for a whole range of card games like Texas Hold’em, Seven Card Stud and Omahas.

In lieu of the house edge, card clubs like the Gardens and Bicycle Casinos derive revenues from service fees, charged to players per hand. Those service fees are important for a couple of reasons. One, they keep the card clubs themselves in business. And two, they actually help to generate revenues for the cities where they’re located.

According to the California Gaming Association, California card rooms collectively bring in more than $300 million in federal, state and local tax revenues every year. In some communities, like Commerce and Bell Gardens, local card clubs are the cities’ largest taxpayers. In others, like Hawaiian Gardens, card clubs provide their home city with the vast majority of its general tax fund.

In Hawaiian Gardens, revenues from the Gardens Casino make up 75 percent of the city’s annual budget. Those figures are slightly lower in Bell Gardens and Commerce, where the Bicycle Casino and Commerce Casino’s revenues comprise just under half of their respective city’s general funds. Without that money, community services like park maintenance, law enforcement and road repairs might not be possible in these smaller, less central L.A. county cities. And the city of Hawaiian Gardens would just about go for broke.

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