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Sitting Bull played tight poker. For 20 years that sedentary locksmith scalped and pillaged the three-and-six draw games in Gardena, Calif. Legend maintains that when Sitting Bull opened under the gun brave men with gambling blood in their veins tossed cold trips into the garbage, or, if the game was lowball, they folded rough sevens like pairs. I first heard of Sitting Bull in the late '40s when a Hollywood stunt man who fell off horses to pay for his poker infiltrated our regular Friday-night game in New York. He was a loose, action-loving, jovial, "must-call" pigeon who bet into one-card draws and showered chips on the pots with the enthusiasm of a best man tossing rice, but his disposition worsened with every stack until by check-writing time he was castigating us as lock artists and Sitting Bull's East Coast tribesmen. No possible run of cards could have staunched the ebb tide of his chips, and one night, alas, he tapped out permanently. But his stories of Sitting Bull's tightness were so memorable that on a recent trip to California I stopped off in Gardena, the nation's poker capital, in the hope of tracking down the legend of that patient card master.
My quest began at the Gardena Club. There, an affable 65-year-old poker player named Tex Tunnell expansively reminisced:
"Sitting Bull? Sure, I remember Sitting Bull. She was a rock! Tight as a coffin lid. Her real name was Sarah, I think. Can't be sure, though, 'cause like everyone else here she went by initials only. But once in a while she'd call herself Sarah. 'Sarah raises,' she'd say, or, 'Sarah's got a flush.' But Sitting Bull wasn't the lady to give out free information, so she may have been bluffing even about her name. She was a wisp of a thing. I put her at 105 pounds, tops. She was maybe 70 years old. A smart coyote's face she had, with cinnamon hair and a red ball of rouge on each cheek with lipstick to match. And she'd swab an inch of powder on her face so that the cards were always gettin' pink. She wore a green felt hat with a crimson feather, and she carried her own rubber cushion. She sure could sit on that thing. It's the women here, you know, that are the tightest. They're just thriftier, I guess. Some of these old female rocks can sit for hours and do nothing but ante. Now, take Sitting Bull. Tight? She squeaked. Why, it hurt her to ante. But a shrewd old fox, too. I still remember the time Nick the Greek tried to mix it with her. Sure I do. I happened to be the dealer and halfway responsible for what took place. What a play! It was jacks or better, you see, and...."
The restive, addicted spirits who haunt California's legalized poker parlors owe their sanctuaries to a careless 19th-century reformer. Enacted in 1872, the section of the California penal code that prohibits gaming says that "every person who deals, plays...any game of faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, rouge et noir, rondo, tan, fan-tan, stud-horse poker, seven and a half, 21, hokey-pokey...is guilty of a misdemeanor...." Draw poker, divinely spared from that list (some claim the oversight was intentional), was thus winkingly reasoned to be a game of skill rather than chance. Today several hundred public poker rooms litter the state, despite a number of attempts by image-conscious communities to dispose of them. Most are three-or four-table, small-stake, dreary honky-tonk dens in the back rooms of taverns, which are about as similar to the early West's traditional swinging-door poker saloons as the pretzel bowl on the bar is to the free-lunch counter. But in Gardena, 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, a benign city of 44,000 whose modest homes are daubed with Oriental tranquility by the landscaping talents of a large Nisei population, poker is the major industry. There, six frenetic 35-table clubs, the largest and most extravagant in California, offer asylum to pious bands of poker pilgrims who regularly commute from Burbank or Hollywood or Long Beach or, occasionally, from Iowa or Texas.
In Gardena, unlike the old West, a rancher cannot toss into a pot a marker for his herd of Longhorns, for the city sets a ceiling on the stakes, and $20 limit is the steepest game. But this is hardly an imposition, for the typical Gardena veterans, those 50-to 70-year-old pensioners, play for considerably smaller stakes, and their gambling blood is cold and sluggishly congealed. Indeed, gambling seems only a partial motive for their play. What matters as much to these veterans, apparently, is the sense of belonging, the respect that even a friendless dullard commands by saying, "I raise," and the opportunity the clubs afford them to shuffle through later life with their coevals, however competitive or hostile that mingling may be. The Gardena poker tables, for these habitu�s, are the counterparts of the shuffleboard courts in St. Petersburg, Fla. or the brokerage offices where threadbare 20-share partners in General Motors study the tape and argue the trend of the highflyers. Five days a week, from 9 to 5—9 a.m. to 5 a.m.—and on Sundays from one p.m. to 5 a.m., the Gardena clubs shelter their clientele. One day a week the clubs close, but they mercifully stagger that day among them, lest withdrawal tortures beset their poker-hooked patrons. Only the addition of beds and liquor is needed to make the clubs completely viable. As it is, they provide TV lounges (color), electric shavers for all-night players with morning jobs and restaurants that offer cheese blintzes, filet mignons and mimeographed news bulletins apprising the shut-ins of such trivia as World Series results, presidential elections and peace feelers from Hanoi.
The Gardena Club is one of the busiest poker parlors in town, imposingly situated on a main thoroughfare. It is a long, one-story, modern structure with two front doors, one at the back serving the parking lot and the other on Western Avenue serving that California anomaly, the pedestrian. Contrasted with the Miami-rococo gaming shrines that vex the eye in Las Vegas, the Gardena Club's exterior, particularly in daylight, is discreet, almost placid. At night, minus the sun's competition, the club's beacon for the poker-thirsting—a 40-foot tower of multicolored bulbs that blink themselves into a cloverleaf—agitates the surrounding atmosphere, but not even that suggests the frenzy within.
The center of action is the club's cardroom, 60 by 120 feet, approximately. A hip-high barrier running along its length on one side corrals the players and, on the other, forms an aisle through which flows the club's incessant traffic. Leaning upon the aluminum rail that tops the barrier, clusters of two or three kibitzers, or "railbirds," negligently watch the progress of the small-stake games that skirt the rim (the higher-stake games are toward the center of the room) while they perform endless postmortems on yesterday's crucial hands. "I would have played pat and come out betting," advises one railbird. "Sure, sure, you would have," retorts the other. "Is that why they call you Chicken Charley?" Behind them, in the aisle, parade the incoming hopefuls, the departing losers and the club's nongambling restaurant trade. Midway along the aisle, on a low platform, two club employees, boardmen, in blue monogrammed blazers, inscribe on one of two blackboards the initials of patrons awaiting seats and the particular games they wish. Several more blue-jacketed employees, floormen, vigilantly patrol the playing area. They are the supreme arbiters of disputed pots and can recite on request the 40 house rules listed in the club's brochure. Keen-visioned, agile men, the floormen can spot a spinster dealing seconds or catch in midair a deck hurled by a temperamental loser. The floorman's main task, however, is to see that the tables are filled. When a seat becomes vacant he scans the blackboard and calls out stridently, "H.R. to one-and-two draw," or "D.M., your three-and-six lowball seat is ready," whereupon a sheep or wolf enters the fold. Meanwhile, weaving among the tables, the chip girls, slightly sway-backed under the seven pounds of chips in their apron pouches, deliver sustenance—food or stacks—to the needy.
Ordinarily, a well-bred man entering a room where a poker game is in progress, even if he has come to play, is deferential to the ritual at hand. He feels uneasy, vaguely intrusive, like a latecomer finding his seat at a concert by the Budapest String Quartet. Only a boor will say hello to a man squeezing cards. But entering the Gardena Club I felt no such timidity. So intent were the players, so fixed was the action, that it was immediately clear I could come or go or dance a hornpipe on the ceiling without disturbing the play. The club's 35 tables were filled, eight players at a table, 280 souls at poker—a third of them apparently female—and it was 11 o'clock on a sunny Thursday morning. Now, marathon poker is a splendid game and I've played my share of it—60-hour sessions that dwindled down to three bearded losers haggling over cigarette butts. Once I lost 10 blue chips to a player who bet me that the pale light we happened to notice filtering through the curtains was dusk, not dawn. But as I leaned on the clubroom railing that Thursday morning and looked for the first time at the Gardena players the notion struck me that the inhabitants of this room had been shuffling, cutting and squeezing their cards not for 60 hours, or even for 60 years, but forever—as though in some prehistoric age they had been quick-frozen and tucked into a time capsule until, thawed by the California sun, they resumed their play heedless of the interruption. The isolating effect of sound suppressed by carpeting and ice-blue fluorescent light bleaching the faces enhanced this illusion of timelessness. Presently, however, the real world interposed, and I turned to the man alongside me, the aforementioned poker raconteur, Tex Tunnell.
"What are the stakes like?" I asked.
"Try the top sirloin," he said dryly.