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Emeryville. A gritty-sounding name for a seedy little city tucked among mud flats between Oakland and Berkeley on the wrong side of San Francisco Bay. Its 3� square miles are home to 5,000 people; its history has been shaped by political machines and machinations reminiscent of Tammany Hall. Although Emeryville has enjoyed a recent spate of development, a 1968 study termed it "the least prestigious place to live in the Bay Area."
Emeryville was named after Joseph S. Emery, a gold-rusher who bought 200 acres in the area in 1859 for $8,000" and parlayed them into a small empire. Its principal distinction is the fact that it has more legal poker rooms (six) than churches (one, the House of Prayer Church). What's more, a game often played in the Emeryville poker rooms, no-limit draw poker, is one seldom found anywhere else nowadays. In draw poker there's normally a fixed limit—$2 or $4 or $10—on what a player can bet or raise, but in the toughest of the Emeryville draw-poker games, the only limit on the amount a player can bet or raise is what he has in front of him.
"There are crocodiles and minnows on this street," says John Marvin, owner of the Key Card Club on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville, "and sooner or later the crocodiles eat up the minnows."
It is fitting that no-limit draw poker—the game legend says Wild Bill Hickok was playing that fatal night he was killed holding aces and eights—should be flourishing in Emeryville when elsewhere it has gone the way of the horse and buggy, for Emeryville grew out of the gambling spirit of the Old West. Indeed, in large part it owes its existence as a city to gambling. Originally, Emeryville was an unincorporated stretch of Alameda County. By October 1896, the owners of the Oakland Trotting Park—later called the California Jockey Club—had grown tired of interference in their operations from the Alameda County sheriffs office. With the support of local slaughterhouse workers, the owners successfully petitioned the county for incorporation. Five weeks later, 150 citizens voted for cityhood, 28 against. Emeryville's first city council included the Trotting Park's track manager and a jockey turned racehorse owner. Its city hall was built in 1903 with funds donated by the track—the proceeds of one day's business.
When the California legislature outlawed track betting in 1909, the Trotting Park closed down. Betting didn't stop, though, it just went underground, to "bucket shops." (Originally, these were offices where illegal or highly speculative stocks were pitched—the bogus ticker tape fell into a bucket.) Shielded by strategically placed lookouts, patrons could wager on the daily races in Tijuana, Mexico and New Orleans. To pass the time while they sweated out the telegraphed returns, the gamblers often played poker or shot craps. Prohibition only added to Emeryville's attractions for gamblers: They had little trouble getting a drink, because the town's convenient shoreline and warehouses made it a prime location for bootlegging operations on the West Coast. In a 1932 raid the sheriffs office discovered 565 gallons of alcohol in a garage used by the Emeryville police department.
"A municipality of iniquity, [a] modern Gomorrah...[a] principality of vice" is what the Oakland Observer called Emeryville in 1925. Two years later a young Alameda County district attorney named Earl Warren launched a crackdown on bucket-shop gambling in what he called "the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast."
The future Chief Justice's raids had little permanent effect, though, and gambling flourished in Emeryville throughout the '30s and '40s. Cliff Seagraves, managing partner of the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville since 1963, fondly remembers Joe the Bake, who died three years ago at the age of 94. During the '30s and '40s Joe the Bake operated a bookie joint upstairs at the Oaks; poker was played on the main floor. There is still a secret passage running from Seagraves's office, which had been Joe the Bake's betting parlor, to what was then a Chinese laundry next door. Thus did the Bake's clientele escape from unsporting lawmen.
Marvin tells of the slot machines and craps games at the Key club in the '30s and '40s. By 1962 illegal gambling was so widespread that Emeryville city attorney William Quinn felt compelled to draft an ordinance making it unlawful to gamble with dice in a public place or to bet money upon the result of a game—even though such activities had been illegal under California state law since 1872.
The axis of Emeryville gambling has always been San Pablo Avenue. The Oakland Trotting Park was on San Pablo; the bucket shops were on San Pablo; and today the city's three major card clubs—the Oaks, the Key and the Santa Fe—are also on what locals call "the Street." In the old days, the poker playing often took place in a back room, along with "any [other activity] the owners could get away with," says one Key club employee. Now the Emeryville card games are played openly.
The Oaks, the Key and the Santa Fe are a study in contrasts. At the Oaks, Mercedes and Cadillac cars are commonplace in the parking lots. Inside, $1.5 million worth of remodeling and expansion have recently been completed. Seagraves and promotion director Bob Quinn have aggressively solicited well-heeled businessmen from San Francisco and Oakland, as well as other high rollers.