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Second Chance Suite

True-life tales of luck, magic, and death

The Regular

In Gardena, there were no windows, no alcohol, and no sounds beyond the low murmurings of gaming, the clicks of chips on felt. An anonymous suburb seventeen miles due south of the Hollywood Sign, known, if at all, for its plastics factories, Gardena also happened to contain 210 poker tables spread across six clubs that stayed open 365 days a year, including Christmas. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of paradise, but there was nothing else like it on earth.

These tables produced a constellation of icons answerable only to their aliases: Lakewood Louie, Vegetable Joe, Dandruff Dan. One of the most respected players was a wizened woman named Sitting Bull who wore a green felt hat with a crimson feather and sat on her own rubber cushion. According to legend, she snapped off Nick the Greek in his prime.

By the 1970s, “Crazy Mike” Caro was the best of the new breed. He’d come to Gardena at twenty-two by way of Denver and Joplin, Missouri. The old-time Texas champ Doyle Brunson, an admirer of Caro’s, remarked that he looked like Charles Manson. Where older players still regarded poker as a game of instinct and experience, Caro saw it as a calculation of probability, psychology, and risk management. He was possessed by five-card draw poker as Schrödinger was possessed by quantum physics.

Caro made careful observation of the timbre games took just before 4 a.m., when the clubs closed for a few hours. Management would announce that the last hand was approaching, and pots grew exponentially. “It was a gold mine, those final minutes before closing,” said Caro. “I learned that average players have a primal urge to get even before they go home. They don’t understand that tomorrow will be a continuation of one endless poker session, and that what’s about to happen is just an intermission—like taking a long coffee break.”

Gardena’s poker clubs were the product of a legal loophole in California’s 1872 gaming legislation, which outlawed gambling but made an exception for the specific style of draw poker. (Draw poker being the preferred game among nineteenth-century legislators.) No California localities abided poker except Gardena, where a savvy investor named Ernest Primm exerted enough pressure to earn a permit for his first club in 1936. By the 1960s, the Gardena clubs numbered six: the Rainbow, the Monterey, the Normandie, the Horseshoe, the Gardena, and the El Dorado.

With its free meals and cocktails and stage shows, Vegas catered to losers. Gardena catered to regulars. It offered them nothing but poker. Instead of taking a percentage, the clubs made money by selling time. Every half hour, a red light would appear on the clock and players would hand a few dollars in chips to roving “chip girls” who deposited the rent into their sagging aprons.

Games moved swiftly in stuffy, cheerless rooms filled with irritable pensioners paying in hours. If conversation was kept to a minimum, players could run forty or fifty hands an hour. Coffee was the only available beverage. Some sipped soup from thermoses to prevent the need to leave for meals. “Gardena,” remarked one professional, “was not a place to play poker for fun.”

Unlike Vegas, where the aggressive No Limit games attracted only card sharks and novices, the drab atmosphere of Gardena supported a food chain of players. At the low-stakes tables, subsistence-level pros eked out a living by preying on tourists, who lost small amounts consistently. At the high-stakes tables, winners preyed on action players, who occasionally bet large amounts recklessly. That the house didn’t have a stake in the games gave players a unique feeling of independence that didn’t exist in casinos.

With its free meals and cocktails and stage shows, Vegas catered to losers. Gardena catered to regulars.

The city made periodic efforts to oust the clubs by referendum, but poker always won the vote. Residents of Gardena enjoyed the lowest property tax rate in Los Angeles County. This equilibrium held until 1978, when California passed Proposition 13, restricting the ability of municipalities to raise property taxes. Gardena’s neighbors were suddenly hungry for new streams of revenue.

Beginning in 1980, bigger, shinier poker palaces sprouted in the cash-strapped suburbs of Bell and Commerce. In 1987, for the first time in 102 years, the California Supreme Court ruled that Hold’em and No Limit were games of skill and legal under state law. Once sanctioned, the popularity of these action-oriented variations made draw poker obsolete. “That was the end of old Gardena and its strangeness,” wrote Caro wistfully. He understood that a perfect subculture, like mold under sunlight, withers if exposed to too much logic.

Caro briefly tried Vegas but was soon back in Los Angeles. He became the chief poker strategist at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and then general manager of the new Huntington Park Casino. He published several tomes on poker strategy, including a best-selling taxonomy of poker tells. He rechristened himself the “Mad Genius of Poker” but never quite shook his reputation as Crazy Mike from Gardena. “The most difficult aspects of playing poker professionally,” he said, “are coping emotionally with the losses and coping with the recurring idea that you’re not doing anything worthwhile.”

The Gardena clubs closed one by one over the course of the 1980s. The El Dorado, the oldest of Primm’s original clubs, finally folded in 1996. Four years later, smut magnate Larry Flynt erected his Hustler Casino on its former site. Then, in 2016, he purchased the Normandie, the last of the original six, and renamed it Larry Flynt’s Lucky Lady Casino. Flynt had loved poker since his days in the Navy, when he had one of the biggest slush funds on the USS Enterprise. “I’ve been a gambler all my life,” he told the papers.

An executive of risk management at Morgan Stanley named Aaron Brown wrote a book of financial advice titled The Poker Face of Wall Street based on the lessons he learned playing Gardena in the 1970s. He saw “a miniature global economy laid out on a baize oval table.” Another anonymous player called Gardena “a repository for exhausted lives.” Was either wrong?

In the twilight days of the original clubs, William “Stumpy” Zevon, then in his eighties, hustled a living as a roving pawnbroker, trading desperate cardplayers cash for watches and jewelry. In his younger years, he’d served as one of Mickey Cohen’s most trusted lieutenants during the golden age of the Los Angeles rackets. In 1956, before abandoning his family, he gave his son, Warren, a Chickering piano he won in a poker game. Warren grew into a classical piano prodigy and later a songwriter and rock star. At the end of his life, Stumpy tacked one of his son’s gold records to the wall of the bachelor apartment he rented off Rosecrans Avenue, five minutes from Gardena. He was no longer sharp enough to sit at the table, but still he liked to stay near the action.

A postcard depicts Dai Vernon in a black suit and bowtie seated at a table holding two rows of cards in his right hand and a single joker card in his left.
Undated postcard featuring Dai Vernon.

The Professor

After Milt and Bill Larsen, publishers of Genii, “The International Conjuror’s Magazine,” purchased an ornately outdated Victorian chateau overlooking downtown Hollywood, they offered Dai Vernon free lodging in exchange for writing a column in the magazine. So in 1963, the twinkling, silver-haired Vernon, known to every magician as The Professor, took up residence in an empty suite on the second floor of what became the Magic Castle: a clubhouse, theater, and trading floor for magic secrets.

Born in 1894, Vernon had studied with the mythical greats of the previous century: Nate Leipzig, Harry Kellar, Dr. Elliott. In 1922, he had fooled Houdini during a banquet at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago, where Vernon performed his version of “The Ambitious Card” seven times. Houdini was furious. He couldn’t crack it.

Vernon’s residency at the Castle inspired a migration of magicians to Hollywood. Larry Jennings was the first disciple to arrive. “You’d love it out here,” he wrote to Bruce Cervon, a sleight of hand artist in Ohio. “The only card men at the Castle are myself, Jay Ose, Dai Vernon, and Leo Behnke. Now get this—if you pull out a pack of cards, people gather around you as if you were Liz Taylor in a topless bathing suit, and when you’re through the damn fools clap like you’d made the bottom vanish. A person could get a big head out here.”

As magicians, Vernon and Jennings became like father and son, though they appeared opposites. Vernon was as elegant as a 1930s screen star, with a perfectly groomed pencil mustache. By contrast, Jennings was beefy and bearish. Raised in rural Georgia and Michigan, he had discovered card magic while serving in the Navy during the Korean War. At thirty, he quit his job as a combustion engineer in Detroit to follow Vernon to the Castle. In his apartment on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood, there was a deck of cards on the TV set, another in the kitchen, another atop the toilet. “I practiced every waking hour,” he said, “and then I would dream about it in my sleep.”

Vernon preached that casualness is deception in its most profound form. For thirty years, the bar at the Castle was Larry’s domain. He nursed bottles of Heineken and PBR until he quit drinking and switched to Diet Coke out of a beer mug. Each week, he’d arrive with a whole new repertoire of tricks he’d devised. The following week, he’d have another new batch. Monarch’s Quartet. Open Travellers. The Stabbed Coincidence. The tricks went on forever, each a masterclass in plot and construction. He was a machine.

At the time, the best magicians in the world worked in a closed circuit, performing only for their peers. Devotees of hardcore sleight of hand weren’t compelled by laymen; to them, an effect was worthy only if it could fool other masters. For practice, Jennings and Vernon and other card experts had a running poker game at the Castle in which cheating was encouraged. Their mechanics could advance only under the harshest scrutiny.

Bruce Cervon eventually followed Jennings to Los Angeles, where he merged his talents as a prestidigitator with a stage show and a comedy act. This led to a handsome living performing at private parties, in commercials, and on television. (Cervon was Johnny Carson’s personal selection for the annual Tonight Show staff party.) Jennings, by contrast, worked as a plumber and later as a maintenance man for the Los Angeles Unified School District. His was the tradition of John Ramsay, called by some the greatest sleight of hand artist of the twentieth century, who plied his craft behind the counter of a grocery in the small town of Ayr, on the western coast of Scotland. Ramsay appeared only intermittently at magic conventions, as if to remind his peers that the magical arts thrived beyond the reach of any spotlight.

In Vernon’s final years, when his body finally started to fail him, he would stay in a small back house behind Jennings’s cottage on Auckland Avenue in North Hollywood. There they would work on tricks under an antique painting of Leipzig. Vernon died in August 1992, at ninety-eight. Fifty-two roses were placed in a vase on the stage of the Castle. Jennings never recovered from the loss.

After decades of smoking and alcohol, he had contracted diabetes, congestive heart disease, emphysema, bad kidneys, and arthritis. Young magicians tended to him the way he had tended to Vernon. They trekked to the back house on Auckland to record his knowledge. When Jennings could no longer walk, they would find a way to load his Wellesian frame into his ancient El Camino and drive him to the Castle. At the very end, they sat with him for hours at the clinic and worked the cards while the dialysis machine filtered his blood.

Jennings died on October 17, 1997, at age sixty-four, five years after his teacher. He left behind a corpus of countless tricks. More than any single effect, he was remembered for the way he handled cards. Big man. Soft touch. “It doesn’t figure,” the Professor used to say after watching Jennings. There was no higher praise.

In the windowless library beneath the Magic Castle, the walls are lined with rare volumes on magic spanning the centuries. Select luminaries are honored with glass cabinets in which personal effects are displayed like religious relics. Billy McComb’s wand; Dante’s cane; Johnny Platt’s fez. In Jennings’s case rests a framed black-and-white photograph of him alone at the Castle bar alongside a pristine wax casting of his two enormous hands.

The Maestro

When word reached Los Angeles that Wardell Gray’s body had been found in the desert north of Las Vegas, his friends blamed the city. Vegas had always been a Bermuda Triangle for Black musicians.

Ground marks indicated the body had been dragged under a barbed wire fence to its resting place, less than a mile west of what is now I-15. He was dressed in an expensive suit. Though his neck was broken, there were no signs of struggle. A wallet, watch, and ring were left undisturbed. The saxophone cord was still on his shoulders.

“When these fellows realized that they weren’t going to lose any money, that they might even make more, they were suddenly color-blind.”

The California Eagle, the Black newspaper of record in Los Angeles, called Gray “L.A.’s answer to Charlie Parker.” No horn player was more idolized by the hungry virtuosos of Central Avenue. Taller than all, bone thin, impeccably clothed. His duels with Dexter Gordon, on and off record, were legend. He studied chess and read Sartre and Shakespeare. He ate like a horse and carried red chili for his food. He lectured about Henry Wallace and the NAACP. The advice he gave the Cuban arranger Chico O’Farrill is emblematic of the example he set: “Be smart . . . build your career, build your name, take the money and run, and then do what you want.”

At a time when most bebop idols were addicts, Gray was “straight-life.” He didn’t even drink. “Now and then, [he’d] counsel those of us who were starting to fuck with dope to get ourselves together and straighten up,” said Hampton Hawes, a Los Angeles pianist seven years Gray’s junior. “Aside from Bird, he was the player we looked up to most. We may not have accepted the advice, but neither did we resent it.”

No one could be sure exactly when Gray started using, but it was likely sometime just before or after his first visit to Las Vegas, in January 1949. As the sole Black member of Benny Goodman’s band, Gray had to enter the Flamingo through the kitchen; he spent breaks alone in an anteroom while his bandmates freely roamed the casino floor. After rehearsals, he and his wife were removed to the dusty rooming house in West Las Vegas where Black performers got bused after playing the Strip.

On opening night, he was glazed on something and came in a second late for his first solo. Goodman stopped the orchestra to ream him in front of a packed house: “Get off the stand, pops!” The wrath stunned Gray. “Did you hear me? Now!” Goodman made him leave the stage but wouldn’t release him from his contract. Instead, he took away Gray’s solos and forced him to ride out the remaining six months on fourth saxophone.

“A lot of the boys take to bad habits either to escape or to keep going,” Gray told a reporter during that tour. “Even though some of these guys don’t have bad habits, they wander around in their own world, and everyone thinks they are peculiar.” Wardell Gray might never have returned to Vegas if not for the Moulin Rouge, “Las Vegas’s First Interracial Luxury Hotel.” Opened in 1955, the Rouge was the gambit of a white investment coalition led by Alexander Bisno, a Los Angeles real-estate broker. No expense was spared. Joe Louis greeted guests at the door. Clarence Robinson was hired to oversee the dance revue. Benny Carter was installed as musical director. For the first time, Black musicians wouldn’t have to lodge “behind the concrete curtain” in West Las Vegas. The Rouge symbolized a new era for Black America. Gray could not refuse an invitation to play in Carter’s band.

After Gray’s body was found, police arrested Teddy Hale, a tap dancer with Robinson’s revue. Hale confessed to police that after the first show on opening night, he and Wardell shot heroin in his room at the Rouge. He woke up in the morning but Wardell did not. In fear of what Vegas police might do to a Black man in possession of a dead body, Hale drove out to the ranchland north of the Rouge and dumped his friend. His neck had snapped when the body’s dead weight hit the dirt.

The community was still grieving Charlie Parker, who had died two months earlier, also at age thirty-four. A second black wreath was placed in the window of the Flash Record Shop on Western Avenue, in South Central Los Angeles. “He was a keeper of the flame,” said Hampton Hawes of Gray, “one of the first to put it all together.”

Police released Hale, but Gray’s peers never bought the story as reported. They insisted he must have burned a dealer or made a pass at the wrong woman. Such were the casual atrocities expected from the Mississippi of the West. “They didn’t fool around,” the Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott said of Vegas. “And nobody gets blamed for the murder if you’re Black.”

The Carter Orchestra finished its engagement with a replacement in Gray’s seat. His hometown paper, the California Eagle, trumpeted the opening of the Rouge as “an international atmosphere that rivals that of Monte Carlo in Europe.” An editorial dismissed Gray’s death as “an unfortunate accident and facts surrounding his death prove it,” as though any further question might derail everything that was riding on the Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge sold out three shows a night through the summer of 1955—the summer that Emmett Till’s mutilated body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. That October, the doors were abruptly padlocked. The mystery of its sudden closing was never settled. The owners overspent their capital, fell victim to infighting, or were simply muscled out by bigger operators. Las Vegas was a place where firm explanations frequently evaporated.

Though it didn’t survive, the Rouge was a catalyst for change in the rest of Vegas. After its closure, Harry Belafonte dove defiantly into the pool at the Thunderbird. “Incredibly,” he wrote in his autobiography, “the water did not turn black.” James B. McMillan was the first Black dentist in Las Vegas, with an office right next door to the Rouge. In 1960, under his leadership, the local chapter of the NAACP threatened to march on the Strip if the city’s segregationist policies were not fully revoked. Casino operators balked until syndicate boss Moe Dalitz handed down his consent. As Dr. McMillan explained, “When these fellows realized that they weren’t going to lose any money, that they might even make more, they were suddenly color-blind.” The announcement was made inside the abandoned hotel next to McMillan’s office and was thereafter known as “The Moulin Rouge Agreement.”

In 1957, Jack Kerouac memorialized Gray twice in On the Road, where Sal Paradise recalls “listening to a wild bop record I had just bought called ‘The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.” That year, the NYPD shot Teddy Hale, the dancer who was last seen with Gray, in his left leg while pursuing a drug suspect in Harlem. He sued New York City for $2.5 million for ruining his livelihood. Hale’s genius survives only by a few segments saved from early television broadcasts—boundlessly inventive, limbs a blur, playing bebop with his feet the way others played it on horn. In 1959, he was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel, age thirty-two, four years almost to the day after Wardell Gray.

The building that housed the Rouge became a motel, a public housing complex, and finally a flophouse for drifters and dealers. Arson gutted the place in 2003; a second fire destroyed the rest in 2009. The ruins were bulldozed in 2010, leaving only a blank expanse of pavement.

Three miles to the north, the stretch of land where Hale abandoned Gray’s body is largely untouched. The adjacent property is now protected as the Kiel Ranch Historic Park. A small adobe house on the property is believed to be one of Nevada’s oldest buildings. Right there, a few paces from where we left Wardell Gray, is the artesian spring that drew the first Paiutes to this ground a thousand years before anyone knew Las Vegas by its name.