Not the Den of Iniquity
Jeffrey M Strauss
    The "largest poker den in the world" is the Commerce Casino, which is located just off the Washington Blvd. exit on Interstate 5 in the City of Commerce. The facilities are plush, and clean, and a luxurious, s an almost palpable energy in the room, as the players hung intensely over their chips and cards in anticipation of the next card that would give them a winning hand. The sound of chips being tossed into the center of the table, the occasional rip of a deck of cards being shuffled, and sporadic outbursts of elation or disappointment in an almost random manner permeated the entire casino. Except for all patrons being over the age of 18, there was not a predominant group in age, sex, race, or ethnicity.

Field Research Methods

    I went alone in the capacity of participant-observer. Initially I was slightly apprehensive, as I was intimidated by the sheer physical size of the casino and thousands of participants inhabiting it. I wore casual clothes and was equipped with a notebook, pens, and a micro tape recorder. I identified three main elements within the culture to interview, and had prepared lists with appropriate questions to ask them. They were casino employees, players, and observers. Since the tables were all full I gave my name to a pit boss and waited on the sidelines with the other players who were also waiting their turn at a table. I tried to engage some of these people in casual conversation, but they appeared preoccupied and distant. My attempts at casual conversation came to fruition when I was seated and playing at a seven-card stud game of poker. Once I had gotten into the "mix" I felt like I had transcended the role of a social scientist and became one of the crowd. I found myself caught up in the game; I became part of the group. I would console a player who had lost with a good hand to a better hand, and congratulate one who had 'stuck it out," and drawn the winning card on the "river" (the final card dealt.) I played for about an hour and simultaneously observed the participants. Once while involved in a particularly intense round of betting, I also lost sense of time and space. I had drawn a flush on the first five cards and the player next to me was showing three of a kind. My heart was pounding as the last two cards were being dealt and the betting action increased. It felt like everyone at the table was caught up in the action. When the final bets were placed and the player revealed a full house, half the table exploded in loud cries of despair for me, and the other half in elation for my opponent. I saved my interview phase until after I was done playing cards, because at times it felt like I was a spy with unclean motives for being there.

Description of Cultural Activities

    It is quite apparent that inner mechanisms of the card casino constitute a high-context culture. The participants share a common vernacular, in regards to the actual playing of the game. The majority of the players seem to have an intuitive grasp of the rhythms and cycles of play. At first, the depth of their culture baffled me, but during the interview phase of my field observation I was speaking to a 35-year-old male floorman named John, who has been in the casino business for twelve years and he explained why this was. One reason was that, unlike gamblers who go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, (destination gamblers) a large portion of the people who came to the Commerce Casino were weekly gamblers. Also, the casinos in California (except the Indian Casinos) are only card casinos and the house was not allowed to play, only take a small percentage off the top for "running" the games. Therefore the majority of the players at the Commerce Casino had learned though repeated exposure to their environment, so there was no need for elaborate explanations of procedure.

    The dress was as diverse as the participants themselves were. Some came attired in work clothes, while others appeared to be dressed to in a manner that would insinuate financial success at the tables. They would display gold "pinky-rings" with diamonds, expensive brand name wristwatches and the like. I observed elderly people with walkers and canes. All the employees were dressed in uniforms. The floormen and pit bosses wore tuxedos, and the dealers wore tuxedo shirts with black dress pants, and all employees wore nametags. This gave a rather "high-class" atmosphere to the casino.

    Kim a 23-year-old Korean female told me she came with her boyfriend who was playing Pan (Chinese Poker) but she did not care for the game or gambling. She said she usually passes her time in the bar or having dinner. She told me her boyfriend comes about once a week and she usually stays there until he is finished playing. She said that a few times she has asked him for the car keys, as it seemed like he was never going to leave.

    There are seven players and one dealer at a seven-card stud poker game. The tables are always full and physical space is tight. The area directly in front of each player is "sacred." One would never touch or place anything in another player's space. This area is for his/her chips (money) and it is where his cards are thrown when dealt. If by chance a stray chip ends up in another player's area, the player who owns the chip will ask the owner of the area to retrieve it for him. The same etiquette applies to cards on the table.

    As for ritual, when you first enter the casino you are struck with the solemnity of those waiting to play. At each individual table it is like a world within itself. It was obvious that a lot of the players knew each other by the casual comments they would make abon top of the stack making little percussion noises during the play. Nearly all the players displayed a particular and unique preference in the manner in which the chips were stacked in front of them.


    Some people like to gamble. Poker has always been an intriguing game, as the players compete against each other not the house. The Commerce Casino provides a safe, effective, and professional environment for those people that like to play poker. Those who frequent the card club can find others like them who respect and love the game of poker. It is obvious that by the mutual respect the players show for one another, and the congeniality I felt at the tables there is a strong sense of camaraderie at the Commerce Card Casino. This culture provides a release and excitement for those who find pleasure in card playing and gambling. The pathology associated with the addictive behavior of gambling is beyond the scope and intent of this paper, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that it was not hard to identify some in attendance who might be placed into that category. If I were to return I would focus on the unique mannerisms and habits that the players displayed during the action of the game. Professional gamblers call this the player's "tell." That topic alone would warrant an in-depth study itself.