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 3½ 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.
The results have been a resounding success. The 22 playing tables at the Oaks are nearly always fully occupied, and it's not unusual to see $100,000 or more in chips in action. The most popular game is limit lowball, in which the best hand is ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, with a limit on the amount a player can bet. Nevertheless, the stakes in these games can be sky-high. Sea-graves recalls the time a San Francisco man won more than $400,000 in five sessions of $800-and $1,600-limit lowball. In a single session one of his opponents lost $85,000; another lost $70,000.
The Oaks doesn't take a cut from either wins or losses. Like the many other legal cardrooms throughout California, the Oaks draws its income from seat charges—ranging from $4 an hour in a $40 buy-in game to $30 an hour in a $2,000 buy-in game—and from sales of drinks and food.
The Key club, located a block south of the Oaks, doesn't feature the high-stakes action of its plusher neighbor. It attracts the odd lawyer or doctor, but, says John Marvin Jr., the owner's son, "Most of our clientele is the working person who just has the minimum amount to play. It's the Oaks that gets the really big money."
The Key's decor tends toward the shopworn, but it has color. Nearly every square foot of wall space is blazoned with large, ancient photographs of baseball and boxing greats and not-so-greats—people like George Sisler and Burleigh Grimes, Kid Gavilan and Fritzie Zivic—and the players at the eight poker tables go by monikers like Big Nose Mike, Still Bill, Fur Mike and Bumblebee. Marvin Sr. often presides over a table of gamblers and pundits near the snack bar, where the conversation ranges from baseball trivia to Shakespeare and Dickens. (Marvin still has mild regrets that, many years ago, he dropped out of the University of California-Berkeley to play poker for a living.)
Much of the Key club's atmosphere can be traced to one of Marvin's predecessors, Mac MacDonald, who owned the place from 1943 until his death in 1970. Marvin recalls the time MacDonald threw Carmen Basilio out of his office because the great middleweight had recently lost a fight on which MacDonald had bet a sizable chunk of money.
Another habitué of the Key club was the young Billy Martin, when he was playing ball under Casey Stengel for the old Oakland Oaks. The team's home field was not in Oakland at all but in Emeryville, just up the street from the card clubs. Even now, Martin occasionally returns to visit his old Emeryville haunts.
At the Santa Fe club next door, things are quiet, even dismal. In the '20s the Santa Fe housed a thriving bucket shop. But now the only poker game of the evening has broken up, and manager Shelby Sumpter is reduced to playing hearts with a few hangers-on.
"If there was 25 guys in here, 22 of 'em would owe me money," Sumpter complains. "I got about half a dozen of 'em, they don't have no place to sleep. They sleep in these old cars around here or anything. The first of the month they come in here at 10 or 11 o'clock at the latest to cash their check—$511, $529, $484, something like that. They pay me what they owe me. Now before the sun goes down that day, they'll be back wanting to borrow $10. They get drunk, they get in a game and they lose it all. The same day!" Sumpter shakes his head at the pity of it. (The manager quit some weeks ago—perhaps he couldn't take it anymore.)
Back at the Oaks, stacks of $5 and $25 chips form miniature castles in front of the players, while Quinn surveys the scene with pride. He is standing next to a chalkboard on which the initials of players waiting for a seat in the game of their choice are listed. Although it's nearly 2 a.m., the lists are long, and every game is full. Soon, a player rises from his seat at one of the tables. He has lost a big pot, and now he's busted. The floorman quickly spots the opening and looks at the board.
"J.L. for 40-limit," he shouts.
The man called J.L. slouches toward the vacant seat, pulling several $100 bills from his pocket. The floorman erases J.L.'s initials from the board.
"There have been four blackouts in the past few years," says Quinn. "The whole street was dark, but we had our own generator, and there was poker at the Oaks. In case of an atomic blast, we could sustain ourselves here for a month. We've got enough food, water, cigarettes, anything you want. We'd dim the lights a little bit, you know, but we'd keep on dealing."
"Quiet down!" shouts a woman lurking behind a mound of chips at a nearby table. "Can't you see we're trying to play cards?"