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San Diego Cardrooms Hope To Play Another Round

The Palomar Card Club in North Park on August 4, 2011.
Katie Schoolov
The Palomar Card Club in North Park on August 4, 2011.

Video by Katie Euphrat

San Diego Cardrooms Hope To Play Another Round
Poker is hot right now. And if you want to get out and play a hand, there are two places within the city of San Diego to do that. But those cardrooms could go away if city laws aren’t changed.

The Limited Future of San Diego's Cardrooms

Drive by the Palomar Card Club on El Cajon Blvd in North Park most any time and you’ll find the place packed. Walk into the cardroom and the first thing you’ll notice is the noise. Thousands of chips click against each other as players throw them down, rake them in and stack them up.


On a recent Thursday afternoon all the seats were filled and a few people waited for their chance to ante up. Pat O’Malley sat at a table with a large pile of chips in front of him. He said he’s been coming to the Palomar for more than 15 years.

“It’s 10-15 minutes from the house. It’s much easier than going all the way out to the casinos and that,” he said. “And it’s like a home place. Everybody’s friendly, everybody knows your name.”

O’Malley is a retiree and says playing cards is his pastime; he plays about three days a week. He and the manager of the Palomar say more and more young people are starting to play as well, as poker sheds its seedy reputation and becomes a form of popular, mainstream entertainment. But San Diego city rules haven’t kept up with the times.

Currently, local law says when the owners of the city’s last two cardrooms pass away their businesses have to close up shop too, despite drawing more than 700 players a day and generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue and despite state law that allows the clubs to keep operating.

Nick Salem is general manager of the Palomar Card Club. He said the owners of his card club and the Lucky Lady, the city’s other card room in the College Area, are in the beginning stages of trying to change the law. Salem estimates between 70 and 80 jobs at each club could be lost if the law isn’t changed.


“Keeping our job is very important for all of us,” he said. “Obviously, it’s good for everyone. You have a good successful business going and not stopping. Not shutting down after awhile. And San Diego, every city now, in this economy, needs that.”

San Diego is the only city in the county, and possibly the state, that limits the transfer of ownership. The restrictions were put in place in the 1980’s. Ownership can’t be passed down to family members or sold to a third party. At the time the city had more than 100 card rooms and they weren’t viewed favorably by the powers-that-be. The law was meant to gradually phase out the businesses. The owners of the remaining two rooms are now in their 70’s.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald, whose district includes the Lucky Lady, said the rooms haven’t proved to be the nuisances officials were once worried they would be.

“There’s no question that these businesses can be successful. It’s just that we’ve inherited an ordinance that says we’re phasing them out,” she said. “And until the City Attorney tells us that we can reverse it or gives us more meat to chew on here, we’ll have to wait to see what the city can or is willing to do.”

The city has made an effort help out the cardrooms. A council committee recently recommended allowing two more tables at each, for a total of 11 tables per cardroom. And the business districts for the College Area and El Cajon Boulevard have written in support of changing the ownership regulations so the rooms can continue to operate. But San Diego State gaming professor Jeff Voyles said laws are difficult to change, especially when it comes to gambling.

“It’s a very close knit business and industry so there’s not a lot of people out there that can operate cardrooms or understand the logistics behind a cardroom,” he said. “So I don’t see it changing very quickly.”

Still, Voyles said poker is becoming a more accepted form of mainstream entertainment. That’s something the city’s last two cardrooms hope will work in their favor as San Diego begins considering whether to let the rooms play another round.

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