Once upon a time, back before stud and hold'em poker were made legal in California, there were tons of little one- and two-table rooms in southern California. They spread draw and lowball and were run as mom-and-pop operations. They had their regular characters, most of the players knew each other, and the poker room manager might even sit in and play with you if the table needed an extra player.
That pretty much changed in the 1990s, when the courts explicitly legalized Texas Hold'em Poker, Stud Poker, and all other manner of poker games in California – and as huge poker rooms like the Commerce, Hollywood Park, and The Bicycle Club dominated the market and the changing poker economy put the little guys out of business. In the LA area today, for example, there are just eight rooms left – all but one of them with at least twenty tables, and a few of them with over one hundred.
The one exception is Club Caribe, located in Cudahy, a Los Angeles area ringed by the poker towns of Compton, Gardena, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens. It's a throwback to the early days of poker in California.
I visited it twice during my week-long tour of the southern California poker rooms, once on a Saturday night, once on a Monday evening. The scene was the same each time. They gave me a baseball cap that reads "LA's best kept secret". And indeed it is.
There was only one poker table going each time I visited. It was $2/4 limit hold'em with a full kill. It was full – and included the poker room manager and two prop players who left the game as new players arrived and sat down. The props were quite tight, but not very aggressive. The manager of the room was not, in my opinion, a winning player – too loose and passive. The rest of the players seemed to be there just to have fun, either by calling all the way hoping to win on the river, or raising with sub-premium hands just for the thrill of the action.
I was the only non-regular in the room – including about half a dozen hangers-on who might have busted out earlier and who kibitzed with the active poker players. I was immediately made to feel welcome by everyone. Players introduced themselves to me informally as the spirit moved them, and everyone kidded me about my notetaking and asking of questions. Within 15 minutes of my visit I felt like a regular.
There was a lot of drinking by a few of the players, one of whom seemed quite drunk, though not unresponsive. The game had a relaxed pace, to put it kindly. Impatient, serious poker players might have become frustrated by the slowness of the game. I found it fun and friendly.
The rake is very reasonable. When the table is full, it is 10% up to a maximum of $3. There is no jackpot drop, since there's no high hand or bad beat jackpots. When the game is less than full they diminish the rake. With seven players they only took $2 out of a huge kill pot I was in. When there were only five players for a brief spell, they only took out $1 in a $40 hand. This was a far cry from the $6 taken out of the pot at many of the larger poker rooms in the area.
The kill turns the game into $4/8 when a player wins two hands in a row – regardless of pot size. This happened fairly frequently – as the prop players and I were in relatively few hands – and three of the players, providing most of the action, won a high percentage of the pots. This created a very profitable opportunity – essentially a $4/8 game with a $3 maximum rake, with loose calling stations ready to contribute whenever I had a good hand. I won an average of eight big bets an hour during my relatively brief playing sessions.
There's a restaurant a few feet behind the table. The menu is quite long, with standard American comfort food, some Mexican fare, and some Asian food as well. Dinner items range from $6 to $12 or so. They also have snack foods such as tacos, fries, and burgers for a few dollars each.
Club Caribe has tableside food and drink service and some tables set up for folks who just want to eat. I didn't have time to sample the food, but if I went back I'd try their $1 tacos and drink some inexpensive Corona beer. It must be good. Many of the other players, nearly all of those not in the game, were munching and drinking while I was there.
The room has unfortunately experienced some hardship as of late. The corporation that normally backs their pai gow and blackjack tables has pulled out recently, leaving those table games empty. Though the restaurant was pumping out meals through a service window while I was there, the restaurant area of the club was dark, a result of the decreased traffic, I guessed. This may also have put a damper on the poker action, though the table I played at was hopping while I was there. No one seemed to know when the table games might return, if ever.
The atmosphere was, physically, also a bit dark, more like a pub or a bar than a typical poker room, though the table itself was well illuminated. The poker tables, chairs, cards, and chips looked well worn but still serviceable and relatively clean. The poker room, overall, had a lived-in quality to it that was not off-putting, but a distant cry from the spacious, swanky, and spectacular look to some of the poker palaces in the LA area. This place made me somewhat nostalgic for the time before poker moved from the back room to the center stage. For those of you drawn to the poker atmosphere of yesteryear, and looking for some very easy pickings, I recommend a visit to this place. And you'd better hurry. I'm not sure how much longer little Club Caribe will continue to survive.
7617 Atlantic Ave
Cudahy, CA 90201