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A Review of Commerce Casino (Los Angeles)

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editor's note: this article was written in 2004

If Alvy Singer, Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall, had been a poker player, he never would have quipped that the major cultural advantage of Los Angeles is that it allows right turns on red lights. Because there are also games to be found in LA. A lot of them. LA's card rooms are the largest in the world, dwarfing those found in Vegas, Atlantic City, and anywhere else.

Even so, I still ended my recent poker trip to LA unimpressed.

Maybe it's because I spent the bulk of my trip in the City of Commerce, a half-mile stretch of land that sits at the intersection of the 5 and 710 freeways. Even by LA standards, Commerce is bland. The strip malls are worn and the streets dreary, and the Starbucks and Jack in the Box seem to be the area's sole cultural hotspots. But the City of Commerce is also the home of the Commerce Casino and the Los Angeles Poker Classic.

A casino wouldn't have to do much to appear classy or opulent or gaudy in that landscape. Even so, the Commerce still manages to underwhelm. The building itself is just weird. It's rather plain architecture is accented by a series of internally lit plastic cones that straddle the entryway. At night, ten of the cones flash a blast of red light -- apparently the Casino designers hoped to achieve Vegas-style glitz with Christmas decorations from WalMart. Their entrance also features a shrub carved in the shape of the horse.

But I didn't go to Commerce for the aesthetics; I was there for poker.

The Games

Commerce has two separate poker rooms: one for the low and middle limits, one for the high limits. Your opinion of Commerce Casino will depend on the room you pick. Playing $30-$60 limit or higher, or $10-$10 no-limit or higher, puts you in the high-limit room, which offers free food and porter service, both impressive according to a friend who played there. Given the size of the pots in these games, the seat charges are reasonable: $9 per half hour for $30-$60, and $10 per half hour for $40-$80.

But if you're playing anywhere from $1-$2 to $20-$40, the experience at the Commerce is not nearly as pleasant. The main room is the size of an airplane hanger yet still manages to feel cramped, with dozens of tables squeezed tightly together. The lights are bright and harsh, giving the room the feel of an overexposed photo.

Then there's the noise. There are several boards going simultaneously -- one for the micro limits, one for the low limits, one for $9-$18, and one for the middle limits -- and the P.A. system blasts a constant shriek of voices calling players to their games. Combined with the babble of foot traffic, the howl of all the amplified announcements can bring on one nasty headache. For one session I was seated at the table closest to the middle-limit board, and it felt like I was in a bus depot.

In the middle limit games, the rake at a full table is $5 per hand. For a $9-$18 game or lower, that is extremely high. In fact at some tables, I found the rake to be pretty much unbeatable -- I ended one session after two orbits with some pretty tight players when I saw that over 10 percent of each pot was swallowed up by the house.

The main room also offers small buy-in no-limit games. There's a $100 buy-in game with $2 and $3 blinds and a $200 buy-in game with $3 and $5 blinds. I've heard this setup is pretty common in southern California, but I found the structure of the game difficult. With $3-$5 blinds, a typical open raise was in the $20 range. With only $200 to start with, you can be crippled with a short stack after only a hand or two -- I had rebuy a few times to keep some chips in front of me. One morning session it took hours before I could build a stack that allowed me to play the kind of aggressive game I prefer.

The People

For the most part, the players in the middle-limit games at Commerce were loose and passive, contributing too many bets to too many pots and chasing longshot draws. The $15-$30 players, however, had some skill. But if you can play, you can find favorable competition in the middle-limit hold'em games. My friend in the high-limit room reported that the competition there varied greatly, with a few weak and some excellent players at most tables.

Of course no trip to L. A. would be complete without a few celebrity sightings. Toby McGuire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck were spotted in the high-limit room, playing in a fairly big no-limit game. In steerage (i.e., the middle-limit room), Lou Diamond Phillips and Willie Garson were seen playing in the low buy-in no-limit games. I also had the pleasure of playing with character actors whose faces I remembered but whose roles I couldn't quite place. After some thought, I identified one of the players as Bill Macy, who starred opposite Bea Arthur in Maude. Another guy I think had a recurring role on Mork and Mindy, but I can't be sure.

The Commerce also features plenty of bad actors of the less glamorous variety. While I was there, I saw a belligerent man get escorted from his table by security. And during the span of just one tournament, a fist fight broke out and a man poured a carafe of boiling water down another player's shirt. While I doubt criminal assaults are the norm at Commerce, there is often a nasty edge to the atmosphere. Many players are hard on the dealers and nasty to each other, making even some profitable tables less than fun.

So if you're into the thrill of looming danger, or minor star-spotting, or inexplicable equine shrubbery, the Commerce Casino is definitely a good place to play -- if only for its wide variety of games. But if you're looking for a poker vacation, you might want to find a spot where the rake is lower and the atmosphere is a bit more pleasant.

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