A Very Short History of Vice: A Look at Bakersfield's Hidden Gambling Halls
Bakersfield, CA is a city in the Central Valley
...the internet has brought new opportunities:
Imagine early Bakersfield: dusty streets, the noise of hooves, piano music in the air and some laughter. Walk down the street past the dusty jail, the general store, next to the hotel - as it is often portrayed in the movies - and you'll get to your saloon. You imagine this is the center of entertainment in place that was settled because it was smack in the middle of San Francisco and Los Angeles, two of the state's major ports. Maybe it's proximity to the Kern River a channel of commerce and Oildale, a petroleum rich settlement inspired people to settle here. In a place where the summers are scathing and the winters often damp, cold and full of fog, it seems an unlikely location to be chosen by your average model citizen.
Gambling Halls sprung up in the early Bakersfield as they did in most western towns. Portrayed in Hollywood film, these salons often have a romantic air about them and a seething element of underlying danger. People sat around card tables, guns on their sides, playing poker usually and often the town's sheriff was one of the hall's beneficiaries.
Some images from turn of the century casinos
CA State Laws Forbade Gambling
The laws of the state however prohibited gambling and the sheriff of Kern county in December of 1902, J. W. Kelly, announced that he will "vigorously enforce the laws of the state against gambling houses." There was community intolerance for the vice houses as well, stemming especially from the religious community.
Ironically however it was observed by early reporters that even though "church and church members are unanimous in the opinion that gambling is sinful. At the same time a majority of those who are engaged in the most desperate and furious gambling of all in the city grain and stock boards are church members." It seems to be that investing was a business of chance and that many of those who profited from this industry were proud to demonstrate their religious devotion.
Many places of worship rely upon bingo as a fundraising optionClick thumbnail to view full-size
Federal Law and the 1970's
However, it does seem ironic that bingo nights are often popular among church going members of the community. Throughout the 1970's there were many instances of conflicts between parishioner past times and county ordinances which prohibited certain leisure activities. California City in the was famous for its Las Vegas nights during this decade. In the early seventies there were questions concerning the appropriateness of "lady card dealers". In 1977 it was determined that a Veteran's hall could permit Bingo gaming.
Much of this hoopla stemmed from the Federal Gambling Law which was part of the Organized Crime Act of 1970. This ordinance attempted to put a stop to some of the racketeering and other acts which were practiced by those who approached underground criminal activity as if it were a business enterprise. You can imagine men in business suits giving permission to set up card rooms and perhaps taking a few consulting fees off these bingo houses. I'm not sure if that actually occurred or not, but there is a lot of money going back and forth in this industry.
The Organized Crime Act also made it a "federal offense to conduct a gambling business in violation of state law if it involves five or more persons or has gross wages in excess of $2,000 in any single day". The language of this ordinance is quite interesting because it seems to be concerned with the larger outfits that were organized in communities.
Other Types of Gambling
While the efforts of law enforcement to control gambling focused on saloons at the turn of the century and moved to bingo parlors by the 1970's, there were other opportunities for the high roller to have his or her money absconded. Bookies became popular in the 1940's and gained prominence in the 60's. One could place bets on football, horse racing, basketball and other sports on a daily basis.
An organized Bakersfield bookmaking operation with ties to Fresno netted an estimated $70,000 a week in profits. Thirty special Federal Agents armed with 15 search warrants helped bring down one profitable ring. Another demonstration of law enforcement efforts to eradicate an activity enjoyed by numerous citizens, many of whom were prominent and model members of the community.
One can still bet on the ponies during the state fair. Local grocery stores sell lottery tickets and even though Federal Laws prohibit bookmakers from accepting wagers, there are many back alleys and seedy saloons where such providers can be sought out.
A Modern Day Card House
Slot Machines and the Card Ordinance
Slot machines could be found in many places throughout the Bakersfield area in the 1940's. A Taft establishment was raided in this decade because it allowed its patrons to play with one armed bandits. Of course, by today's standards, a Las Vegas like ambiance doesn't seem to be exotic. Casinos with machines that could at one time only be found in Nevada are ubiquitous throughout the state of California. Most are within driving distance.
In December of 1974, the California City council passed The Card Room Ordinance which gave way to some of the places that operate today. In Bakersfield, on Union Avenue (the old Highway 99) a card house operates 24 hours a day. Most of the smaller cities around Bakersfield have their own similar establishments. Who owns and operates these places? Where do the profits go? Well, that's another interesting topic. I always think it's better not to ask certain questions.
One of the early British Court Laws however did address the profiteering reaped by those who operated gambling houses. Passed about 1845, it was stated "money lost by gambling cannot be legally collected by the one to whom it is owing" which basically seems to mean that if someone looses a bet, there is no way you can legally collect it. This sort of makes sense depending upon your perspective I guess, but it seems to be a law that was designed to protect the consumer from unscrupulous practices. The law doesn't seem to be fair to the gambling house owner however and I could not find any language that dictated how winnings were to be dealt with.
Another article in the Bakersfield California talked about a local judge, inspired by the British ordinance, who "would have all betting debts made uncollected by law." These sentiments, if put into practice, would obviously make gambling an unprofitable activity for both the provider and consumer. There would be no point in even engaging in any sort of activity that involved placing a bet on a horse, on a set of cards, dancing with a one armed bandit, or throwing a pair of dice.
This actually makes some sense.
Faces of GamblingClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Face of Gambling Today in this Community
Bakersfield is quite the average, modern American city. There are streets lined with fast food restaurants and businesses. It has an active and vibrant downtown area that comes alive with bright lights and laughter on weekend evenings. There are museums and sports arenas; libraries and parks.
Tucked away though, between the abundance of cannabis shops and neon lit massage salons, if you know where to look, you can find them. Often these new gambling hot spots are right there in the open, behind a nondescript doorway. You wouldn't know they were there unless you knew they were there. You have to be "in the know".
Many can be found along the stretch of Chester that is Oildale's major corridor. One such place has a locked door and one has to ring the doorbell to gain entry. Most of the owners are young people - some look like they could operate a convenience store. Others appear to be very similar to the patrons that frequent these establishments.
In Oildale your average computer gambler seems to be couples in their 20's or young women who smoke cigarettes and walk as if they are headed either to or from a methamphetamine habit. During one observation I saw a couple walk into the back room and then the male part came out ten minutes later and stood at the doorway looking in.
"Honey, we have to go," he said. Desperation filled his voice.
"No. One more. I got it this time," I heard her reply. She was full of certainty.
She walked out and met him just then. They both paused and started to head back in and then walked out. I could see wages trailing behind them like a trail of breadcrumbs soon to be devoured by hungry birds. I thought about apartments and houses disappearing, a hungry baby in a crib. I saw them starting at work the following Monday with eyes downcast, shame and regret seeping from their tired pores.
It isn't a pleasant sight and anyone who thinks gambling is not a big deal should spend just a few moments in one of these places. The machines are designed as if they are video games and one such device, operated by multiple players, basically is a video game where you work with your opponents to battle undersea creatures.
Sure, we all have our choice and free will but often those are dictated by the environment. Out of sight, out of mind. You could come up with many cliche's to describe what I can only call an attractive nuisance.
The people that frequent these establishments particularly in the Oildale area are young, poorer whites with little futures sometimes. Many probably have drug habits and in a community that doesn't have many pleasant distracts to offer people that live there, the internet cafes as they like to call themselves, are guilty pleasures readily enjoyed.
A couple of questions
Should Gambling Halls be Illegal
Have you been to a cafe gambling house?
Some games you can play
A Note on References
Most of the research and information gained was taken from The Bakersfield Californian. Quotes are directed taken from the paper. Research was done at the Beale Memorial Library in Bakersfield.