Around an old, ragged table sit grizzled men, their eyes turned down at the cards clutched between their fingers, a fan on its last leg circulating the stale, smoky air above them. One goes “all in,” pushing his chips to the center of the table. Across from him sits his rival, who “calls.” This is the classic do or die, last stand of the poker room, a lost relic of the Twilight Zone-era in which even the winners go home questioning their motives.

Player’s Casino in Ventura is in no way a leftover from that long forgotten era. Rundown boards are replaced by streamlined, felt topped tables straight out of James Bond’s dream. Dealers wear neat black suits and greet players with a bright white smile, and veterans sip on lattes brewed fresh on the premises. At Player’s, it’s out with the old and in with the new, for a more refined century.

Just about every table is full — all 16 of them — with players young and old, the chips shuffling across the green felt playing soundtrack to the dealer’s narration.

“My friends come a lot more than me. They have a lot more than me, too,” said Mr. Davis, sitting away from the tables as he ate a hamburger purchased from the casino.

“Some people make over $200,000 a year just playing. Can you imagine that? I work hard for my money. That’s a dream come true.”

From across the room, Davis’ friend presses his luck against a table full of strangers having yet to reach his limit.

2“A good player always knows when to stop,” said Davis, who installs dry wall in Los Angeles when he’s not at the casino. “I’m here trying to win, but you can’t think that’s all of it. You can play, but don’t let it take over.”

A player stood up from his table and headed through the doors, passing us on his way out to meet a friend. Large windows line the front wall and natural light spills in through the tinted glass, a far cry from the box-like casinos of the past. Clocks tick away on the walls, allowing guests to manage themselves rather than take a stab at the time of day. All of this coincides with the casino’s new motto of comfort and style as it shakes off the stereotypes of the past.

Mark Van Leuven stands tall, a phone on his belt and a notepad in his hand, his professional attitude an intimidating presence behind a hand of cards. Leuven is very much a local, his interest in poker having started at the casino’s previous location. His break from the table is welcomed, but not out of frustration.

“I’ve been here three and a half hours and I’m down about $500,” he said with a smile. “But for me, money does grow on trees.”

When Leuven plays, he comes alone. Choosing to arrive and depart on his own time gives him the ability to set his own rules and to manipulate the game at will, to a point. He applies the same thought process to the community in which Player’s Casino resides, his thoughtfulness exposing not only his intelligence, but also the strategy he puts to work at the table.

“I know that there are people here who are spending more money then they should be. For some of the locals, the casino is not a good thing. For taxes, they pay their taxes. For the community, it’s OK, though,” says Leuven, meticulously writing out a receipt to keep track of his expenses. “You take the good with the bad.”

Leuven’s strategy is reflective of his personality, careful when money is concerned, but not allowing it to dampen his spirits.

“It’s what happens on the board and who’s at the table. If it’s a weak table, then I can bluff easily, but it’s a tricky game and it depends on who has the deepest pockets. It can drive you nuts and it can frustrate you, but when you’re winning and on a roll there’s no better feeling.”

Walking the aisles, checking in on the regulars and greeting newcomers, Justin Kracht is the epitome of sleek. His hair slicked back, his white tie standing out against the black suit he wears as if he were born into it, Justin has become a symbol of the modern regime.

“People would rather come here than to a dark bar,” he said.

Bill Kracht, who is the CEO of Player’s Casino, invited his son Justin to return from Virginia three years ago to help run the family business. At the time, the casino was known as Player’s Poker Room and it was located on Ventura Avenue.

“We pretty much knew everyone that was there,” said Justin. “It was more of a social atmosphere then. Being here, we’re trying to combine a little of the old and the new.”

Back at the old location, Justin’s father Bill had yet to show up as Patty Abelt, her son and Michael Killgore separated old poker tables and stands into separate stacks for donation and disposal. The building, more akin to an old, undiscovered tomb than the symbol of wealth that the new location has become, is in the process of being sold.

“I think a church wants to buy it,” said Abelt. When she’s not gutting buildings, she’s the casino’s vice president.

When Bill arrived, he sat on a less than stable stool and surveyed the room, no bigger than a coffee shop. The neon sign out front, its arrow pointing toward the entrance, stands like a tombstone in memorial.

“I don’t know if there are a lot of people here who make friends by being here,” said Justin, back in the new Player’s Casino’s office. “At the old location, it was easier to know everyone, but here you have people coming from all over – Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and elsewhere.”

In the casino, sitting under fluorescent lighting in the smoke-free former car dealership, Mr. Davis finishes his food, his friend stepping away from the table.

“I’m here trying to win, but you can’t think that it’s all of it. You can play, but don’t let it take over. I’m here to have fun.”   

chris.oneal13@gmail.com