By LARRY KANTER
Strip club operator, pornographer, magazine magnate, First Amendment standard bearer Larry Flynt has quite a resume. Now, the controversial publisher of Hustler magazine is adding yet another colorful job title to the list casino impresario.
Flynt recently purchased a bankrupt Gardena card room, the El Dorado Club, for $8 million, and plans a splashy grand opening for the facility in about eight months, after some $30 million in renovations.
As one of the country's leading high-stakes card players, he is no stranger to gambling. And he's hired the necessary talent the club's general manager, Harry Drake, has years of experience running poker rooms in Las Vegas.
Sitting in a wheelchair behind an enormous dark wood desk at his Beverly Hills office, Flynt lit a cigar and spoke about his plans for the El Dorado Club and his vision for the future of casino gambling in Los Angeles.
Question: Why are you buying the El Dorado Club?
Answer: I've been a gambler all my life. I enjoy it very much, and I feel that I can add something to it by opening a casino. If Joe Blow opens a casino, it's not news. But when I open one, it will be big news and it will attract a lot of customers. But it's not going to be a run-of-the-mill casino. We're putting about $30 million into this. It's going to be the nicest one in the county.
Q: How will it be different from what already is here?
A: Basically, we're going to try and do everything better. I've been to Hollywood Park, and I've visited the Normandie Casino and the Bicycle Club just to get an idea of what they're like; decor-wise, they fall well short of what I want to accomplish. My casino will look more like some of the casinos you see in Vegas. The motif will be sort of a Victorian style. We're going to put a heavy emphasis on having better food than our competitors. People will want to play there.
I don't think the clubs have tapped into the L.A. market like they should have, in terms of a formidable advertising campaign. In a sense, buying the club is a gamble for me, but it's a risk that I'm willing to take.
Q: You're a big gambler yourself. Are you doing this for fun, or do you think you can make some real money at this?
A: I'm definitely going to try and make money. I gamble as a hobby. I'm confined to a wheelchair, so I can't do that much skiing or play that much football. But I like the challenge of opening a really upscale club that can compete with all the others.
Q: Why open a club in L.A.? Why not try and do something in Nevada or Louisiana or another state with a more developed gaming industry?
A: My publishing offices are here in L.A. A club in Gardena is not that far away. I always do better with hands-on management. Besides, to open a club to compete with the big boys in Las Vegas, you're talking at least a billion dollars. I can afford to invest $30 million. I can't afford to invest a billion.
Q: What do you make of the new state regulations on the card room industry?
A: I know they've placed a moratorium on new clubs in the state. So you're not going to see many clubs opening up and that really is not bad for us. I know the governor and the attorney general don't have much fondness for the gaming industry. Any time you have a governor or an attorney general who is opposed to gaming in their state, they're always going to attempt to impose regulations. And the only thing we can do as operators is roll with the punches.
Q: How much of your time are you spending on this project?
A: I'm spending a lot of time, working with the architect and contractors, getting prepared for staffing. But I'm still very active (as a publisher.) I'm still involved in all major decisions in terms of start-ups or modifying editorial formulas for the magazines. As things proceed, I'll be getting more and more involved in the club. But we're still maybe eight months away.
Q: You still haven't received your gaming license from the state. Do you think your notoriety will be a problem?
A: You never know. A gaming license is like a liquor license. It's a privilege that the state might grant you. It's not a right. So they can really turn you down without any reason at all. But I've never been convicted of a felony well, I have been, but they've always been overturned on appeal, which nullifies them. Legally, I don't see any reason why they would deny me.
Q: If you pull this off and make this casino successful, would you want to open other clubs in the state or elsewhere in the country?
A: It's a little too early to think about that. When it comes to something like gaming, if you start to open more places, you tend to dilute your efficiency and your profits.
Q: How often do you go to Vegas these days?
A: Every month or two. I play at the Hilton, at Caesar's, at the Rio blackjack, $50,000 a hand.
Q: What's the most you've ever won?
A: Three-and-a-half million.
Q: And lost?
A: Two million.
Q: When you're gambling $50,000 a hand and going deeper and deeper in the hole, what goes through your mind?
A: I don't gamble if I can't afford to lose. Scared money can't win. If you're gambling with money that you can't afford to lose, you're sure to lose. I set a limit at a half-million or a million dollars, and if I lose, I quit. And I wait until the next trip to try again. If I win, I quit as well. That's something that is just as important as basic strategy. You get stuck for a million dollars, your first thought is I'll sit here and play, I can get it back. You're better off waiting for your next trip.
Q: What does the future hold for gaming in L.A.? Do you think we'll ever see full-blown, Vegas-style gambling here?
A: I think so. It's hard to say when that will happen. But if you go back 20 years, there were only three or four states you could gamble in. Now, there are about 40. It's a way that governments, state and city, have found to increase revenue without raising taxes. That makes it a rather compelling argument. Now there are a lot of foes of gambling, who say it destroys lives, that people gamble beyond their means and things of that nature. But those arguments haven't been winning. And new states have adopted gaming. I think it will happen in California, but to say when I don't have any idea. It could be five years, it could be 25 years.
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