By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

No one is likely to mistake Rosecrans Avenue in Gardena for the Las Vegas Strip.

But looming over the busy, six-lane industrial thoroughfare, the large, flashing sign for the Normandie Casino promises just that "Vegas in L.A."

The claim seems a tad optimistic. Compared to the high-tech glitz and theme-park atmosphere of contemporary Las Vegas, card clubs like the Normandie tend to be drab, catering less to families and tourists than to serious card players. They huddle around dark, oblong tables behind stacks of chips, holding poker hands or shaking cups of dice, shouting out their good fortune and cursing their bad luck.

But like a gambler with a powerful hunch, local card club executives are betting that in the not-too-distant future, "Vegas in L.A." will be less a wishful boast than a fact of life.

"This industry is in its building stages," said Ron Sarabi, general manager of the Normandie and a 25-year gambling industry veteran who has operated casinos in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. "In the long run, this will be as exciting as running a casino in Nevada."

Sarabi is not alone. Across L.A. County, card clubs are taking a cue from their Nevada counterparts and moving from the margins to the mainstream retooling their product from "gambling" to the more benign-sounding "gaming."

Some clubs are adding luxury hotels and quality restaurants; others are providing new sports and entertainment options. It's all part of an effort to extend beyond the limited and largely saturated market of hard-core gamblers.

The new push comes as the state begins to implement its first-ever set of regulations for California's 176 card rooms, which in the past have been monitored almost exclusively by the municipalities in which they operate.

Under legislation signed by Gov. Pete Wilson last year, the clubs face their toughest regulations ever including regular reporting of revenues to state authorities and extensive background checks of all but the lowest-level employees.

The rules will be enforced by the attorney general's Division of Gambling Control, which was created as part of the legislation. When the division is funded and implemented in 1999, the attorney general will have an 81-member enforcement staff to oversee the state's card club operations.

In addition to increased enforcement, card rooms face a new annual tax of $3,700 per table, which will fund the new regulatory efforts a levy that will shave hundreds of thousands of dollars off the clubs' bottom lines.

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