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In the cards

California’s Bicycle Club Casino is reinvented with a new look, focus and mission. By David McKee

In its 30-plus years, the Bicycle Casino, in Bell Gardens, has led a colorful life. “The Bike,” as it’s known to players and locals, was founded in 1984 by George Hardie Sr. The elder Hardie, however, was not fortunate in his choice of financiers. His backer, Sam Gilbert, was alleged to have underwritten the Bicycle Club as a means of laundering drug money. In April 1990, a federal court in Miami, Florida, ordered the Bicycle Club to be forfeited to the government to satisfy a tax lien. Thus, the U.S. government would find itself for much of the 1990s in the piquant position of running a California card room.

The Bike – today the Bicycle Casino & Hotel -- regained private ownership and respectability in 1999, when current CEO Hashem Minay and business partner Robert H. Carter bought the property. “In 1984, it was primarily designed to be a 1890s poker parlor. The emphasis was on poker, the promotions were poker, the events were related to poker. So even though they had Asian games, the emphasis was on poker,” Carter recalls. He and Minaiy came along at a time when the landscape was shifting. They added jackpot poker: “It didn’t really expand the market but it did solidify it.”

The Bike was now perfectly positioned for the advent of the World Poker Tour in 2002. “Once that became televised, everyone started playing,” Carter says, and the demographics at the Bicycle Casino took on a younger hue, expanding the casino’s player base. “So even though the fad portion of time for World Poker Tour might have passed, we inherited a bigger market and a younger market.” The casino was also the first terrestrial one to live-stream games on the Internet and although its “Live at the Bike” feed has gone through many incarnations, it continues to this day.

“The Bike had not changed since 1984, other than we had added a 10,000-square-foot event center,” says Carter. Fast-forward to 2015 and the Bicycle Casino had morphed dramatically and none other than California Gov. Jerry Brown cut the ribbon on a fully revamped Bike, one that was now graced with a brand-new, $50 million, seven-story, 70-room, 29-suite hotel. Also added were a fitness center, spa, sauna and pool deck, plus the Bike Brewery, a craft beer-oriented pub with 28 beers on tap and 28 TVs for sports fans.

“Let’s say we have a poker tournament,” Carter says, explaining the imperative for a hotel. “That’s a national activity and people come in from outside the area to play. If we don’t have a place for them to stay, they’re going to stay somewhere else. We need facilities so that we can accommodate our tournament players, so that they’re in the casino while they’re here. We don’t want to give them a reason to go anywhere else.

“[Brown] realizes the impact we’re having on the community and our willingness to work with the community in being responsible,” Carter says of the governor’s benediction of the casino. “He’s also familiar with the industry because I understand his grandfather owned a card room. So it was recognition that we were important to the city in an area [Bell Gardens] that could use the help and that we were meeting what we perceived were our obligations to be good citizens and do what we can to improve.”

Carter’s favorite improvement has nothing to do with gaming but is an area initially designed to cash in on the current craze for nightclubs. “We kept the shell of the nightclub on the second floor and turned into an event center that could be set up as a nightclub – it’s wired up for sound and everything – and it opens up to a pool area. So it lends itself to things like weddings, quinceaneras, business meetings that are not in a traditional meeting room.”

Lee & Sakahara Architects and Hager Design International – culled from at least seven architectural firms -- wrought some dramatic changes on the interior. A chandelier comprised of 1,660 crystalline strands greets the visitor overhead and the floor pattern – in a nod to the casino’s name – is laid out in a carpet pattern of overlapping circles. Says Carter, “we wanted some things that were over-the-top nice so that they would become iconic features inside the hotel.”

On the outside, the desire was to craft “a substantial, sophisticated building that was welcoming to our customers.” What was desired was a post-modern look that wasn’t freakish but would garner attention, “a landmark that you could use to describe where you were along the freeway.

“Our competition was either doing heavy remodeling or new construction and we had a vision of how we wanted to be in order to compete,” Carter continues. “Our position was that we either grow and improve or we become irrelevant.” The Bike isn’t the largest card room in the Los Angeles area – Carter estimates that there are as many as four bigger ones – so dramatic differentiation was needed.

One of the things that grew during the makeover was the Bicycle Casino’s VIP playing area, done in a subdued Asian motif. Carter says this is in keeping with the casino’s history but also totemic of a reach for a new, international market, specifically Chinese and other Asian tourists. “For example, we have an [older] area called the Dragon Room, which was high-limit, Asian games, and that was done in a historic, Chinese motif. However, when we looked at that we didn’t necessarily want that again.”

What was desired was something that would have enough of an element of familiarity to provide the players with a feeling of comfort, but also intriguingly different. “We know that folks in that [Asian] market also like a lot of things about American architecture,” Carter says, “so we decided that we would blend that with facilities that were like home.”

As for the local player, the desire was to provide some new amenities that would make them feel like the Bicycle Casino was a place to hang out, not just play cards. The brewpub, Carter is convinced, would succeed even were it a stand-alone pub in the neighborhood, providing Bell Gardens residents with a place to socialize. Of the hard-core poker era, Carter says, “That market is changing and we felt like having people in our facility, whether or not they’re gaming, is nothing but good publicity for us.”

All these changes have met with “overwhelmingly positive” customer response and a “nice increase” in business. “It’s something that they have been asking for a long time.” So what does the future hold for the Bicycle Casino? Carter notes that several of the major card rooms tried to get permission to add slot machines several years ago but that their ballot initiative failed.

The casino’s card games are all ones that you could expect to find in a Las Vegas casino – with a critical difference. In those two money-spinners, blackjack and baccarat, you play them at the Bike in a non-banked format. That is to say, players play strictly against one another, not the house. Such is the nature of the California constitutional amendment that also permitted tribal casinos.

In terms of additional physical improvements, Carter notes that Bicycle Casino doesn’t have much land for expansion and the logical next step would be to add a parking garage, although the demand hasn’t reached that point. “If we’re forced to, we could do another tower and expand the gaming facility. If we’re successful with this part of our business plan, then yeah, we can expand.”

Having the governor of California come down from Sacramento to help open the new incarnation of the Bicycle Casino validates its importance to the surrounding community, Carter believes. The hotel brings room taxes and the expansion means more jobs for Bell Gardens. “First of all, we’ve really tried to be good neighbors with the city. We do a lot of community activity,” Carter says, “we provide scholarships for local children, we support the schools and we provide around 40 percent or more of the city’s general-fund budget. The community isn’t a rich community. It has high unemployment, so we’re an important economic force in that city. They rely on us.”

“Folks in Sacramento know what’s going on and the governor is aware that gaming in California, through the card rooms,” Carter concludes, “is an important fiscal factor for these smaller cities.”

In the newer, bigger, better Bicycle Casino, Bell Garden has a very important new factor indeed.