It’s time to paint a picture. CA-99 runs top to bottom through the middle.
This is not the California of movie opening scenes, surfers and Rodeo Drive in the south or the Golden Gate and Chinatown in the north. But it is a crucially important California – a demi-nation of agricultural towns, furiously working to deliver trucks and train cars full of fruits, vegetables, and nuts eastward across the U.S.
The word, the image, you need here is “parched”. There is dust on the trees, and billboards – some of them hand-painted – all but beg for water help from the state. Just a 90-minute drive to the east from the Aviator Casino in Delano is the Sequoia National Park (you can see the faint outline of the Sierra Nevada all up and down CA-99). Out there, scientists are testing the sequoias for stress – they fear that some of those 3000-year-old trees may not survive the drought.
There are a lot of times when I wish I were a better writer; this is one of them. I have a story to tell, and it needs the touch of somebody who can see the profile of the forest rather than just describe each tree. And interestingly, I know just the guy: John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck was a native of the Salinas, California, which is next door to the location for my narrative – the central valley of California, the produce garden of the United States. Steinbeck once wrote a travelogue titled “Travels with Charley.”
I traveled with Garry. That’s Garry Gates, PokerStars’ Player Liaison, and an all-around nice guy. We, along with several Team PokerStars Pros, went all over California educating people on the realties of iPoker in that state.
See, I’m done talking about the massive crowds of fans that lined up to get selfies with Daniel Negreanu and autographs from Chris Moneymaker. I’m mostly done talking about politics and grassroots and emails to legislators.
Near Diamond Jim’s Casino in Rosamond, we passed an airfield where medium and large commercial jets are packed together like sardines, awaiting a buyer. In the meantime, the almost complete lack of humidity prevents corrosion of surfaces and electronics. And there are untold square miles of flat on which to park the planes.
This is not a place for those softened by the gentle Mediterranean breezes of San Diego or the almost artificially good weather of the Bay Area. It is definitely not a place for people who are writing screenplays. It’s for folks who know what they’re about, understand who and where they are in the world, and get on with their lives.
The card clubs that Garry and I walked into had little pretense, no delusions of grandeur. But enormous pride by owners and staff throughout. They knew it wasn’t the Commerce or Bay 101, but they wouldn’t want it to be. It was the Aviator Casino, literally on the grounds of the Delano airfield, which has a reception desk shaped like an airplane engine cowling and a “hundred dollar hamburger” (look it up). There was Kyle Kirkland, owner of the Club One in Fresno. Stepping away from a cash game, I mentioned to Kyle that a dealer had broken what I considered good dealing protocol. “If it happens again, you tell me the table number and the time at which it happened. We have hi-def cameras on every table. If we mention little issues like that to the dealer and he says ‘It didn’t happen that way’, we just say, ‘Well, here it is on the video, so we need to fix it.'”
Or how during the Q&A portion of our visits, somebody would raise his or her hand and say to Daniel or Vanessa, “What’s your favorite poker club?” They already knew the right answer – they just wanted to see if we knew it too.
John Steinbeck, he would have been completely at home at places such as the 500 Casino, Diamond Jim’s, and the Aviation Casino. He would have appreciated a cold beer as he escaped the eye-searing central valley heat. And he would have mixed beautifully in the menudo of Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic people that populates the CA-99 corridor.
Which is what I really want to talk about. The people. The owners, staff, and patrons welcomed all the PokerStars/coalition people into their card clubs as they would their homes. They brought us chocolate and one guy gave us two giant bags of nectarines. They helped us carry branding posters from the cars and wouldn’t let us pay for meals we were served. At one stop, Vanessa Selbst had to ask the patrons to stop buying her drinks.
The folks we met were generous with their time, their friendship, and their stories; we could not have asked for more.
And this is where I’m coming back to the original point of the tour and this series of blog posts. As I said, we could not have asked for more from the poker communities of California’s central valley. They were asking for one simple thing: the opportunity to safely and securely play online poker in their underwear for a few bucks. Life along CA-99 isn’t a bowl of cherries. People have always worked hard out there to bring us nectarines and almonds, and now they’re fighting a drought that’s threatening their whole way of life. It seems like the politicians in Sacramento could at least give them the same home recreational opportunity that somebody in Canada or England or Brazil enjoys. And it would actually make money for the state.
Now since I don’t have John Steinbeck here to re-write this for me, I’m going to leave the finale to Gilberto, who we met down in Rosamond, at Diamond Jim’s Casino. He can say it far better (in many ways) than I can…
Lee Jones is the Director of Poker Communications at PokerStars and has been part of the professional poker world for over 25 years. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones