Steve Ruddock Normandie CA casino closure

The oldest existing card room in the state of California, and one of the original Gardena casinos, Normandie Casino, fell on very hard times following the economic downturn of 2009.

And true to the old saying of “desperate times call for desperate measures,” the casino’s longtime owners resorted to truly desperate measures. Now Normandie Casino is in real dire straits.

According to the Daily Breeze, the card room is reportedly laying off 380 employees and (temporarily) closing its doors in the wake of the conviction of its four owners, Lee, Larry, Greg, and Steve Miller, on felony money laundering charges.

The four brothers, and partners in running Normandie, pleaded guilty to laundering $1.38 million through their card room, and will pay a multimillion-dollar fine.

The charges stem from a multi-year investigation into the casino that uncovered the Normandie, in a reckless attempt to lure big players to the property, was helping high-rollers launder money by not filing AML Currency Transaction Reports required for all transactions over $5,000 by the Bank Secrecy Act.

The investigation began after a patron discovered a duffel bag with $50,000 in cash in a store room.

In December of 2015, the Oaks Card Club was also fined for violating the Bank Secrecy Act.

What’s next for Normandie?

Following the convictions of the Millers, the California Gambling Control Commission revoked the four owners’ gaming licenses, but has given them a four month window to broker a sale.

The word around the campfire is that Larry Flynt, who owns the nearby Hustler Casino, is trying to purchase the Normandie Casino with the intention of renovating and expanding the property, according to gaming industry veteran Robert Turner, who spoke with the Daily Breeze.

While a short-term negative for the casino, its employees, and the city, if the Flynt rumors are true, Normandie Casino will reopen bigger and better than ever. Speculation about the property’s future under Flynt includes the addition of a hotel, shopping, and other amenities.

If it happens, the Normandie would be transformed from a gambling hall to a full-fledged Las Vegas-style destination casino.

The storied history of Normandie Casino

It wasn’t the first legal card room in California – that honor goes to Embassy Palace – but it was close. Normandie Casino first opened in 1940 as the Western Club, and was originally owned by Embassy Palace owner Ernie Primm.

California’s current’s card rooms all owe a debt of gratitude to Primm, a true visionary and the father of California card rooms.

Primm was the man who challenged California’s gaming laws when he decided to openly offer draw poker games at his Embassy Palace in 1936. Poker was thought to be illegal under California law, but Primm firmly believed draw poker was legal under California law.

Following a showdown with authorities – resulting in four arrests – in 1937, Primm took his case to the courts. He eventually prevailed, and sparked the California poker rush in Gardena. The court ruled that poker was only legal under certain conditions; a local municipality legalizing card rooms was one of those conditions.

The popular Gardena card room was later purchased by Russ Miller (a former employee of Primm’s) in 1947 and rebranded as Normandie Club (later to become the Normandie Casino). The casino has been in the Miller family ever since, but not at the same location.

In 1980, Gardena had a lot of competition as more and more California cities were legalizing card rooms. In this environment, Russ Miller decided to move the Normandie to a bigger and newer location, just a few years before California law expanded offerings at card rooms to include Stud and Holdem poker games, sparking a mini poker boom in the Golden State.

With Russ Miller’s steady hand on the tiller, and Normandie’s history and iconic status as a California landmark, the casino continued to prosper, even as larger, more opulent card rooms grabbed an increasing amount of the market share.

As noted above, it wasn’t until the recession that Normandie really began to struggle. However, the casino’s potential is still there. Prior to the money laundering investigation coming to light, Normandie had been turning things around.

Steve Ruddock
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