Playing cards on the Central Coast

Monday, January 20th, 2014


Grover Beach’s Central Coast Casino is the place for Texas Hold ‘em

A casino might be the last place on earth where you’d expect to learn words to live by. Nevertheless, after an hour or two with Central Coast Casino Owner Dave Stearns—a one-time world champion poker player who once turned a $60 buy-in into $130,000—the priceless life lessons gained trump any monetary winnings you might earn.

The constant click and clack of chips and the intermittent whir of shuffling cards provide a tantalizing musical score for the scene, next door to Mongo’s Saloon in Grover Beach, where, beneath the high ceilings of an impressive Victorian-style building, focused players line the four, wide tables, deeply engrossed in the casino’s most popular game, Texas Hold ’Em.

Although once a formidable opponent around a card table, Stearns greets us warmly and in a laid-back, approachable style. With a surfer’s tanned appearance and a broad smile, he has no poker face when it comes to discussing his life-long love of the game and the 15th anniversary which his casino will celebrate this November. He says, for his usual customers, who like the cast on Cheers, are a fun and motley crew of characters from all walks of life, the casino is like their second home and one common factor unites them: love for the thrill of poker.

For the newcomer, the quiet, inscrutable games going on all around seem grave and intimidating. But Stearns maintains that learning poker is simple, and his eyes brighten at the opportunity to divulge some secrets of the game he now plays more by instinct than by mathematical calculation. In a slow, deliberate tone, he deals us a hand of tips that anyone—gambler or not—would be wise to hold on to.

Have as much fun as you can without getting hurt

Stearns starts off every poker lesson by saying, “Poker is for two kinds of people: kings and fools. Which one are you?” He explains that the most important thing in his card room is to keep it recreational—have fun, and, as his large sign of rules posted in the center of the room states, never play with money you can’t afford to lose. “I really emphasize responsible card playing,” he says, noting that for this reason he does not keep an ATM on site, and buy-ins are lower than the typical casino. “There are pit falls to getting involved too deeply,” Stearns cautions, but if you’re able to control yourself, poker can be an immensely enjoyable pastime.

There’s no luck like experience

Stearns says that, in the short-run, poker is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill; but in the long-run it’s just the opposite. For that reason, he advises beginners to stick to a very simple game plan: Don’t be afraid to fold.

When it comes to Texas Hold ’Em, “The most important decision you make is whether to play or not play the first two cards,” Stearns says definitively. He tells beginning students that if their first two cards are each ten or higher, play them; if not, throw them away. While this can be a tough one to stick to when dealt a tempting ace or two low cards of the same suit, the simple principle pays off in the end. “While you’re throwing away cards, it doesn’t cost you anything…But you’re gaining table time”—experience that is invaluable to boosting your chances in the long term.

Know your limits

“If you play better than the rest of the people at the table, you will win, slowly, over time,” Stearns says. This can be a reassuring thought; but it’s also double-edged. “The right time to leave is when … you’re the worst player there. You have to be able to evaluate yourself.” He explains that in the poker world, the player at a table who continually loses is referred to as a “live one.” “If you look around at the table and you don’t see a ‘live one,’ it’s probably you!” he laughs.

Sooner or later, everyone has to lose

The simple reality of gambling is that there is no guarantee of winning; risk is always involved, regardless of skill level. With this basic fact in mind, Stearns tells players that rather than coming in to win, “Your goal should be to win or lose a little bit. You’re not going to win consistently. Even if you’re really good, you’re not going to win all the time,” he cautions, telling of his own slumps. “If it’s not your day, go see a movie. This game will be here tomorrow.”

And after fifteen years of sensible, strategic success, Central Coast Casino is sure to be here for many days ahead.

— Jamie Relth


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