El Cajon, Chaldeans at odds over card rooms

elcajoncrystalballroom_t620.jpgThe private Chaldean social club, the Crystal Ballroom, may have to shut down due to new El Cajon rules on the operation of card rooms in the city. — Sean M. Haffey
EL CAJON — To many Chaldean men, it’s a social ritual. They played cards in their Iraqi villages. They like to play cards in the El Cajon area, home of some 40,000 Iraqi Christians.

They say they don’t gamble and that the table games are about the tea, food and lively conversation.

El Cajon officials, however, recently launched a crackdown on the practice, citing scattered reports of gambling at several restaurants and other establishments with a predominantly Chaldean and Middle Eastern clientele.

The city council voted unanimously to ban card rooms in the heart of town. Under the new rules, only members of fraternal groups and other nonprofits can engage in card-playing, if they get a license and are located outside downtown.

Mayor Mark Lewis said he has received phone calls from Chaldean women who complain their husbands are frittering away the family money gambling at clubs and coffeehouses. “It has gotten out of hand,” Lewis said.

Last summer, law enforcement authorities broke up a drug- and gun-trafficking ring that they said was based at the Chaldean Social Club at 811 E. Main St. Officials said wagering was also observed at the small establishment.

Chaldeans leaders say they support rooting out gambling, but believe the crackdown goes too far and reflects a misreading of their culture.

“People drink tea and they play and they play,” said Noori Barka, a vice president of the Chaldean American Association, which owns and operates the Crystal Ballroom, a downtown social club. “It has nothing to do with gambling.”

The rules took effect in December, but officials are holding off on enforcement in the face of concerns raised by Barka and others. With an eye toward possible modifications, the council is set to discuss the issue at a 3 p.m. meeting Tuesday at El Cajon City Hall, 200 Civic Center Way.

Several prominent Chaldeans say the center city ban, if enforced, would force them to close the Magnolia Avenue ballroom, long seen as a pillar of their immigrant community. Pinochle, konkan and other games are part of the evening tradition at the private, nonprofit club.

They say playing cards and gambling are not seen as intertwined in their ancient culture, either in Baghdad or El Cajon. Chaldeans are a religious minority in Iraq and many have fled that country since the U.S.-led invasion.

“For you, a card is for gambling. For us, a card is for fun,” said Barka, adding that he’s no fan of the betting life. “I wouldn’t put myself in a gambling place.”

He and others hope the council will make an exception and at least allow card-playing to continue at the ballroom, noting that city officials consider it a safe and gambling-free establishment.

Councilman Gary Kendrick said he might to open to that. “I think we want to be sensitive to their cultural needs,” he said.

A report issued Friday by city staff laid out three possible options for the council: Leave the new law as is; modify it to allow nonprofits to engage in card-playing downtown; or allow for-profit and nonprofit card rooms in all commercial areas of town, if the operators obtain a permit.

EL CAJON — Lewis is willing to consider modifications, but stands by the intent of the crackdown. He disagreed that it is rooted in a cultural misunderstanding between Chaldeans and non-Chaldeans.

“They are going to have to learn to adjust to our culture,” he said. “They are going to have to prove to us that they are not gambling.”

There are at least four sanctioned, for-profit card rooms in San Diego County, including Ocean’s 11 in Oceanside and Lucky Lady Casino in San Diego. All are subject to state and municipal gambling regulations.

Many cities, like Escondido and Carlsbad, ban the businesses entirely, but in some cases allow card-playing at senior citizen centers and other nonprofits if there is no wagering.

El Cajon officials say there are about 10 known card room operations in the city. Most, if not all, are believed to have a large Chaldean clientele.

Owners and customers insist there’s no wagering going on — and never was. Most are small, for-profit places like Sagmani’s, a strip-mall restaurant on Douglas Avenue.

Owner Frank Sagmani said business has withered since he stopped allowing cards a few weeks ago, in anticipation of the new rules.

“(Chaldeans) have been playing cards for generations,” he said. “That’s what they do.”

At the Crystal Ballroom on a recent evening, several tables in the large hall were lined with men playing cards. Others in the well-dressed crowd chatted over games of dominoes and backgammon.

The well-appointed club has 250 members and is often rented out for wedding receptions and other events. It’s also a popular stop for politicians who are seeking the support of the Chaldean business community.

Meanwhile, the for-profit social club targeted in last year’s raid remains in operation, but the owner expects the new rules to put him out of business for good. The scruffy-looking place draws many newer, low-income immigrants.

Officials say they have observed gambling at the establishment, along with other violations of state and municipal code. The club owner disputes any wrongdoing and accuses the city of harassment.

Customer Steve Toma believes the city is unfairly singling out Chaldeans. “This is cultural abuse,” said Toma, over tea and backgammon. “A bunch of rednecks still exist in El Cajon.”

At the time of the raid, authorities said many of those arrested had ties to a Mexican drug cartel and a Chaldean crime syndicate based in Detroit, home of the largest Chaldean population in the nation.

Local law enforcement officials and Chaldean leaders stressed, however, that said only a handful of those arrested were Chaldean.

Federal and state lawyers have since prosecuted about 30 people in connection with the raid on charges ranging from the transportation and sale of illegal substances to felony possession of a firearm. Several were sent to prison. Others are on probation or are awaiting sentencing

Slewah Gorgois checks out his cards as he plays the Chaldean game known as konkan.

February 10, 2012 | Photo by Sean M. Haffey