Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"You called me with jack high!?!"

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Five card players sit around a Reseda poker table while the dealer takes lessons from a homeless man.

"Make sure you lay the card flat. You gotta lay it flat, otherwise everyone can see," the man tells an aspiring actress who paid $750 for six weeks of dealer training.

The instructor wears unstrapped black overalls, leather sandals and socks, an olive green shirt and a tie-dyed tie. He is Ellix Powers, former crack addict, recovering vagrant and professional poker player - a competitor in the World Series of Poker that starts in Las Vegas today.

From beneath the Ventura Freeway, Powers burst onto the poker stage in 2004, winning two tournaments at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens before becoming one of the most memorable characters at gambling's biggest tournament.

Since then, he's been living in Reseda or Arleta or Long Beach - pretty much anywhere there's a friendly couch - while he waits for his investments to pay off. He's starring in an unfinished independent documentary about the hard life of poker players and teaching at the Poker Academy on Sherman Way.

Powers, 53, is too busy with teaching to spend as much time gambling but he didn't want to miss the World Series. The first of 45 events begins today; the no-limit hold 'em world championship will run from July 28 to Aug. 10.

In the past few years, poker has become a national phenomenon, a roll of the dice that gives more skilled players an edge but offers a rush that some pros describe as better than sex.

At the 2003 World Series, an unknown Nashville, Tenn., accountant - aptly named Chris Moneymaker - won the main event and $2.5 million. Moneymaker beat a field of 839. Last year, the $7.5 million champion had to outlast 5,618.

"The Moneymaker effect has sent a very clear signal that just about anyone can win our tournament," said World Series Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack. "It's pretty unique that the housewife from Peoria can pay to enter and end up sitting at a table with one of the top players in the world."

Moneymaker made a lot of people believe novices had a chance in any poker game, something that couldn't be said about rookies at the Boston Marathon, the Master's or Wimbledon.

So some have shifted from the suit-and-tie life to hustling online poker games and card rooms. But the specter of riches remains an illusion for many more.

"It's no different than playing in the NBA. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of kids who think they are going to make it to the NBA. But there are only 400 players in the NBA," said Pollack, a former National Basketball Association executive. "The odds of making a living competing at the absolute highest level are very, very slim."

Powers knows that.

In 2004, he incited the World Series' second-most memorable moment, his 15 minutes of fame replayed over and over on ESPN reruns.

At the final table for limit hold 'em, Powers did everything he could to disrupt the game's natural flow.

He bet and raised before being dealt cards. He offered patronizing apologies for his capricious play. He thanked opponents for losing while they were still in the hand. He flat out talked trash like former Laker Gary Payton.

"You're disrespecting the game," author James McManus scolded him.

"I can raise in the dark anytime I want," Powers shot back, referring to his move of betting without looking at his cards. "I'm going to do it every time now."

His erratic play got the best of McManus, who quickly called a bet from Powers when all McManus had was queen high. Powers taunted him, albeit inaccurately.

"You called me with a jack high? You called me with a jack high? He called me with a jack high," Powers repeated after goading McManus into the bad play.

"This guy is nuts. I like him. He's good for poker," pro John Hennigan mused. "I'm having fun. I never have fun. This guy is making me have fun."

Powers eventually got bumped in seventh place and strutted to the cashier.

"Do I get any money here? Do I get any money?"

He got $40,040. But Powers has only won about $12,000 at tournaments during the two years since, according to a database of pros at pokerpages.com. He's also won and lost an unspecified amount playing in casinos and mostly online.

"Poker is a big, cruel beast," Powers said in an interview. "There's not a lot of sympathy in the game. There ain't no refunds."

As he sat down for lunch at La Tortilla Loca in Reseda, he asked a reporter who was buying.

"I don't eat that much," he said, adding that he usually doesn't order food and just waits for friends' scraps.

The waitress approached.

"What kind of beer you got?" Powers asked her.

Interrupted and told free beer wasn't part of the deal, he ordered water.

"I was born in the service," Powers said as he began to unfold his history.

His father, Elliott, was an Air Force colonel, and Ellix grew up in a strict house.

"There's nothing I know about him," Elliott Powers, now an attorney in Colorado Springs, Colo., said of his son. "He didn't get a college degree; he's living under a bridge. He's been very disappointing."

The family moved a lot. After graduating from high school in Sacramento, Powers left for college in Kansas, where he met a woman.

She left for Utah, he followed. They had a daughter and parted ways.

Powers ended up in Reno and found cocaine before escaping to Kansas City, Mo. There, he met another woman. After they married and had a daughter, they quickly divorced, and Powers set out for California.

Los Angeles offered another clean slate, but the casinos south of downtown and the crack cocaine flourishing in that area in the early 1990s were too strong a pull.

"I was dabbling with the devil," he said.

Then, one day three years ago, Powers had an epiphany in between panhandling under Highway 101. He had been reading "More Than a Carpenter," a book by Christian author Josh McDowell, and Powers decided he needed to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ.

"I used to always pray, hope God would get me out of this mess," he said. "Eventually, he caught up with me."

Shortly after, in March 2004, Powers won two tournaments at the Bicycle Casino and pocketed $46,535. After the World Series, he returned to L.A. and tried grinding out a living at area card rooms.

A year ago at Hollywood Park he met Stuart Locascio, a Panorama City jeweler with hopes of opening a poker school in the San Fernando Valley.

Locascio believed there was a market for training dealers, servicing parties and providing a place for novices to practice. Poker Academy opened in December with Powers as its poker education director.

The academy opens at 11 a.m. daily and closes when Locascio or Powers decides no more clients are coming, usually after 8 p.m.

His duties haven't left Powers much time to visit casinos. Plus, he needs a lift to get there because his '98 Pontiac Firebird is parked in Reno, Nev., home of the Peppermill Hotel Casino, which Powers considers his permanent residence.

Lacking much time in casinos, Powers hasn't been able to find a financial backer. These venture capitalists, if you will, offer a trade-off: Play for free, but return some, often half, of the winnings. They are the lifeblood of many high rollers.

But Powers said he garnered enough to enter four or five World Series events at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino, including $10,000 for the main event. He also plans to hang around the casino and look for suckers throwing money away in nontournament games.

Ed Moulton first met Powers at one of those tables during the World Series last year.

They got to talking, and Powers quickly asked Moulton for $200 so he could enter a satellite tournament, which, if he won, would pay his entry into a bigger event. Moulton agreed.

Powers called the next day. "Oh man, I'm so depressed. Things didn't go my way," Moulton remembered hearing.

Later, though, Moulton ran into a mutual friend who said Powers didn't even enter the tournament.

"This guy was like, `Watch out for Ellix. He's a street hustler,"' he recalled. "That only made me want to hang out with Ellix more. When his stay was up at the Little Hotel, he crashed with me for a few days."

While Powers' life story is unique, his financial struggles are not.

Gamblers are notorious for their "leaks" - extracurriculars that siphon away a chunk of their winnings. Some of poker's biggest stars win hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournaments, and then lose it playing craps or betting on sports.

Without question, poker favors the more skilled, and, many would argue, the more patient. It is a game of information. The more rationally players evaluate their cards against what their opponents might have based on betting patterns, the more they'll win.

Still, poker is gambling and it attracts people who enjoy taking risks, said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Nick the Greek was the biggest gambler in the history of the 20th century," Schwartz said. "He ended up playing dollar games down in L.A., and when he died, they had to take up a collection for his funeral."

Powers' leaks were always drugs. But now he's sober and has a regular job. He doesn't have a place of his own but at least he has friends who do. And he's living with more stability than he's known in 20 years.

Yet like an entertainer remembered as a one-hit wonder, he is desperately looking to move beyond his "jack-high" fame.

"You can have one record or you can do one movie and you can be OK for a while, but until you follow through, you really ain't made it yet. But that's where I'm at, and I'm working on it," he said. "I don't want to own everything. I just want to be in charge of my life."

Friday, June 23, 2006

"These men aren't drunk, it's only 9 in the morning ..."

From: Los Angeles Daily News

STUDIO CITY - Early morning on a workday seems an odd time for a bunch of Yankees to be watching soccer in a British pub.

But that was the case Thursday at The Fox and Hounds, where about 100 Angelenos arrived before - or instead of - work to watch the U.S. soccer team take on Ghana in a World Cup must-win match for both. It was a reminder that futbol may not be football in the United States, but for at least one month every four years, it attracts a crowd.

"I could watch it at home, but you don't get the shared excitement and the shared pain," said Tommy Mack, 36, of Toluca Lake. "Besides, I don't have Guinness on tap."

The Fox and Hounds and the White Harte pub in Woodland Hills, with the same owner, have been busy in the first round of the World Cup, opening the doors at 5:30 a.m.

When the U.S.-Ghana game started and ESPN broke away to a live shot of fans watching in New York's Times Square, the crowd there was smaller than that inside the Studio City pub.

"Futbol doesn't exist here, and yet you go to places like this and it does, but it's sort of a hush-hush, under-the-table existence," said owner Gary Richards, who made about $2,000 in sales during the morning game.

Many of the early-morning patrons showed up in sports coat and ties, en route to the office. Others had phoned in sick and wore soccer jackets and jerseys.

"I took the day off because I will either: a) be so ecstatic that I keep drinking until I pass out, or b) be in such a funk that I would hit people with my fist," Mack said.

The funk began in the 22nd minute, when Ghana took the lead after stripping the ball from U.S. captain Claudia Reyna. He fell down, holding an ankle, as players like to do after they get beat.

There was much booing in the pub.

"Reyna should have retired after that goal. He's too old," said Dave Zierler, 31, of Santa Monica, watching the game before heading to work at Universal Music.

Zierler and many others wondered just where the U.S. team's underrated opponents came from. "Ghana? I think it's somewhere in Africa. I don't think anyone knows where it is," Zierler said.

Ghana - whose team was ranked 48th by FIFA before it shocked the second-ranked Czech Republic on Saturday - is in western Africa, between Ivory Coast and Togo. This is Ghana's first World Cup competition.

At 7:43 a.m., seven minutes before halftime, U.S. midfielder Clinton Dempsey volleyed a point-blank bullet into the left corner, and the pub erupted.

To advance, the United States needed Italy to beat the Czech Republic in a game being played simultaneously. Bar TVs showed Italy up 1-0. Americans were starting to believe.

But three minutes later, hope was fleeting.


"That's a horrible call!"

U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu had just jumped into the air for a head-ball, barely making contact with a Ghana forward. But the referee blew his whistle and awarded the Africans a penalty kick. The result: 2-1, Ghana.

"It is astonishing that, at this height of the game, the officiating is so disastrous," Dan Loney said.

The second half began slowly. Emotion at the bar was muted. "This is ridiculous; I can't stand watching this. They are flat-footed," said Jason Cook, a "Days of Our Lives" actor and midfielder for the Conejo Valley United Soccer Club.

But then the United States turned up the pressure. There were rolling roars of excitement between the 65th and 68th minutes, when the U.S. had three promising shots on goal.

That was as close as the U.S. team got. At 8:50 a.m., with five minutes left and work fast approaching for many, people started slipping out. "Bottom line: We blew it," Mack said.

After the ref sounded the final whistle, Moses Atangana busted open the bar door - his world going from dark to bright - and offered some unexpected jubilation.

"We did it! We won!" said Atangana, a Ghana fan who said he long ago played for the national soccer team of his native Cameroon.

Inside the pub, Eddie Francoeur, 31, of North Hollywood sat at the bar, mourning with friends and his fourth pint of Carlsberg beer.

Francouer skipped work Thursday after calling in sick - which he truly may have been after the U.S. loss.

"I'm going to be here until they kick me out tonight," he said. "I'm going to drink heavily until we qualify for the next World Cup."

Monday, June 12, 2006


From: Los Angeles Daily News

STUDIO CITY - Jane Drucker moved into a 1948 vintage apartment on Laurelwood Drive 21 years ago. A block south of Ventura Boulevard, the street had all the charm she needed.

But little by little, Drucker has watched that fade. In the past two years, two homes and a piece of land on her side of the street have morphed into luxury condominiums.

Drucker's building is slated to be next.

"You're losing the social structure of the neighborhood," the 54-year-old life coach said, sitting in her spacious yet cozy two-bedroom apartment at 11805 Laurelwood. "And we can't afford to get into the condo market. Somebody suggested we use our relocation money as a down payment. Well, $3,000 is going to get me a car but not a condo."

The disappearance of rent-controlled apartments - those built before 1979 - is a phenomenon occurring across Los Angeles. More than 11,000 such units have vanished during the past five years, including about 7,000 in the past 18 months.

In Van Nuys and Encino, Sherman Oaks and Sun Valley - from the northern San Fernando Valley to the South Bay - developers are making a tidy profit converting these units or completely rebuilding them as condos and town homes.

"This wave of condo-mania is ripping through the heart and soul of many...L.A. communities, and it's just running like wildfire," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which led the rent-control movement in the late '70s and is pushing for a moratorium on condo conversions.

A changing cityscape is visible across Studio City - in scores of under-construction monoliths along the L.A. River, on Coldwater Canyon Avenue, near the CBS Studio Center. On Moorpark Street before 8 a.m. recently, a bulldozer turned to rubble a cottage home standing the night before, clearing ground for eight condos.

Low-rent tenants are being evicted and can't afford apartments at the market rate. Those who remain are frustrated by the fleeting charm of their once homey neighborhoods. The issue is acute in the 11800 block of Laurelwood Drive.

"I went to sleep and woke up and found myself surrounded by condos that literally went up overnight," said Keith Merritt, 38, a writer who lives in the Laurelwood Penthouse Apartments.

The 20-unit Rudolph Schindler building, one of Studio City's few cultural landmarks, is listed for sale at $5.9 million. The owner is trying to convince interested buyers it could be converted into condos without much fuss. Because of the historic designation, it would be cumbersome, though possible, to raze the building.

Laurelwood already has been overrun with traffic, construction crews and illegal parking, residents say. Carpenter Avenue School is beyond capacity. And $900,000 condos will usher in anti-family yuppies who won't care about their neighbors, critics say.

To be sure, parking is atrocious during the day, but restricted to residents from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Carpenter's principal said the school has 848 students and can handle 900. And, of course, it's natural to resent a neighbor whose purchase might motivate your landlord to evict you and build condos.

Public meetings

Furor and fear have resulted in three joint meetings of the City Council's planning and housing committees. A standing-room-only crowd of about 400 people packed Monarch Hall at Valley College recently to address concerns about Studio City and Valley Village.

But solutions aren't simple. Under the state Ellis Act, landlords cannot be forced to stay in the apartment business.

"They can tear down their building. There is nothing I can do about that," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said. A Studio City resident, Greuel said the community needs a balanced housing stock, but didn't elaborate.

The Department of City Planning could not provide statistics on new condo construction and conversions under way in individual communities because those figures are kept only by council district.

But in Studio City, where the median-priced home hit $875,000 in April, the most recent period reported, and where condos seemingly sprout in larger numbers than anywhere else in the Valley, rent-controlled units are, as Valerie Yaros says, "endangered."

"The whole character of the neighborhood is being destroyed. And the color is changing from green to beige. I call this condo-mania `the beige plague,"' said Yaros, who has lived in the Twin Palms apartments on Laurelwood since 1990 and pays less than $1,000 for a two-bedroom.

"Look at what's in front of my building. Look at all the green! Trees. Palms. Flowers," Yaros said as she walked Laurelwood. "Instead of preserving, they just see massive, massive profits. Going. Going. Gone!"

The Twin Palms' owners, who declined to comment, sent tenants a letter in April that said they were "exploring the feasibility of demolishing the building and putting the property to some other use."

This has become a common tactic: Instead of dealing with the complications of converting apartments to condos, developers are scrapping whole complexes and starting over.

When a $1 million home can be replaced with four condos that will sell for $800,000 each, the incentive to build condos is clear. Same goes for trading 20 apartments - which could generate a combined $30,000 a month and require upkeep - for 20 condos.

But, similar to the period before real estate tanked in the early 1990s, a glut of unreserved, under-construction condos is developing.

Deck House Court, built on a vacant Laurelwood lot between Drucker's and Yaros' apartments, was completed in January but has only filled 11 of 21 units, ranging in price from $695,000 to $900,000.

"Everybody is used to the fast market, and now it is slowing down," said Joanne Lindsay, an agent selling the town homes. "It's not that there is anything wrong with it. It's nice for the buyers to have a chance to breathe."

If the real estate market continues to slow, the motivation for apartment owners to convert their units to condos will dissipate, said Chris Thornberg, an economist with the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

"This will pass. We will get through this," said Thornberg, who long ago theorized the current housing market is a bubble set to burst.

However, Thornberg said any additional regulations, such as a moratorium on building condos, would discourage developers from buying a piece of land for new apartments and would worsen rental conditions.

Cashing in

Meanwhile, apartment owners are still trying to cash in. Laurelwood Ventures, which purchased Drucker's building less than two years ago, applied last July to build 24 condos in place of 15 apartments.

"Obviously, the motivation is financial," said Ben Reznik, the developer's attorney, who added that the condos would have 54 parking spaces and would improve the street.

"Maintaining older buildings like this and just keeping them there - some people view these as more affordable than what would be built - is a sort of naive and backwards way to think of maintaining a stock of affordable housing because the owner is disincentivized from putting money back into the building," Reznik said.

The condo project was approved in March and appealed by the Studio City Residents Association, which disagreed with the city's willingness to vacate 30 feet of Laurelwood to the developer. The South Valley Planning Commision rejected that appeal Thursday, and the residents association is considering appealing to the City Council.

Development guidelines are laid out in the city's general plan for Cahuenga Pass, Sherman Oaks, Studio City and Toluca Lake. It hasn't been updated since 1987, so residents are fighting building proposals as they arise.

"We usually reach agreement on these things," said Tony Lucente, president of the residents association. "But in the last year, the scales have been tipped, and people are very angry and upset because they are literally witnessing the destruction of our neighborhoods.

"The thing I always say to developers is, You're dying to come into Studio City because we've made it such a good place. But how long will that last?"

Paralee King, 59, has lived on Laurelwood since she was 7. Her house is one of only two remaining on the north side of the block. Last February, she bought the other, paying about $850,000 for the 1,300-square-foot, 1939 cottage. She's since made about $200,000 in upgrades.

The purchase made her a hero among some neighbors. But King wants no such esteem.

"I wanted that house because I don't want a high-rise next to me," King said. "But if I want a high-rise, that's my decision. I don't need any neighborhood association telling me what to do.

"I'm sorry about all the building, but they should have stopped it 10 years ago when that building went up across the street from me. It is too late now. They want to stop it from happening to the last two houses on the street?" she asked. "It's too late."