Former king of L.A. casino hits a string of bad luck

At one time, George Hardie ran Bell Garden’s reputable Bicycle Club. Now after a venture to open a card club in Belize, he’s trying to get his son out of a Mexican jail.

George Hardie once ran the world’s largest card club. In its prime, the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens was a second home to some of the top poker players in the country. It had a reputation for clean games, and folks liked to boast they could go there to vie with legendary card players Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, as well as celebrities such as Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

Now Hardie is 75, splitting his time between Las Vegas and the tiny town of Corozal, Belize, hoping to free his son and three security guards from a Mexican jail just over the border.

Every gambler has his story, and they all come back to luck. Hardie’s latest turn came after he put down a big bet on casino gambling in Belize. His venture wasn’t working out as well as he had dreamed even before his son, George Jr., wound up in jail. His son had followed unruly gamblers from Corozal to the Mexican border, where he was charged with possession of a gun and attempted murder.

At first, local newspapers portrayed the two Mexican nationals as innocent victims who were shot at in a quarrel over beer.

„I’m very afraid that something else will happen to me, because those people have a lot of power and money. They tried to kill me,“ the wounded man told a local newspaper from his hospital bed.

But after Hardie released video from the casino that night, some Mexican newspapers began to criticize the arrest of the four men, with a leading paper in the state of Quintana Roo calling it „a terrible injustice.“

The case has Hardie looking back at the tough hands he’s been dealt in his decades in the gambling business.

A sweet hand

None of those bad cards would have come up, Hardie insists, if he hadn’t been pushed out of the best game in town nearly 15 years ago.

In the mid-1980s, Hardie was holding a sweet hand. He was the de facto king of the card clubs.

„Hardie was the driving force that created the Bike club, the largest card casino in the world,“ said Nelson Rose, a Whittier Law School professor and an expert on gambling. „You could almost say that Hardie was the father of the modern large California card club.“

The games may have been on the up-and-up, but much of the financing for the casino, it turned out, was not.

In the late 1980s, the casino was raided by federal agents, who accused some of the card club’s partners of building up the casino with laundered drug money. An investigation turned up no evidence that Hardie had any involvement, and he testified for the prosecution.

Things got worse for Hardie when the federal government got into the gambling business. U.S. marshals seized the club in 1990 after a jury convicted four men of racketeering charges stemming from laundering millions of dollars from drug deals through a number of companies, including the Bicycle Club.

Hardie stayed in the game for a while. But the government ran the club with the caution of a bureaucrat, he said. The feds weren’t interested in taking chances on modernizing. Other clubs caught up. The Commerce Casino soon became the preeminent card club, surpassing the Bicycle Club, now the Bicycle Casino.

Hardie resigned as general manager in 1994, saying he wanted to pursue other interests, but remained a partner. But he had been at odds with the federal trustee who ran the casino. Two years later, the state attorney general’s office recommended stripping the licenses of that trustee and top managers, saying they knowingly allowed scams, kickbacks, loan-sharking, illegal games and cheating at the club.

Meanwhile, the club’s profits began to decline.

He turned his eyes to Nevada, moving there in the late 1990s.

He ran for county commissioner in Clark County but lost. He looked at opening a casino in Las Vegas, but he said he didn’t stand a chance against the huge corporate-owned casinos.

Mostly, Hardie’s time was consumed by a lawsuit he filed against the federal government, arguing that the feds nearly ran the Bicycle Club into the ground, eroding profits for Hardie and his partners. In 2004, an arbitration panel ruled in favor of Hardie and his partners, saying they were due USD 93.6 million from the federal government. The ruling is being appealed.

The closest Hardie came to running a casino again was a small „slot parlor“ store he owned in Cancun, Mexico. The machines did not give cash, but rather tickets that could be used for prizes, such as meals, at about 40 hotels. Belize was tantalizingly close, and he felt the country would appreciate any business.

„I felt like Columbus jumping on the boat, trying to find the trade route to India,“ Hardie said with a laugh. „You always think big.“

Hardie dreamed of high-rollers from Mexico City and other parts of Mexico showing up to gamble in Belize. It took years to raise the funds and to find investors, and then to build the casino. There were delays.

Two years ago, Hardie’s Las Vegas Casino finally opened in Corozal. But the high-rollers did not show up. Instead, most of the gamblers were local Belizeans and working-class Mexicans from just across the border.

He knew that one reason the well-heeled had not shown up was that his casino did not have a hotel yet. But the first part of his planned hotel, which he vows will be Belize’s most luxurious, will open by the end of the year, he said. And the rest could be finished by April 2009, he added.

Hardie said he was hopeful.

Then, on July 13, two men from the nearby Mexican town of Chetumal showed up at the casino. Hardie was at his Las Vegas home when he got a call from one of the casino regulars in Belize: There had been a shootout in the parking lot.

Police in Corozal said the men from Chetumal had been ordered out of the casino for combative behavior and suspicion of being drunk. They returned, firing guns, according to police. At least one security guard apparently fired back, wounding one of the men, who fled over the border. Hardie’s son showed up and with three security guards drove to the Mexican border. He said they went there to warn Mexican authorities about the shooters. But he and the guards were carrying weapons.

Mexican authorities arrested them and charged them with crossing the border with guns.

„They had every intention of letting the Mexican government know that this shooting happened,“ said their Mexican attorney in Chetumal, Luis Jorge Fitzmaurice Moguel. „Unfortunately, they presented themselves to the Mexican border with arms, and they were held. It was a moment of carelessness.“

Fitzmaurice Moguel said Mexican authorities based the charges on the story the two Mexican men told them, and that the younger Hardie did not participate in the shooting. Authorities declined to comment, except to provide a statement saying that the younger Hardie and the security guards had violated Mexico’s federal arms law and that they were held on additional charges of attempted murder.

A judge is expected to determine whether the charges are valid as early as Wednesday. Meanwhile, the onetime king of L.A.‘s card clubs is paying for the legal defense of his son and his casino guards. He said he’s cautiously optimistic that they will be released. Hardie said he’s going forward with his Belizean gamble, though with a bit less excitement for the hand he’s holding.

„This sort of dampened my enthusiasm for being here, quite frankly,“ he said. „To be honest, I’m just a little disappointed.“