American Canyon’s cardroom has been the only cardroom in Napa County for years, drawing dozens of patrons to its 24/7 ranch-style gambling facility on Highway 29.
But what many locals may forget is that the city of Napa once had a cardroom too — a five-table operation on California Boulevard created in the early 1980s by a lounge owner, Dean Hemphill.
Hemphill’s Lounge and Card Room, which later was purchased by Billy Long, operated until 2005, the year Long died, according to court documents. The property has since been sold and the building leveled.
Hemphill’s gaming license lives on, the subject of hearings by state gaming regulators that have left it in limbo, according to the California Gambling Control Commission, the state regulator for gambling licenses.
The Hemphill license has expired, but it is not dead, Pamela Mares, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Friday. The license was provisional because it was issued through the Bureau of Gambling Control of the California State Attorney General’s Office before the Gambling Control Commission took over licensing procedures.
A son of Billy Long, Timothy J. Long of Napa, tried to have the license transferred to him but was turned down in December 2010 after another Napa Valley card room, Napa Valley Casino, argued against the transfer, citing Long’s alleged lack of financial stability, according to court records.
Letters on file with the California Gambling Commission show Brian Altizer, an owner of Napa Valley Casino, opposing the transfer of the license from Billy Long to son Timothy J. Long.
Altizer, who is being prosecuted by the city of American Canyon over nonpayment of cardroom fees, told the commission in 2010 that Hemphill’s gaming license had expired and could not be transferred, according to the letters and court records. The letters also alleged Timothy Long owed money to BVK, statements Long strongly denied in court documents.
The license is now the focus of a $750,000 lawsuit between Timothy Long and BVK Gaming Inc./Napa Valley Casino of American Canyon in Napa County Superior Court, according to court documents.
In May 2011, Timothy J. Long filed suit against BVK Gaming Inc./Napa Valley Casino and Altizer. Long alleged Altizer had agreed in 2007 to purchase his father’s gambling license before opposing the transfer of the license from his father’s estate to himself, according to court records.
“BVK Gaming began to intentionally protest that Mr. Long should not have the benefit of the gaming license, therefore eliminating Mr. Long and Hemphill’s from competing with BVK Gaming and Napa Valley Casino,” according to court filings filed by Long’s attorney.
Long accuses Altizer and BVK Gaming of fraud, breach of contract and other allegations, according to court records. Altizer has denied the allegations, according to court records.
A trial is scheduled for March, according to court documents.
Long and business partners had planned to relocate the cardroom to Jordan Lane, behind Walmart, once the license was transferred, according to court filings associated with two other lawsuits involving the cardroom and Long.
The late Dean Hemphill built the cardroom, adding it to the existing Hemphill’s Cocktail Lounge on California Boulevard (in an area now called California Way) more than three decades ago because he loved to play cards, recalled daughter Julie Hemphill-Miller of Napa.
Hemphill-Miller said she loved working at the bar and cardroom, which attracted mostly old-timers. “It was the greatest group of people, ever,” she said.
Billy Long purchased Hemphill’s Cocktail and Card Room in the late 1980s from Dean and Patricia Hemphill of Napa. At the time, Billy Long owned American Canyon’s Napa Valley Casino. Hemphill’s was the city of Napa’s only cardroom at the time.
Unlike casinos, cardrooms are restricted by state rules to a limited number of card games. Unlike Indian casinos, there are no slot machines.
The state has a moratorium on new cardroom licenses. Statewide, California counts 88 licensed cardrooms, including Napa Valley Casino.
Taking a break from a game of poker at Napa Valley Casino on Thursday, former Hemphill manager Lee Brinkmoeller said Hemphill’s cardroom was busy in the early 1980s before other forms of gambling, such as flop, became popular.
The state decides which games can be played in cardrooms, such as poker and pai gow, according to the California Department of Justice website.
The Bureau of Gambling Control conducts background checks on all applicants to determine if they are “suitable to hold a state gambling license.” Suitability factors include honesty, integrity, financial and criminal history.
The city of Napa has an ordinance that puts a limit of five gambling tables citywide. No cardrooms are allowed in unincorporated areas, according to Napa County.
The status of the Napa card room’s state license is scheduled for a hearing before an administrative law judge in Sacramento in August, Mares said.