TURLOCK -- Joe Fernandez came home early from playing in a World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas to watch his own tables fill with patrons at the new Turlock Poker Room on Monday morning.
The 24-hour establishment on West Main Street, next door to the Turlock Cinemas, is nearly triple the size of its former location near Lander Avenue.
"We're the busiest little card room right now," said Fernandez, the poker room's co-owner.
The card room has games ranging from a $5 blackjack table to no-limit Texas hold 'em poker. Fernandez and co-owner Phil Rheinschild said business has held steady despite the free-falling economy.
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"If they have a dollar, they have a little hope," Fernandez said of his customers. "Hope to make a little fortune."
They have 90 full-time employees and haven't had to lay off anyone in the past year. They even hired five additional employees for the opening, Fernandez said.
The new poker room saw a makeover from the former cramped space, including flat-screen digital televisions, new game tables and a hostess to greet players.
Fernandez said he hopes the more upscale decor will attract more women, who have flocked to his poker room in greater numbers over the past five years.
"If a lady walks in here and doesn't like the place, she's not a lady," Fernandez said.
On Monday, about 100 people streamed through the doors to get in on the action by 10 a.m., three hours after opening.
Juan Estrada, 41, of Patterson, wore a pair of sunglasses to keep a poker face at a game of Texas hold 'em. He praised the poker room's new atmosphere.
"It feels like being in a real casino," he said.
Turlockers David Perez, 25, and Ben Sanchez, 39, sat beneath a framed painting of playing cards while waiting for the first of the twice-daily poker tournaments.
Sanchez said the Turlock Poker Room now can compete with anything on the other side of the Altamont Pass.
"This is your mainstream poker room you would find in the Bay Area," Sanchez said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.