Nate Wheatley checked his chip stacks, arranging them in neat, colorful rows in front of him. He counted one out just to make sure.
Then, Wheatley checked them again.
As the minutes counted down to 10 a.m. Saturday, Wheatley was among the dealers, managers and other employees meticulously preparing for the opening of the Oak Tree Casino, a new cardroom that's the latest addition to the landmark restaurant just off Interstate 5 in Woodland. Saturday's opening culminated months of preparation, but some final details came down to the wire. The establishment received official confirmation of its state gambling license only a day earlier, said general manager and part owner Chuck McCormick.
Even before the first player walked through the door, there was no shortage of optimism in the room.
"I'm hoping to fill this place every day," McCormick said, "but nothing comes easy."
Within a half-hour of opening, the steady rattle of chips changing hands picked up. About 50 people had sat down to play at one of the room's 15 tables, many of them coming from Clark and Cowlitz counties.
Most people in the crowd weren't new players. Many said they've also frequented at least one of the four cardrooms in La Center. But will those establishments feel pinched by the arrival of a new player up north?
"It is a little too early to tell," said John Bockmier, a consultant who represents La Center's cardrooms.
The La Center cardrooms haven't spent much time talking about Woodland's new arrival, Bockmier said in a phone interview Friday. They're not opposed to it, he said, and they view the Oak Tree as a parallel business. That's a far cry from the proposed Cowlitz tribal casino near La Center, he said, which would be much larger and include thousands of slot machines. Slot machines aren't allowed in Washington state cardrooms like Woodland's and La Center's.
"Their offerings are the same gaming opportunities we have," Bockmier said of the Oak Tree. "It's a level playing field."
La Center appears to have lost a few of its dealers to Woodland. Ridgefield resident Colleen Thompson said she's dealt at all four La Center cardrooms over the years, but now works at the Oak Tree. As she prepared her Ultimate Texas Hold 'em table for opening day, Thompson said she's not the only one who made the switch.
The Oak Tree will be open 24 hours per day, save for an early-morning four-hour window two days each week — a state requirement, according to McCormick. The cardroom's 15 tables include nine for poker, six for other games.
Saturday's early visitors offered positive reviews of what they saw. Woodland resident Cletis Armstrong said he welcomed a gaming spot in his own city, giving a jolt to the local economy. The Oak Tree will likely be his first choice from now on, he said.
"If I'm going to invest in entertainment, I'm going to do it in my hometown," Armstrong said.
Vaughn Kercher and Kevin Hildebrandt came for a different reason. The two Seattle residents visited to do some fishing in the area, but didn't have much to show for it. So they stepped inside for some poker.
"No luck out there," Kercher said. "We thought we'd see if we had better luck here."
The Oak Tree had received a cardroom permit from the city of Woodland earlier this year. But the issue has sparked heated debate among city leaders weighing economic benefits against the potential for increased gambling addiction and putting struggling families into a deeper financial hole.
After a few practice runs, Saturday — though all live gaming — was more of a soft opening for the Oak Tree, McCormick said. The cardroom plans to hold a larger grand opening event some time after Jan. 1, he said.
McCormick said he was happy with the initial turnout, with about half the room's tables seeing action within an hour. The best thing to keep people coming through the doors, he said, is word-of-mouth recommendations.
"If these guys are happy and content," McCormick said, "I'm sure they're going to spread the word."