Slightly dated, but here's a trip report I put together in September 2008.
Finding myself closed out of Reno by the crowds for the Street Vibrations event this weekend, I decided to take a drive to check out some of the California Indian casinos north of the Bay Area. My first stop was...
RIVER ROCK CASINO
This relatively new casino is advantageously located a short distance off U.S. 101 near Geyserville. It is easily seen from the freeway. The casino has sweeping views of the Alexander Valley, as lovely a pastoral scene as can be found in California.
Most visitors arrive by way of bus tours. This is fortunate, as the casino is reached only by way of small, winding California Highway 128, and an even smaller side road that goes steeply up a canyon to the hillside site. Heavy traffic would spell trouble. Like many California casinos, this one is located on an Indian "rancheria." The rancherias were established early in the state's history as places for California's Indians to live after the Legislature successfully lobbied Congress to keep the number of Indian reservations in the state to a minimum. They were deliberately kept as small as possible. Basically, they had room for a few homes, but not enough to establish any kind of successful agriculture, thus achieving the goal of keeping the residents in poverty.
As the Dry Creek Rancheria is located on the slope of the range of hills bordering the valley, the casino is shoehorned into a site on which no sensible person would build anything of such a scale, given the choice of other nearby locations. However, as is so often the case, politics trumps logic.
Driving up the access road, one reaches a strangely out-of place, enormous parking garage, built into the hillside. The upper part of the road is already proving inadequate. The big engineering firm of Rudolph & Sletten is building a new section of road, with high retaining walls and bridges, a testament to the money these operations can bring in.
The casino itself is still in temporary quarters, a collection of those heavy-duty tents with metal frames and vinyl covers. At 3:00 p.m. on a sunny Saturday, the casino was only moderately busy. Game conditions are as follows:
o Four types of blackjack game are spread. You can take your chances against a CSM. Six deck games offer DA2, but no DAS. For that, you need to play the CSM. The dealer cuts off a ridiculous 2.5 out of 6 decks. Two deck games are dealt from a shoe. Penetration is up to 60%. There is one single deck table, which is a Super Fun 21 game. This is dealt with a cut card placed at 45% penetration. Why they use a cut card is a mystery, because they never deal even that deep. They deal ONE round to six players. (There are six betting spots on the layout.) Shuffling machines are used for all of the multiple deck games. The cards used for blackjack and all other table games are Aristocrat (white borders), large indexes, with black "blobs" for the optical readers. Table limits are mostly $10 to $500, but some tables start at $5, and others go up to $1,000. The double deck game starts at $25.
o There are two Three Card Poker tables, dealing from Shufflemaster Ace machines, placed to the dealer's left. The dealer's hand is removed from the machine immediately, and partially spread on the table. Limits for the ante bet are $10 to $200. The pair plus pay table is 40-30-6-3-1.
o Neither Ultimate Hold'em nor Hold'em Bonus is offered. Pai gow poker and midi-baccarat are available.
o Video poker is not too bad (if it's honest, which is hard to be certain of in Indian territory, check who manufactures the machine as that's your best protection). JOB at the 25 cent level has either 9/5 or 8/5 pay tables, depending on the machine, and goes up to 9/6 at the $5 level.
o The casino uses some kind of round robin rotation, but I didn't stay long enough to figure it out.
o The pit is staffed by a mix of Caucasian and Chinese dealers and PCs.
o There is a sizable poker room. In theory, they have 4&8 limit hold'em, and 2,5 and 5,10 no limit. However, the only two games going when I was there (Saturday afternoon!) were 3&6 limit, and one of the two died in the time I was there. The rake at this level is a ridiculous $3 flat on every hand that sees a flop, plus $1 for the jackpot fund. It's unfortunate to see so many games in so many places that are unplayable due to the rake. Were it not for that, the games here might have been good. They were huge limpfests before the flop, although the players tightened up a lot after. The casino offers good daily $1 food specials in the poker room.
o New signups for the player's card get $10 in free slot play. This comes in the form of vouchers that you can put into the bill readers, with no need to put in any cash. Technically, I think that after putting these in, you could cash out immediately without even playing.
The customers are the usual collection of degenerates and superannuated pensioners, but mercifully with a very low thug factor.
The restaurant is attractive, and has spectacular views from the dining room and terrace. Prices are fair for basic grub. There is also a buffet, served in the same dining room, with prices a tad on the high side. Incredibly, the casino has had a liquor license, even for beer and wine, only since June 5 of this year.
While it's probably not worth a special trip, unless you live very close, you might want to drop by the River Rock Casino if you're in the neighborhood. For you counters, the double deck game is the best bet. The day I visited, there was a small festival going on, celebrating California Indian culture, in the parking lot in front of the casino entrance. There were canopies set up, and a band was playing. Sitting outside, having a good, bargain-priced fry bread taco, and enjoying the view was a pleasant way to spend an hour.
TWIN PINES CASINO
From the River Rock, it was a beautiful, tranquil drive through the late afternoon light down Highway 128 to Calistoga, and then a rather hair-raising journey up busy, winding Highway 29, past Mt. St. Helena, across, the Lake County line, to Middletown and the Twin Pines Casino.
The tent theme continues at Twin Pines. However, they are currently building a fancy, though modest-sized new casino and hotel, to replace the tents. This is a much smaller operation than the River Rock. The customer base is overwhelmingly local. The restaurant offers a good $10.95 prime rib dinner, although the atmosphere is early snack bar. (You'll have to overlook the fact that your salad dressing arrives in a plastic package.)
On this Saturday evening, Twin Pines had just three blackjack tables and one Three Card Poker game open. Pai gow poker was closed. The pit closed the Three Card Poker table when it didn't get any business. There is a sign advertising Blackjack Switch, but where's the table?
Three card poker is hand dealt, again with a 40-30-6-3-1 pair plus pay table. (This is quickly becoming the industry standard, with a horrible 7.28% house edge. South Lake Tahoe is even worse, with Harrah's properties having gone to a 40-30-5-3-1 table. That's an incredible 10.53% house edge. Are players completely blind to how fast they lose their money at these bets? Apparently so, because the tables are crowded with player grumbling about having to put $5 on the ante bet so they can bet stacks of red on pair plus.)
Blackjack is, surprisingly, pretty good in a low roller sort of way. The six deck tables (two open on my visit) offer DA2 and DAS, with limits of $10 to $200. The cutoff is as little as .75 deck out of 6, although it's somewhat dealer-dependent. No mid-shoe entry, though. Now I don't know nuthin' 'bout no shuffle tracking, but I'd have to say this shuffle is EXTREMELY weak--a fast one pass shuffle. Double deck (one table open on my visit) is D10, using a cut card, cutting off .4 deck.
The cards used are the same as at River Rock.
KONOCTI VISTA CASINO
From Middletown, narrow State Highway 175 leads to the heart of Lake County. Watch for the tight 15 m.p.h. curves that pop up out of nowhere!
Lake County is an odd place. Most of it's stuck in 1962, not a bad thing, actually. Every place can come up with a superlative of one sort or another, no matter how contrived, and Clear Lake is the largest natural fresh water lake entirely within California. (For extra credit, do you know the largest that's only partially within California? It's not Lake Tahoe.) Anyway, this impressive lake, set in its valley high in the Coast Ranges, brooded over by a volcano, must have been a hospitable place for California's Indians, a legacy of which is a cluster of casinos. Later, Clear Lake quickly attracted a sizable white population, despite the lack of any apparent thriving industry other than tourism and retirement communities. The lack of cash flow shows. Today, the county could just as well be called Trailer Trash County. Another superlative the county could probably claim would be the highest per capita number of mobile homes in the state.
Good luck even finding the Konocti Vista Casino. First of all, it's nowhere near Mt. Konocti. The rancheria on which it sits is reached from the state highway by taking several turns on poorly-marked small streets. Still, the local residents who make up the customer base seem to be able to get there, because business is decent.
This is yet another casino housed in tents. As yet, it doesn't seem to be the answer to the dreams of the rancheria tenants, because you can still see the trailers they're living in right next door. You're welcome to bring your own trailer, as well--they have a campground with hookups adjacent to the casino.
Three Card Poker (one table) is dealt from a Shufflemaster Ace machine, to the dealer's right. Limits are $5 to $100. The pair plus pay table is the same dreary 40-30-6-3-1.
Blackjack is all six deck shoes, with DA2 and DAS offered. The dealer cuts off 1.5 out of 6 decks. Mid-shoe entry is verboten.
Cards have proprietary edge-to-edge backs, low-set large indexes, and blobs for optical readers.
RANCHERIA RESORT CASINO
I'd like to tell you about this place, located near Nice, at the northwest corner of the lake, but I can't. I couldn't find it. Mapquest was wrong. However, you can see pretty pictures at http://www.rrrc.com/index.html
. It actually looks pretty spiffy--for a change, no tents!
CACHE CREEK CASINO
From Clear Lake, fast highways lead toward the Sacramento Valley and to the enormous Cache Creek Casino. This was my second visit, and little has changed. About a million slot machines, and table games stretching to the horizon, suck cash out of the pockets of a heavily Chinese and Mexican clientele. The big money here is on the pai gow poker tables. Supervisors and dealers are largely Chinese and other east Asians, although you'll see a smattering of other ethnicities. There's probably a high employee turnover, because I didn't recognize any faces from my last visit. Food and beverage options are numerous, but sort of overpriced. They're definitely in we're-so-successful-that-we-don't-need-to-worry-about-giving-a-fair-game-and-we'll-fleece-the-public-for-all-they're-worth mode in this place. I went into the gift shop to grab a bottled soda. I asked the sales clerk why none of the food or toiletry items had prices marked. When she said that she didn't know, I asked if maybe it was because they were trying to encourage their customers not to care about money. She replied that most of their customers paid with player's club points, and that since they were so busy losing their money in the casinos, no, they didn't care what things cost!
Three Card Poker gets plenty of business. You can bet up to $500 if you want to buck this game.
The casino has one Hold'em Bonus table, and two Ultimate Hold'em tables. Both games are dealt from machines, with all cards being placed on the table before players make their first play decision. The bottom card of the community card stack becomes the river card.
In contrast to an earlier visit, all dealers I observed were using a very competent style. They may have been retrained. In fact, they were uniformly cautious to the point of dealing procedures being tedious and time-wasting. On one occasion, on a Three Card Poker game, a boxed (face-up) card came out as part of a player's hand, which was a good card for the player. The dealer was ready to continue with the hand, but a PC called a misdeal. All in all, play is painfully slow.
Cache Creek offers two kinds of blackjack games. At the six deck games, the dealer cuts off two decks. The single deck games have the 6:5 rule. These games are machine-shuffled, with 50% penetration.
Video poker is truly horrible. Sign up for the player's card, and you will immediately get a generous allowance of free slot play, and will receive regular offers by mail for further free play. It may be hard to realize good value, though. This trip I tried a penny slot machine, figuring it might be a better bet than their lousy VP. Played in small increments, my $10.00 in free play turned into $2.55 cash.
The poker room is huge and active. As at River Rock, rakes are confiscatory--$4 flat in small limit games, and $5 flat in no limit games, PLUS $1 taken out BEFORE the flop for the jackpot pool. I don't know that I've ever seen the jackpot rake taken before the flop in any other card room.
In California, the novelty of casino gambling has long since worn off. Casinos offering most Nevada-style games can be found all over the state, although few are very close to large cities. The thing that's a little hard to understand is that competition hasn't led to better games. I think that we can point to two factors. First, a handful of huge casinos with the best locations do a very heavy business. They would expand if they could, but are limited by the terms of their compacts with the state. Under the circumstances, they can afford to ration their product by pricing it high--both in terms of minimums and in terms of house edge. Second, there are far too many players who are entirely ignorant of the odds, or who for one reason or another just don't care about them, and who will play bad games. These factors need to change if games are to improve.