A trip to a California card room (with inexpensive lodging as an option) By Nick Sortal, CDC Gaming Reports June 19, 2018 at 10:40 pm I check out of my hotel on my recent trip to California and an acquaintance picks me up. We’re going gambling. I’ve been covering gambling for more than 10 years, and I frequented casinos for years before that. I won’t say I’ve done it all, but I will say – buoyed by a journalist’s inquisitive mind – that there isn’t much that I’ve missed. But today will expand my bucket of experiences. I’m about to play table games under what is known as “California rules.” “The best way to explain it is just to experience it,” says Darrell Miers, my guide for the day. He’s kind of a ringer in this domain, though. Miers is president of Arise LLC, which provides third-party proposition players for player-dealer games. Don’t understand what that means? That’s why he’s my guide on this trip. Having Miers by my side is a good way for me to understand this tangled web that California has gotten into. To start with, Native American casinos are the only venues in California that can offer slot machines and house-banked table games. But “card rooms” have boomed in recent years in California, featuring poker and unique versions of blackjack, pai gow, and other games, competing with those Native American venues. The crack in the dam came well before the Texas Hold ‘em boom. Tribal casinos and card rooms both consistently offered player-dealer games in the mid-1990s. In 2004, card rooms led a statewide vote to allow slots at their properties but the powerful Indian lobby led a campaign against it, and the attempt failed. So Miers and I pull into the Lake Elsinore Casino, a place for locals that bills itself as “California’s friendliest casino.” Telling detail: the casino has a hotel attached, an Econo Lodge. One website advertises the hotel rate as $64 per night. We put down cash for our chips at the “Pure 21” table, buying them just like you would anywhere else. But the language “Pure 21” is sort of Exhibit A for how the law is parsed in California. Tribes object to card rooms advertising that they offer “21,” citing California penal code from 1885 that prohibits it. But gaming lawyers argue that blackjack was a different game when the language prohibiting straight “21” was drafted. To further confuse things, “Blackjack” is used as part of the name of several games that have been approved here in California. The website for the California Bureau of Gambling Controls lists approved games for each casino; names such as “California Blackjack”, “21st Century Blackjack”, and similar can be found on the approved list. At the card room, a uniformed person in the traditional dealer seat tosses us our cards while Miers points out why the game is really player versus player: a man in seat number one hands the dealer a $1 chip, which she drops into a box by her right hip. He is paying for the dealer’s position. The casino employee is just handling the cards for him. Sitting in seat number two, we win a couple of hands, lose a couple of hands, each time with Seat One paying the casino employee that $1. When you think about it, he’s paying five percent of our $20 bet in order to be the bank. Were we to play a pretty good, but not perfect, basic strategy, the math would actually be against him. (The winning house percentage would be less than five percent.) But usually there is a third player (the $1 would then be 3.3 percent of $30 being bet), or someone makes one of the prop bets (more on that later), making that $1 profitable in the long run. Between hands, the employee-dealer quickly offers a button to all of us. “Player-dealer” games mean we all get a chance to act as the dealer. We try that one time – I hit my 13 against the other player’s 7, receive a 6, and my 19 holds up. I win the other player’s chips. Player vs. player. “See how that feels different?” Miers points out. The dealer and banker pretend to ignore that Miers is an authority on their business. A former advantage blackjack player, Miers has been in the gambling business for more than 30 years. His recent venture, Arise LLC, consists of providing people like those in Seat One to casinos. He works with Club One Casino in Fresno and the Deuce Lounge and Casino in Visalia. He also did business in Florida, until the state issued a cease-and-desist order – the venture by racetrack card rooms into designated-player games voided the compact the state had with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. (And has given me fodder for years’ worth of columns.) When I joke to Miers that he ought to try again in Florida – which has flip-flopped on its gambling rules – he snorts. Here in California, Miers knows that the card rooms employ all kinds of workarounds. Many U.S. casinos offer Spanish 21, for instance, which is a licensed game. But Miers points out the sign at Lake Elsinore, which complies with the usual rules of paying immediately on any 21 and uses a deck devoid of 10s. The sign reads “Spanish 21.5” with the “.5” in letter much smaller than the rest. Miers also notes that some California casinos assess a $1 blackjack fee on each player for bets ranging from $10 to $100, with a sliding scale of $1 to $5 going to the player-dealer. Such is the case in some Los Angeles card rooms, where there is no nearby Native American casino to compete with. At Lake Elsinore Casino, we’re only twenty miles from Pechanga Resort & Casino. Paying $1 just to place a bet on a hand of blackjack wouldn’t fly here; it would seriously cut into our stack of chips. (Those betting more per hand would obviously feel less of a burn, percentage-wise.) The tribes are pressuring the California legislature to require card rooms to charge for each and every hand played. The tribes also want that player-dealer button to move, and if it doesn’t, then they propose that play stops for two minutes every hour. As with table games everywhere, there are now prop bets that go beyond the usual blackjack-like play. At Lake Elsinore, you can bet on the cards that the dealer receives. For example, a $1 bet can net $5 if the dealer gets three red cards in a row on a hand. It’s called the Red Flex Bet. “But actually, the odds on that are 7-to-1,” I say, because three red cards is a one-in-two probability repeated three times. “No, it pays 5-to-1,” she says. We’re talking past each other – I’m citing the actual odds, and she’s citing the payout. After about an hour, we scoop up our stack, which had grown from $140 to $270. We made some money even with a few $1 tips and some Red Flex Bet bets that didn’t pan out. As we walk out, we notice a man angrily pushing a large stack of chips toward a pai gow dealer. He mutters some curse words and leaves. The dealer and the third party proposition player are sheepish. But there isn’t much you can do about players who lose big and don’t take it well. “Like I said, the player experience is almost the same,” Miers says.