While the Oregon Lottery has penetrated thousands of retailers to gain access to your money, another gambling option has been heralded and scorned in its debut. Tribal gaming. Since the passage of the National Indian Gaming Act in 1988, tribal casinos have been popping up across the country faster than you can say Video Lottery Terminal. Over the loud protests of former Governor, Barbara Roberts, (which, methinks, may have had to do with wanting the Oregon Lottery to be the only game in town) several tribal casinos have opened their 24-hours, seven days per week doors to throngs of eager Beaver State gamblers. And closest to Portland, we have the Spirit Mountain Casino, near Grand Ronde, located on the Salmon River Highway (Hwy. 18) about 80 minutes west of Portland.

Spirit Mountain Casino offers hundreds of VLT machines: reel machines (slots), video poker machines and video blackjack machines as well as reel machines hooked up in a carousel to a giant jackpot. They also have numerous blackjack tables, dealt from a six-deck shoe, with a minimum bet range from two to twenty-five dollars. Maximum bet, for you high-rollers, is $500. And finally, there is the ubiquitous keno with drawings every 10 minutes or so. All of the above is offered in both a smoking and a non-smoking environment. There is no alcohol on premises. Waitresses provide free coffee and soft drinks; your tips are appreciated.

Overseering the integrity of all games at Spirit Mountain is the Grande Ronde Gaming Commission, headed up by Joe Smith, appointed and approved by the Tribal Council. He is also subject to the scrutiny of the Oregon State Police. Joe Smith was lured from Nevada where he worked for 15 years as an investigator for the Clark County (Las Vegas) Liquor and Gaming Board and the Nevada Gaming Board. More money and a more wholesome environment for raising a family are the reasons Joe jumped at the opportunity. The Grande Ronde Gaming Commission subsists on an $85,000 per quarter licensing fee as well as license fees accessed on each and every Spirit Mountain gaming device, all collected from the casino coffers.

Smith’s job is to make sure none of the games or gaming devices are compromised in any way that will affect the outcome of the game. That means skimming, which Smith states is highly unlikely and lacks any real motivation in tribal gaming, is an internal security matter. But Smith’s office is responsible for holding the random number determinator chips in a safe 'till such time as one is needed for replacement in a reel machine on the floor. Each chip undergoes inspection and slot analysis to determine the exact, theoretical hold percentage, which is floating around 12 to 15% at Spirit Mountain Casino. That means a payout of 85 to 88% offered in the form of credits which the player chooses to cash in or wager. Smith states that the larger the payout – a carousel of machines tied into a giant jackpot – the higher percentage hold number. But he also reveals that there are some VLT's that actually run a negative hold number – paying out more than they take in. Which ones!? If you go to Spirit Mountain and ask a pit boss or shift supervisor, they will not point out which machines offer the highest payouts. I’ve asked them, to no avail. In fact, the only time and place where you could get that information would be a Las Vegas Casino, advertising a high percentage payout (very low hold percentage number) on their marquee to lure slot players. Because of truth in advertising laws, the casino would be required to reveal exactly which machines are paying out the advertised 97% – although not without a little of the old run-around. Next time in Vegas, try it.

Meanwhile, back on Spirit Mountain (there is no mountain and the spirit is that of your dearly departed money) Smith also conducts random inspections at the blackjack tables. Like any casino, Spirit Mountain uses a logo deck which features a detailed design on the back of the card. The logo is cut-off at the edge of the card at a specific point – say mid-diamond or top of the diamond. An inspection of all cards would reveal if someone attempted to insert cards into play – marked aces for example – because the design would be cut-off at a different point. Still, an exact match logo deck could be purchased for about $10,000. And who would have the money and savvy for a cheating operation like that? Mob infiltrators (who else?) have already been caught with their hands in the tribal gaming cookie jar in other states.

Foxwood’s Casino, in Connecticut, was fleeced for somewhere between $900,000 to 1.5 million dollars by organized crime. And it was done at the blackjack tables, according to Smith. If you’ve got live cards that are marked, and the casino allows the player to wildly fluctuate his bet...say from $50 to $500 – a good team of cheats could milk a casino for an eye-popping chunk of cash in no time.

But Smith has countermeasures for that as well. He will randomly conduct a count of all live cards and reserve cards that must balance. In an elaborate cheating scam like the one above, the dealer would have to be the infiltrator introducing live, marked cards with identical logo backing. And a balanced count would stop that cold. Smith once shut down all the tables in the main blackjack pit at Spirit Mountain while he searched for one card to balance. After a few hours, the card showed up. A dealer had placed a reserve card in the wrong drawer. It was just a simple mistake, not cheating. But meticulous, random inspections like that send a message to organized crime: Better not try your scam here.

The Spirit Mountain Casino uses the No Peek 21 device leased from a company out of Laughlin, Nevada. The tiny device allows the dealer to electronically check their “hole” card, when the dealer has ace or 10 showing, without lifting the cards off the table. The dealer inserts the cards into the small, right angle corner device. After a moment that feels like an eternity, a little green light on top of the device means (sigh) your bet is still safe; dealer doesn’t have blackjack. A red light means you can kiss your bet goodbye, unless you have blackjack as well. And that’s just as lousy a feeling, because instead of getting paid three to two for blackjack (all other wins are one to one) all you achieve is a push, or tie, with the dealer; no money is lost or gained.

No Peek 21 slows down the pace of the game somewhat (always a disadvantage to the house), but it negates the possibility that the dealer has a “tell” when s/he checks his hole card. For example, a dealer might look longer at a little card under his ace (two to six) than a bigger card (seven to nine). The No Peek 21 device also eliminates the possibility of a dealer working out a system for “telling” his hole card to a player, then splitting the profits with the player later.

Still, you will find dealers without the device in Nevada, mostly because it slows down the game, but not at Spirit Mountain. To be honest, I’ve never been able to tell a dealer’s hole card in a casino setting, only with rank amateurs sitting around a social card game, passing the deal. Six-deck shoes and No Peek 21 devices take some of the uncluttered enjoyment out of the game. And a six-deck shoe will adversely affect your odds of winning. If you count cards, forget it. Also, you’re less likely to get a run of hands with deck composition favorable to the player. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are so many cards in play, thus increasing mathematical probabilities for deck composition. And that leads to “chopping:” you win once or twice, the house wins once or twice, rotating back and forth. Eventually, out of frustration with standing still, you start to bet wildly; then you’re gone.

Alternately, with a six-deck shoe, a lot of cards never come into play. And what if that part of the shoe was rich with aces and 10s? Too bad. You never get to see them. So the six-deck shoe hacks away at your percentage for winning with a double-edged sword: There’s too many cards in play and there’s too many cards that never come into play. Given all the above, any serious blackjack player would stick with a one or two-deck game. And that game can only be found in the state of Nevada and the social card rooms of Washington.

We’ll visit those venues (saving the best for last) next month. Due to budgetary restraint, I’ll have to give a vicarious accounting of Nevada, relying on my past, not present-day, experiences.

After all is said and done, the Spirit Mountain casino offers a wider variety of gaming and games more favorable to the player than the Oregon Lottery. How much more favorable? Joe Smith claims the Industry Average payout for casinos is 91%. When pressed on the exact figure for Spirit Mountain, he said he didn’t know. Chuck Galford, public relations for Spirit Mountain, claims their percentage return is comparable to casinos in Vegas or Reno, but would not give out the exact figure.

With the Oregon Lottery paying out 62% on conventional lottery games and 52% on Video Poker, you might want to save it up for excursions to Spirit Mountain and other tribal casinos. In the meantime, remember: always split aces and eights, never split fives and tens, and aways double down on eleven.

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