A chip's throw of 25 minutes from Portland, just off I-5, in the middle of cow country, lie the five card rooms of La Center, Washington. Washington’s social card rooms have been around, on a city-by-city basis, longer than the state lottery, or the new kids on the block, Indian gaming. In 1985, the City of Vancouver kicked out the card rooms and they headed north, to the open arms of La Center – little more than a bend in the road, which only has the five card rooms and cow pasture to offer.

In the social card games, all players wager against each other, never a house banked dealer. The house charges players “time” at an average rate of four dollars per hour, depending upon the game; blackjack or poker. The betting ceiling is kept at a minimum of $25 per hand for blackjack and $50 per hand at poker. Betting per hand is further limited by the discretion (and bankroll) of the player banking the deal. For example, a player banking a blackjack deal may limit betting to one to three dollars per hand, or one to $10, or one to $20. The house does not take a table drop out of any pots; 100% goes to the winning player(s).

I can’t speak for the poker games in La Center, principally Texas Hold-em, because I’m not a poker player. But just thinking about playing blackjack in La Center makes my palms itch. The Last Frontier (owned by George Teeney, who refused an interview for this article because of the nature of this publication) offers a very player and dealer friendly, two-deck blackjack game. Wanna count cards? The pace is so mellow you can eat a roast beef sandwich, watch the game on TV, offer pointers to your friend and count cards at the same time. No problem. And the house rules are fairly liberal -- the only restriction being you can’t double down after you split.

Playing blackjack in La Center is an entirely different experience from casino blackjack. The dealer is the guy or gal sitting next to you and so their speed is never going to be better than a slow to medium fox trot. The atmosphere is low-tech with bright fluorescent light. And the dealer, who took money out of his wallet to cover your bets, may not be able to hide his horror when he checks his hole card on a 10 and sees he has a “stiff” (12-16) to draw to. The smart player will watch the dealer for these obvious “tells,” and take the winnings to the cage.

The last time I played at the Last Frontier, the number of players at the table had dwindled to about four -- a decent setting for counting cards. A brash young man wearing a Penn State tee-shirt took over the deal and bumped the betting limit up to $20. He dealt faster than average, but still far slower than a casino dealer. He managed to shuffle himself a run of bad hands. That meant he was dealing himself one “stiff” after another. And every time he checked his hole card you could see his greedy little face drop another $100. All the better for me. I stood on “stiffs” against his up card 10. Doubled down on soft hands (ace counted as 11) against his 10, and went from nearly out of the game to doubling my bankroll in about 15 delicious minutes.

Which all brings me to my advice if you take the deal: remember your poker face when you check your hole card; don’t set the bet limit higher than what you can afford to cover; and don’t expect to win every time you take the shoe. In the long run, with the typically stupid moves (splitting 10's) players make in La Center, you can expect to come out ahead when you take the deal. You could easily make a killing. But you could also get wiped out in one hand if you bust and 8 players stand after betting the limit. Figuring on one or two players getting blackjack and/or several players doubling or splitting, plus a $25 limit, you could lose $300 on one hand. Sobering thought.

When you take the deal you should think like a stingy, conservative banker, not a free-wheeling, greedy, get-rich-quick gambler. Set your limit low, $5. Make sure you can afford a few consecutive hands unfavorable to you, the dealer.

The worse thing that could happen is that you’d have to give up the shoe for lack of funds, before you have a chance to win your money back. And it will come running back to you, like a hungry wet cat that’s been out all night.

Of course, to take the deal you’ve got to stay in the game as a player, and wait for the shoe to come around to you. Avoid hemorrhaging cash while biding for the deal. Just because the limit is set at $10 or $20, doesn’t mean that you have to bet the limit. Content yourself with modest gains. Play it cool. Wait for the right situation -- a dealer suffering through a run of bad hands who’s “telling” his hole -- then strike with a vengeance. What’s the point of losing all the money you just won taking the deal, and then some, while waiting for the shoe? Nurture your bankroll and keep it healthy for the next time the shoe stops at you. Otherwise, you’ve got to pass (or dip into money you didn’t plan to wager -- never a healthy choice) and watch the player next to you bump up his stack of chips.

In spite of all the advantages I found playing blackjack in La Center, business is slow. Bob Brandon, part owner and manager of Timmons, Pancho’s and the Lucky Dragon, says “The Indian Gaming is killing us.” He pointed out that most of their business comes from Portland, and since Spirit Mountain opened up, their business has hit the road. Brandon thinks part of the reason is betting limits; you can bet $500 a hand playing blackjack at Spirit Mountain. Of course, get-rich-quick gambling usually translates into get-poor quicker. No matter. Gamblers are being lured to the higher stakes blackjack and poker at the Indian casinos. This is in spite of the fact the Indian casinos will take a three dollars per person, per hand table drop out of each and every pot. Poker players are willing to pay the higher juice to play for higher stakes.

George Teeney did mention that he’s planning a $100,000 advertising campaign (but certainly not in the pages of this magazine) to counter the gambling gold rush to Spirit Mountain. Too bad he may never see this “ad” er, article. Because, for my money, La Center offers the best game around. Unless you’re a high roller.

In that case, Las Vegas is the only place you should ever gamble. If you can afford $500 per hand blackjack at Spirit Mountain, you can afford to jump on a plane and take advantage of one of the bazillion, cut-rate, air-fare and hotel accommodation packages offered for Vegas. Deals like $300 for two people, two nights, round trip are common, even epidemic at certain times of the year.

Try the Flamingo-Hilton; the spacious, relaxed casino emphasizes table games rather than VLT (slots etc.) machines. Smiling waitresses come by dressed up like Playboy Bunnies offering free drinks.

Fish-net sighs. You’re up at the table. Toss a red, five dollar chip on her tray as she hands you your drink with a smile so sweet it makes your teeth ache. Dice are coming to you. “New shooter, coming out,” stickman says, raking five dice down green felt for you to take your pick of any two perfect dice. You cock your golden arm, “I’ve got seven passes in this arm tonight,” and throw the white dice, bounce off the black ribbed rail and come to rest on green felt. “Seven!” stickman cries out. There’s a "bzzz" because a new shooter just rolled a natural on his first come-out roll. All eyes are on you...standing at the center, in the Land of Oz.

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