Viva Tacoma!

Local casinos are only vaguely Vegas, but who needs more?

GOT ENOUGH FOR THE slot machine but not enough for the airplane? As the Little Creek Casino billboard asks, "Who Needs Reno?" That seems appropriate for the longhouse-style tribal gambling lodge on the Shelton outskirts, perhaps the biggest little casino in the state, featuring poker, blackjack, roulette, electronic slots, and those—no kidding—wildly popular Karaoke Wednesdays.

Likewise, though it has no billboard asking "Who Needs Vegas?," the glitzy and expanding Emerald Queen casino and riverboat in Tacoma features big-time gambling and Vegas-style shows, most recently the sweaty, venerable Tom Jones.

And if the Drift On Inn along Aurora Avenue in Shoreline had a billboard, it might ask "Who Needs Winnemucca?" Like the little north Nevada town, the Drift On minicasino draws business from across the border—the city limits of Seattle.

OK, it's a poor man's Vegas we live in. The lights do turn out for a few wee hours, the doors do have locks, and there are no free drinks at our gambling houses. But in Washington, where betting brings in a cool two billion a year (not counting illegal bookings), local casinos can be a Nevada alternative for the weekend gambler, who—tired of state lotteries and simulcast horse racing—can dabble in 25-cent, Nevada-style slots or sit down to serious $500-a-bet card games.

In fact, much about the tribal casinos is Nevada-style, from the Vegas-type entertainment (the icon of LV, Wayne Newton, plays at the Emerald Queen) to the out-of-state management companies that run some of them. The Skagit Valley Casino—which had been managed for the Upper Skagit Tribe by the Harrah's chain until last fall—is now run by an international casino management group, Excelsior Gaming of Connecticut, and displays a Vegas-like touch with its 110-foot lighthouse tower looming over the Burlington house. The Skagits think they're number one, casinowise. The Tulalip Casino in Marysville, with 1,000 seats for bingo, says it's the best. Not to be outdone, the vast Muckleshoot Casino near Auburn has 425 slot machines and plans to double its casino size by December.

For players 21 and older, the state is home to 11 slot-filled tribal casinos (a new Quinault Indian casino is about to open at Ocean Shores) and 50 minicasinos, with another 50 applications on file. I recently did a quick tour of three Puget Sound casinos and found that, unlike Reno or Vegas, gambling can be a cheap getaway on four wheels. But think fun, not necessarily profit, unless you're a casino owner. "Doesn't matter if the food's bad and the service awful," the former assistant manager of a south King County minicasino reminded me. "If you own a busy cardroom, you're getting rich quick."

With that buyer-beware, house-usually-wins caveat, here's a glimpse of my weekend jaunt.

FRIDAY AT THE DRIFT ON INN, 16708 Aurora N, Shoreline; 546-8040. The eatery/showroom is upstairs—Debby's Roadside Caf鬠a retro diner—and the gambling downstairs in the white, awning-bedecked building known to its owners as "Seattle's only casino." Seattle, however, like Bellevue and Vancouver, bans such activities, and the Drift On is actually 20 blocks north of the city in Shoreline, surrounded by other betting houses such as The Hideaway, Cliff's, Goldie's, and the expanded Parker's. The State Gambling Commission calls such operations minicasinos—in essence, cardrooms on steroids. Since 1997, cardrooms have been able to seek licenses as minicasinos, allowing card players to play against the house bank rather than just each other.

The Drift On's modern, low-lit room features 15 dealer tables (the max for minicasinos) and a massive big-screen TV. Players go up against the house in blackjack, Caribbean stud, and pai-gow poker, among others. There's also comedy on Wednesday nights and dancing Thursday through Sunday. Though the inn is a host site for the Seattle international comedy fest, its live entertainment tends to be folksy—J.P. Patches and Gertrude recently hosted a Halloween show.

But like a dozen other popular suburban minicasinos (Freddie's Club, Pete's Flying Aces, Skyway, The Riverside), it draws steady crowds of gamblers looking for a little action. Most people understand blackjack best, says a dealer, and she recommends it to newcomers. "It's OK to stand back and watch other players at first. Then start small."

I started small, $10. And after winning a few 21 hands, I lost my profit and the $10. Better luck next stop.

SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE LITTLE CREEK CASINO, Hwy 101 at the Kamilche Cutoff (Hwy 108) between Shelton and Olympia; 360-427-7711; The 650-member Squaxin Island tribe says its casino has been making money but not enough of it. So the tribe has now contracted with a California company to manufacture and sell its own brand of cigarettes in a new building rising next to the casino. Is this drop in profit an indication of higher payouts—more wins—for the casino consumer? Not that I could tell. Starting with $20, I won and lost and won and lost—bottom line, minus $20. I played blackjack, keno (favored by low-rent players like me), and the hot new video slots, so annoying . . . and so addicting.

The computerized slots are legal now in Washington tribal casinos. Players buy plastic credit cards for $1 and up, insert them into the machines, and with each "pull" (actually pressing a button) the slot symbols whirl on video as 25 cents or more (depending on the game) is deducted from the card. It lacks the minithrill of cranking a one-armed bandit: The clunk-clunk-clunk of the spinning wheels is a synthetic tone, and should you win no coins fall into the tray—the payout is electronically added to your cash card.

Still, the mechanisms have a nasty allure. A woman next to me rested her chin glumly in her hand, leaning forward inches from the screen, punching the play button again and again. "God, make me stop!" she said to no one in particular. (All casinos carry Gamblers Anonymous brochures, which apparently are needed: A recent state survey shows about 270,900 Washingtonians have gambling problems, about a fourth of them with serious addictions.)

Besides busy craps tables, Little Creek offers the usual array of card games, including Texas Hold-em, a $500 blackjack tourney on Wednesdays, and regular high-stakes games in the Poker Room. Its airy, Indian-themed casino is festooned with hanging TVs showing sporting events (although sports betting is illegal in Washington). It boasts stylish (Legends) and casual (Creekside Caf驠eateries, and neighborly entertainment—recently a Blues Brothers ripoff called The Blue Power Revue. And of course there's the big Friday night Karaoke Extravaganza. Darn, missed it by a day. Onward.

SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE EMERALD QUEEN CASINO AND NIGHT CLUB, 2102 Alexander Ave, Tacoma; 1-888-831-ROLL. It's between the stacks of sawdust and the piles of logs along the Port of Tacoma waterways, but the Emerald Queen casino and adjoining riverboat, run by the Puyallup Indians, is a gem in the gritty industrial neighborhood. Poker, bingo, craps, and roulette are standards, but there's also baccarat and seemingly endless banks of video slots with more to come: Like other tribal casinos, the Puyallups are adding more high-tech slots. And why not? Players merely have to press a button and presto!, their money is the house's money.

Billed as "the first authentic riverboat casino in the Pacific Northwest," the 292-foot Queen has three decks with 70 gaming tables, brass ceiling tiles, strings of chandeliers, and—reflecting its original Mississippi riverboat past—a paddlewheel (barged here through the Panama Canal on its last voyage four years ago, the boat's now lashed permanently to the shore on Blair Waterway). Each deck has a lounge; another lounge and restaurant shoreside, Lafayette's, offers Asian and Northwest cuisine.

What sets the Emerald Queen apart from other local casinos is its entertainment. While not Vegas in stature or extravagance, the EQ night club features some of the same Sin City acts: Jefferson Starship, Tanya Tucker, REO Speedwagon, and fight cards (one televised earlier this year by HBO). Following recent appearances by Tom Jones and Eddie Money, the Temptations play November 19 and Lou Rawls drops by December 3 (tickets are generally a bargain at $15 to $30). The night club is open Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm for dancing to live and recorded music.

I wound up my weekend frozen in front of those sterile and absolutely habit-forming slot machines, pressing the Play Button To Hell. Overall, in three days of up and down action, I humbly spent/won $60 and lost $95, finishing $35 in the hole. My budget, not God, made me stop.

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