Casinos seem to exist in an ambiguous legal void in Mexico. Not that gambling offerings are lacking. If by gambling you mean wagering money on events with random or uncertain results, there are plenty of options available.
We have lotto in several variants. There’s the traditional Mexican Lottery, modeled on the Spanish lottery. There are horse- and dog-racetracks in several cities, including a first-class facility known as “El Hipódromo de Las Américas” in the western edge of Mexico City. The lotto agency offers sports betting in soccer and NFL football in a kind of sports lotto games, and lately a more traditional sports book kind of bet for soccer only. The Red Cross holds annual raffles, as do many charities and private universities. There are private sector lotto and sports lotto games. Not to mention a plethora of government and private scratch-off games.
So you’d think casino gambling, and even the regulatory experience in the gaming area, would fit right in. This is not the case at all.
Back in the mid-90s when casinos were first proposed seriously, mostly as a complement to the country’s tourism industry, there was an intense debate about the idea. A great deal of opposition warned about gambling addictions, drugs and organized crime.
Well, granted the drug cartels and other criminal enterprises were not the problem they are now, we did already have organized crime and drugs. We also had most of the gaming options described early, so any potential gambling addict would find little trouble placing a bet.
Casinos did develop, eventually, but as noted in an ambiguous legal arena, at best, and in the interstices and corruption of the law at worst. Such places as do operate do so with plenty of obstacles, restrictions and uncertainty.
Recently I visited four casinos in Mexico City, which are representative of the gaming options available.
It would serve little purpose to review each one individually, as they are identical in 90% of all salient aspects. There is one notable exception, the Royal Yak Casino located in the grounds of “El Hipódromo de Las Américas.” I’ll get to that one later.
First, here’s what I found at three other casinos, known as “Big Bola,” Play City,” and “Yak,” located in two upscale neighborhoods in the City. Compared to Vegas casinos, which are the only others I know, those in Mexico don’t come off well at all.
To begin with, and something which no doubt get some approval, all these casinos are largely or entirely non-smoking. Those that allow smoking have a sealed off area with extra or separate ventilation systems.
An oddity is that you enter all casinos through a metal detector, under the watchful eye of a security man or two. In some places it seems to be there for show, but in others they even give you a tray to put your keys, change and other metal objects in before you step through.
I learned, too, that cameras are not allowed inside at all. There is no signage to this effect, but I was not allowed to enter any of these casinos with a camera.
They all have at least one bar and serve some form of warm food and snacks. Drinks are not complimentary, and there’s no drink service before 4 or 5 in the afternoon at all. The food is not complimentary either.
Gaming options in all casinos, with the exception noted previously, are three: slot machines, bingo and a sports book. All games are denominated in pesos.
By slot machines I mean video reel machines. There are no physical reel machines, nor any kind of video poker, video blackjack, video roulette, or even video Keno. There is a kind of video bingo, however.
In order to play, you need to go to the casino cage or cashier and either deposit money on a smart card with an embedded chip, which also works as a loyalty card, or buy a paper voucher with a bar code printed on it for the amount of your buy-in. You feed the card or voucher into the machine and play. If you win, or have money left when you quit playing, you can redeem it at the cage.
I didn’t examine the machines closely, as I’ve no interest in playing slots, but they seemed little different than slot machines anywhere else. All that I did look at, however, were rather generic and multi-denomination ranging from 0.10 pesos (less than a US penny) to 50 pesos (about $3 US) per line.
I saw none of the themed slots popular in Vegas, like Sex in the City. The ones available carry names like Mr. X., Play Mania, Rico Topo, Gol Mania, Dragon Balls, Fish Mania, etc. There are a few progressives in the mix, too. One nice thing, if you play slots, is that the Play City web site lists the jackpots in their various casinos. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that information.
Another thing is you sometimes see a sign proclaiming the machines results are determined by “numerical drawings.” I’ve read elsewhere on the net that this means these machines use a virtual bingo game to determine results. F this is so, it makes them no different from machines using a random number generator. After all, they can still be set loose or tight.
Such signage is required by law. This may explain why there are no VP machines available, as that game cannot be played with results determined by a virtual bingo game going on in the machine’s CPU. At least it can’t be played satisfactorily. Just as well. I’d hate a VP machine where strategy didn’t matter. It would be no fun at all.
Both Play City and Yak have medium sized bingo rooms. Alas, no games were running when I visited, and I could get no information about card prices or game play. I assume it works like standard bingo anywhere else in the world.
The sports books in all four casinos were tiny, with a couple of TV screens and some chairs around tables in what I call bar style. There are boards with money lines and other information, too. The kinds of bets available are the same you’ll find in most Vegas sports books, with perhaps more emphasis on soccer.
Another oddity with these “casinos” is that they have operating hours posted at the entrance. Most open around mid-morning and close at 2 am. On weekends they operate 24 hours, or from mid-morning on Friday until 2 am on Monday.
It’s worth mentioning that unlike Vegas and a few other places, Mexican casinos are not attached to hotels. They’re either located at other venues, like the race track, or at shopping malls, or simply stand alone.
I don’t want to come off as negative, but to call a slot parlor with bingo and a sports book a casino seems like a stretch to me. Which brings me to the exception.
The Royal Yak casino is considerably bigger than any of the others. At first, though, it seems like more of the same, but if you walk past the bingo area and past the slot machines, you find a relatively large area with table games.
But don’t get too comfortable. There are no card games at all. Not one. No roulette either. There are several craps tables, though. Real craps tables, with real dice, and real chips.
I counted six craps tables, but only one was open. As you approach them, at once you notice something odd: each one is ringed by chairs. I’ve no objection to sitting down to play craps. I think the tables themselves are a bit lower, so it’s possible, though not comfortable, to throw the dice while sitting down.
The other odd thing is that the table layout is in Spanish. I wish I could have taken a picture, but read what I said about walking in with a camera. But here’s what it says, with translation in parenthesis:
- Línea de pase (Pass line)
- No pasa (Don’t pass)
- Venir (Come)
- No viene (Don’t come)
- Campo (Field)
- Cualquier Siete (Any Seven)
Those were the labeled areas. The C/E bet is labeled C/E. There is a Horn area, but with only the pictograms of dice and no lettering at all, likewise for the hard ways and hop bets.
All bets pay the same as the standard in the Las Vegas Strip on a “to one” basis. The field pays double on 2 and 12. Table minimum is 50 pesos (about $3 US). Odds bets are capped at 2X. The minimum hard way bet is 10 pesos. Minimum place, buy or lay bet is also 50 pesos, or more depending on the type of bet (i.e. the 6 and 8 cost 60 pesos).
The chips are plastic, not clay, and come in red, green, black and purple, with denominations, in pesos, of 5, 25, 100 and 500. No white or blue 1 peso chips. Here’s a photo of a 5 peso chip:
Unlike other casinos I now or have heard of, you don’t buy in at the table. Instead you go to the cage and buy in there for as much as you want, indicating you want to play dice (I’ll have more to say about that later on). In exchange for your money you receive two printed vouchers with a bar code, the amount of the buy in, and a pair of dice. Like this one:
You hand them both to the box man at the table and he’ll return one and give you chips. This is important. When you’re done playing and want to cash out, you need to present your chips and the voucher returned to you. Without it you don’t get paid.
The game is handled exactly like it is in other places, except that it gets called in Spanish. Dealer tips work the same way, too, and you can place bets for the dealers as well. On the day I visited, I bought in for 1,500 pesos (around US $110). The dealers are competent, but mostly stiff and not very talkative. The exception was one stickman on relief who kept up a running commentary of the play, rather than just calling the dice. He was friendly and would always acknowledge dealer tips. He’d also remind the players about other games in the casino, and about the action for the day at the racetrack.
At one point I made a two-way hard eight for ten pesos, which in Spanish came out as “diez al doble cuatro, la mitad para los chamacos.” Loosely it translates as “Ten pesos on hard eight, half for the boys.” He smiled and thanked me. I tried it again when the regular stick was on, and he replied “The minimum is ten,” rather harshly. So I changed it to, “Ok, ten on hard eight.” Oh, I did tip the boys 50 pesos, because it didn’t hit, but I didn’t appreciate the attitude.
I didn’t do well at all. The table was, if I may be permitted the expression, ice cold. Until I tried playing the Don’t, then points started hitting. So after losing about 1,000 pesos, including tips, I called it quits.
I haven’t been back since because I really don’t gamble much, and I didn’t quite like the stiff dealers. They’re not unfriendly, but they’re not friendly either, except for the stickman I mentioned. If I want that neutral level of interaction, I may as well play Wincraps or some other craps sim at home for free.
Aside from the craps tables, there were two other games. One was Sic Bo. The layout looked standard, but again in Spanish. Next to where the dealer would stand, three dice sit inside an hourglass-shaped wire cage fitted with a handle. I assume the dealer turns it and reads the way the dice come up. I can’t say for certain, as all the tables were closed.
There was another kind of dice game which reminded me of roulette. The layout has no words on it at all, just pictures showing dice faces in four colors (red, blue, green and black) in different combinations. Another hourglass cage is placed where the wheel would be on a roulette table, holding four dice with the same colors as the layout. I asked about this game at the cage, and they told me it wasn’t operating yet. I am guessing it’s a type of dice-based roulette analogue (and isn’t that an odd phrase?)
I mentioned casinos operating in the interstices and corruption of the law. This is a consistent problem where you have vague laws, not to mention where the enforcement or application of the law is capricious or arbitrary.
One such establishment, as far as casinos go, was the Casino Royale in Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo León.
This casino is famous because on August 25th. 2011 it was fire-bombed by organized crime (i.e. by some drug cartel most likely), and several people were killed. News accounts at the time, and to this day, say it was a result of a dispute involving protection money.
The other thing news accounts stressed back then was the illegal, or largely illegal, nature of the casino and the games found there. In brief, there were card games taking place there. Soon after the fire at the Casino Royale, videos emerged of the state governor’s brother receiving money from casino executives. This led credence to the notion that illegal games were going on, and that perhaps the entire casino was illegal.
The authorities’ response to the whole sorry mess was to clamp down on casinos. Public reaction to that was very negative. Lest you think this was an aberration, you can look up the case of the “News Divine” disco in Mexico City. Long story short, several teenagers were trampled to death on a botched police sting operation to clamp down on underage drinking. To this day the only person in jail for the incident is the disco’s owner, for serving alcohol to minors. And the local government clamped down on discos and night clubs, too. And there are other cases, such as the shooting of a soccer player at an after-hours bar, which led to a clamp down on after-hours bars.
But I digress. I’ve visited Monterrey on business several times recently, but until last year I had not heard of this particular casino. The city has its share of Play City establishments, but there are other casinos. I visited one, called Casino Revolución in 2010.
It was very much like a larger version of a Play city, with two significant differences. One is a room at the back labeled “Poker Room and More.” Inside they have air-ball roulette and Royal Match blackjack games. I order to play, you find an attendant, give her money and have her credit the game.
The roulette table is square. It has 8 terminals, 2 on each side. In the center there's a depression which holds the wheel and ball. The system is automated and uses no dealer. The wheel spins itself and the ball gets released automatically. The whole is covered with a slab of clear acrylic. The wheel never stops spinning, but it speeds up when the ball comes out, then slows down. A computer voice announces the results, it also warns "No va mas" when betting closes (It should say "No mas apuestas," but I've noticed odd turns of phrase on automated machines before).
The touch terminal is set on Spanish by default, but it can be changed to at least six other languages. I think this is a nice feature. It’s very easy to use. If you make bets on several numbers, it remembers it for the next round when you touch the "repeat" button. Removing bets is a bit more complicated, but I had no problems at all.
Anyway, I bought in for 300 pesos (about US $24 at the time) and placed six numbers at two pesos each (total bet just under US $2). It was a nice way to pass the time ‘til my late flight back home.
The Royal Match BJ machines looked exactly like those you find in Las Vegas and other real casinos.
The other exception involves the slot machines. Here they did have several themed machines, including Sex and the City. As I mentioned, I don’t play slots, but they had a Stargate SG-1 game. I bought in for 200 pesos, which the machine translated as 2,000 credits. This means a credit is 0.10 pesos, or under a US cent (say 8/10 of a penny). I hit early and got about 250 credits ahead, and then I kept playing until I lost those 250 credits.
Late last July the outside of this casino was shot up by, presumably, organized crime. News reports indicate damage to some parked cars, and tell of a grenade found intact inside a car.
But between one casino being burned and another being shot at, you can be sure I won’t be visiting any more casinos next time I’m in Monterrey.
A translation in Spanish of this article appears at Las Apuestas.mx.