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August 7th, 2011 at 1:17:25 PM permalink
There are seven major casinos in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Being new to the area, I visted all of them at least once. There is no legalized gambling in the state of Arizona -- all gaming is done on Indian reservations pursuant to the 1986 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and a 2003 compact with the state. Gamblin in Arizona has been a contentious issue between the state and the tribes, and has only recently been resolved. At the outset, there was a tense standoff at one of the casinos when the cops tried to seize one tribe's slot machines and the tribe barricaded themselves inside the casino.

Now all Class II and Class III gaming is allowed, as are card-based table games (but not craps and roulette, although there are now physical/digital hybrids). The casinos have been quite the boon for tribes that are lucky enough to be located close to Phoenix. The largest casino tribes, the Salt River Pima Maricopa tribe and the Gila River Pima Maricopa tribe, are some of the wealthiest in the country with very high "per-cap" distributions to tribal members.

The casinos in Phoenix run the gamut from classy to kind of dumpy. I was actually surprised at how nice a few of the casinos are -- they could give Red Rock and M a run for their money. Others are more typical of Las Vegas locals joints. One notable feature about Arizona casinos is that they are small -- there is a limit to the amount of slots and table games a casino may have. This negates the building of large "slot barns" and makes the casinos much more managable, if sometimes crowded.

Every casino has a players' club, and the Casinos Arizona and the Gila Rivers use the same card. Harrah's of course uses Total Rewards. I never seemed to get much in the way of comps, but I never gave them a local address for a mailer, so it is hard to say what marketing offers they sent out. I saw a lot of gift-giveaway promotions, and there were a lot of drawings and sweepstakes. Casino Arizona put $10 cashback on my card at certain times, which was appreciated. (As an aside, a buddy of mine won a $10,000 drawing at Casino Arizona a few years back, and they didn't take any tax out, because it is an Indian reservation).

None of the casinos comp alcohol, but sometimes they will give you a free "drink ticket" or write you a comp if you are playing table games.

A good thing about AZ casinos, in my opinion, is that dealers go for their own tips. This creates a much more pleasurable gaming experience, as each dealer works to make the experience fun and engaging; otherwise they know they will not get tipped. I am ashamed to admit I did not tip as much as I probably should have, but when the dealer warranted it, I did give a little "george."

Here are the individual reviews:

Casino Arizona, 101 and McKellips (Salt River):

The original Casino Arizona is an older property, but the most centrally located of all the Phoenix casinos. It is very convenient to get to, just off the 101 freeway in south Scottsdale/north Tempe. Surprsingly, it does not show its age. Somehow they got the architecture and layout right that it still feels fresh. The style is what I would call desert/Southwest/Native American. There are two large rectangular gaming areas, separated by a rotunda and main entryway. The centerpiece of the rotunda is a large Wheel of Fortune slot machine (of course). Scattered along the exterior is a buffet (The Eagles), a Steakhouse (Cholla), a restaurant (Willows) and a showroom. There is a snack bar as well. There are also two bars and two lounges (Pima Lounge and another one). The Pima lounge often has a live band (they are terrible), and the other lounge is more intimate with a piano player or sometimes a jazz trio and a singer (usually very good). The atmosphere can be very chill at times at it is a fun place to spend time and not gamble.

I only had one meal there at the Willows, and it was excellent. The prices are extremely reasonable, and the food and service is high quality. I never ate anything else there, but the snack bar always looked good, and they had a hot roast beef station where you could get a sandwich and chips for $5.

The showroom does a show called "Showstoppers" which is an impersonation/variety show. You can get a free ticket by showing your players card. A free show is always welcome. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see the show.

The gaming is decent. There is no good video poker, but the table games are by and large fair. Blackjack is dealt from a six or eight deck shoe or CSM with H17, no surrender, and no RSA. There are always a few tables at $5, even on busy weekends. $25 a hand will get you the high limit room with four decks (ooh). Other table games include three card poker (6-3 paytable), Pai Gow (Fortune bonus), a few oddballs like Casino War, and my personal favorite, WPT 3x All-In Hold 'Em with a 0.74% house edge.

There is also a $1 minimum Shufflemaster digital blackjack table (with surrender available), and an Organic Craps and Organic Roulette table by Interblock ($1 min/3x4x5 odds and $1 min/$0.25 chips 0/00 respectively). These machines are fun way to waste time for little money and I especially enjoyed playing the craps game with the "pop 'em" dice. Kudos to Interblock for a very innovative and well-engineered gaming product.

Casino Arizona, 101 and Indian Bend (Talking Stick Resort):

This has got to be one of the nicest casino resorts around. It is only two years old, and the facilities top just about anything outside of Las Vegas. It is about five miles north of the other Casino Arizona, again just off the 101 freeway. There is a four hundred room hotel, two parking garages, a fantastic poker rooms, a swell pool, and a large gaming area. In addition, there is a gourmet restaurant on the top floor of the hotel (Orange Sky), a cigar lounge (Shadows), an oyster bar (Ocean Trail), a barber shop, a spa/salon, an Au Bon Pain-type place (Blue Fig), a coffee bar, a buffet, and an upscale cafe (Blue Coyote). Boy, did they get this one right.

Gaming offerings are exactly the same as the other Casino Arizona, except this one has a poker room. A word needs to be said about the poker room at Talking Stick. It is probably one of the best in the country. The action is huge and constant. I would say it approaches the levels of Wynn, Bellagio, and Venetian is terms of total action and tables. Game is mostly Texas Hold 'Em. For some reason, no limit games are not allowed in Arizona, but the max bet is $500 so the games are effectively no limit within a certain range. The room is very nice, and airy with self serve coffee machines and table side food service which everyone seems to agree is very good. The room is non-smoking.

A nice thing about Talking Stick is the non-smoking BJ tables in the poker room. This is a good idea that I am suprised no other casino has come up with. You get the poker players to play blackjack during their breaks and also appeal to the non-smokers. For what it is worth, there is very little smoking in the main casino, either, and you can often request a table to be made non-smoking. This is another plus, in my opinion.

If I had to recommend one casino to vist in the Phoenix area, it would be Talking Stick without hesitation.

The only bad thing is the drink prices are too high. I paid $7.50 for a margarita. Spare me.

Gila River Wild Horse Pass:

WIld Horse Pass is another new full-service resort that is in the south valley area, right of the 1-10 freeway on the way out of town towards Tucson. It is similar to Talking Stick, with all of the similar amenities, and similar gaming options. There is no buffet, but there is a Shula's Steakhouse, and a Chinese place called Ling and Louies. There is also a food court with outlets like Fat Burger and a pizza and Mexican place. I never had a meal at this casino, but once again is it very upscale and well designed. It is hard to say anything bad about it.

Gaming options and blackjack rules are the same as the Casinos Arizona. There is only one table of WPT All-In Hold 'Em, instead of two at the AZ's. They deal it differently -- using an automated dealer which spits out two cards at a time. There is no electronic craps or roulette.

I did have a bad experience here that kind of soured me on the place. I was driving to there from Harrah's Ak-Chin through the Indian reservation when I got pulled over by tribal police. Apparently I was speeding when the speed limit went down from 50 to 35 at some point. I didn't see the sign, but I was pacing the car in front of me, and the cop just decided to pull me over. He citied me my for speed not reasonable and prudent, and also for driving with expired registration and insurance (admittedly, I didn't notice they were expired). Thankfully, he didn't book my right there and impound my vehicle, but needless to say I wasn't happy with the experience. I don't see why the Indian reservation should be enforcing Arizona law.

Gila River Lone Butte:

Lone Butte is the "secondary" casino on the Gila River reservation, and is located about a mile from Wild Horse Pass. It is smaller, with fewer table games and slots, but nicely laid out in a semi-circular formation. There is a nice bar and sports lounge in the center. The gaming is exactly the same as Wild Horse, but on a smaller scale. It kind be a nice change of pace from the froo-frah-ness of Wild Horse Pass.

Gila River Vee Quiva:

This is the dumpy locals' joint of the Gila River empire. It is isolated from the other casinos, and is located in a remote part of the West Valley. I drove out to check it out, and was not impressed. I don't recommend visiting Vee Quiva.

Fort McDowell:

Fort McDowell is another isolated casino, located on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian reservation. To get there, you have to drive through the desert for about 15 miles, and pass by a couple other casinos. It's hard to say that it's worth the drive. The architecture is uninspired "bingo palace." They do have a very large bingo hall, and it is quite popular. There are all the latest slots, and a small pit of blackjack tables (6/8 decks, H17, mostly $5 minimums). The one thing that is kind of cool is the digital self-serve soda machine, that will mix and dispense about 35 different sodas for you. (One nozzle, you make your selection on the screen). Pretty neat.

The Fort is not a great place to play, except for one pretty good "hot seat" promotion they have for the table games. Every hour or so (it might have been random), they'd choose a player playing table games and award them I believe $25. Then they deal you a blakjack hand and if you get a blackjack you get I believe $400 more. After that, every player in the table games pit gets a lammer and you are told "they are going for their second blackjack." If they get another blakjack, I believe they get $5,000 and every player playing gets $100 in promotional chips. Then, there is another level where if you get three blackjacks you win $10,000 and every player gets $200 in promotional chips. Pretty innovative promo.

There is a Radisson hotel on property. I did not try any of the food outlets.

Harrah's Ak-Chin:

Harrah's is the most far away of all the Phoenix-area casinos, located in the edge city of Maricopa, about 30 miles south of Phoenix. It is a small, mid-scale property with a medium-sized hotel attached. Everything about Harrah's says "average." The casino is small, with a bingo pavilion on property. The table games pit is the smallest in Phoenix. They do have Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em with the good Trips paytable (1.9% house edge). Blackjack is H17, 6/8 decks. There is no good video poker at lower denominations.

For Diamond players, there is a nice Diamond Lounge that is actually the restaurant, Agave. The restaurant closes after lunch and becomes the Diamond Lounge. You are allowed to order one appetizer off the menu, and a maximum of two drinks for free. The calamari I ordered was not very good, but they did have other stuff like sliders.

The hotel is very atrractive and resort-ish with low-rise angled buildings situated around a central courtyard with a very unconventionallly-shaped pool. The pool has a bar in it. The hotel looks like a nice place to stay, although I didn't get the chance to see any of the rooms. There is a buffet and snack bar and probably some other food options in the casino, although I didn't try any of them.

Harrah's lives up to its reputation as the middle-market king in Phoenix. I would only recommend driving out to Maricopa if you are a fan of their properties, have a diamond card, or can otherwise get a free or discounted hotel room.
"Dice, verily, are armed with goads and driving-hooks, deceiving and tormenting, causing grievous woe." -Rig Veda 10.34.4
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August 7th, 2011 at 1:35:16 PM permalink
Thanks for the reviews teddys, great stuff. A friend of mine just bought a place in Arizona about 8 months ago and we go down there every month or so to play golf (46 degrees last month!!!). I didn't know about all of the casino options so I appreciate this thread. We visited the Ak-Chin last time and it's pretty much exactly as you described it; small, mid-market but a decent atmosphere. I'll second what teddys said about the speed limits (at least in this area of the state) as we drove to and from the Ak-Chin through the Native communities and the speed limit changed at least 4 or 5 times along the way, from as high as 70mph to as low as 25mph at times (if memory serves). You've really got to keep your eyes open for the signs as I suspect that the local law enforcement is ready to pounce on unsuspecting motorists.

On an unrelated note, as I drove through the small towns along the way, we passed a couple of cemetaries and I noticed that all of the grave sites were RAISED piles of dirt, almost as if the body wasn't buried in a hole but rather simply laid on the ground and covered with sand. Has anyone else noticed this and is there an obvious explanation I'm missing or is there a shortage of shovels in the state?
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August 7th, 2011 at 2:34:04 PM permalink
Thanks for the report, makes me remember there are still parts of Phoenix that I miss. I used to live minutes from Vee Queeva. It is as you say a small, locals joint. Though when youy are local you don't mind so much. If anyone else is doing the "tour" you did, there is a "back way" to Ak Chin from Vee Queeva if you turn left out of Vee Queeva and follow that road. In the days of GPS it will not be a problem, but when I lived there GPS was new and I had to be told about it.

And do watch that "pacing the car" thing going to Ak Chin. Maricopa City is isolated and only grew because it was the last place in the city where you could get a house <$200K before the crash. At least once I was "pacing" traffic and wondered why the car was so noisy. Looked ad the speedometer and was doing nearly 100!
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August 7th, 2011 at 4:41:12 PM permalink
While I fairly well agree with the reviews, especially that of Vee Quiva, I would also mention that VQ has a poker room. While it does not compare to the size of the GR or TSR poker rooms, it *can* be a nice one. It seems, at least to me, that the staff is much friendlier to regular than to newcomers. Also, they have some decent tournaments, which are nice again because the size is smaller than the other poker rooms in the valley.
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January 13th, 2014 at 8:19:33 PM permalink
I am in Phoenix for a few weeks for work and have decided to head out to ak chin on Thursday night and spend the night. I was wondering if anyone had updated information on the resort, specifically what if any diamond benefits I should be aware of. Also wondering if the tower rooms or the resort rooms are nicer. Any decent low variance video poker at the quarter level?
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January 14th, 2014 at 12:26:45 PM permalink

Obligatory Joke:

I went to a restaurant that serves "breakfast at any time." So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.
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January 14th, 2014 at 9:19:58 PM permalink
I am assuming you're going to harrahs only because you are getting a free room? If you're not getting a room then just go to the casino arizona at talking stick.

Edit: I don't have anything to add about harrahs. Sorry. I haven't been there in like 3 years, mostly because it is a long drive and talking stick has to be one of the nicest casino resorts not in Las Vegas.
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May 19th, 2019 at 12:35:38 PM permalink
Not sure if anything has changed at AK-Chin, but I visited it for the first time recently now that I live in the valley. Diamond players get two free drink tickets, and then one for every 50 TC you earn. I didn't use all of mine, so its still pretty liberal for a state that doesn't give out free drinks. Biggest issue is stopping play to go stand in line to get more drink tickets. Nice to be able to order from a machine, though. Not sure I'll go back, except to take advantage of promotions. Too far away for "Harrah's Odds." (When was the last time you saw that phrase?)
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