Try your luck in the Northwest
By Kurt Umbhau
Special to The Advertiser
By Kurt Umbhau
On a 170-mile gambling road trip between Seattle and Portland, Ore., fresh fish and poker chips are always nearby.
In daylight, the sheer size of Washington offers untold opportunities for visits to snow-capped volcanic peaks, national parks and world-class fishing areas. At night, you can transform money into chips, rub a lucky charm and try your luck.
Of course, before any gambling marathons, it's always pleasant to take in an afternoon of Seattle's best: The Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project, near the Space Needle, is as celebrated for its architecture as Paul Allen's music collection inside. Exploring the building's oval lobes and aluminum chambers is like walking through a robot's brain. After working up an appetite listening to Nirvana and watching Pearl Jam videos, go to Pike Place Market to watch fishmongers pitch and catch silver salmon.
But if you like some risky business with your culture, head for I-5 — the freeway that runs from Canada to Mexico. Go past the Seahawk's new stadium, view imposing Mount Rainier, and not long after the Boeing airfield you'll come upon the Emerald Queen Casino.
The Emerald Queen is the equivalent of a drive-through casino; its large industrial-looking building is owned by the Puyallup Indian tribe and sits a couple of hundred yards from the Interstate. Simply exit, park, and within minutes you are in a hall with 2,000 slots, 56 tables and a keno lounge.
The casino has the same games you find in Las Vegas: Let It Ride, blackjack, Spanish 21, pai gow, craps, roulette and Caribbean Stud. Because of its location on the freeway, some people bypass games and use the place as a pit stop for restrooms and snacks.
If license plates were any indication, the clientele was almost entirely local. The players were a diverse mix of retirees, curious travelers and committed players with the ethnic diversity of Hawai'i.
Though the games are the same, the Emerald Queen Casino does not attempt to re-create Sin City's glitz or sizzle. There are no slinky showgirls or cocktail waitresses, and the buildings are little more than reinforced revival tents. But you can find Vegas' vintage sounds — the Emerald Queen hosts the same casinocircuit entertainers, such as America, Billy Ray Cyrus and Air Supply, at its 2,500-seat showroom.
I sat at a $5 blackjack table. The folksy dealer said hello, converted some money to chips, and continued talking with another player about fishing.
A woman sitting at third base had not played much and continued to hit regardless of what the dealer had showing. An Asian woman kept admonishing her, "Why you hit that? Dealer bust, dealer bust." But the newcomer kept taking the dealer's bust cards and losing, saying things like "I only came here for fun anyway."
After a few too many situations where the dealer won and the table lost, I was ready to move along.
I drove south, passing the Tacoma Dome and through the state capital, Olympia. At mile marker 88, down tree-lined Highway 12, is the rural town of Rochester. This setting seemed an unlikely place for The Lucky Eagle Casino run by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.
The Lucky Eagle is the size of a small Nevada casino, with an attached 69-room hotel, buffet and steakhouse. A standard room starts at $75 and a suite with a Jacuzzi and a balcony costs $155. Entertainment includes live boxing, concerts, and the Seattle comedy competition.
The casino is a friendly place for blackjack with single-deck 21, $3 minimums and regular tournaments. It also offers Texas Hold 'Em classes with low stakes, which can be followed by a game in the poker room. Dining options include a deli, a grill and the state's largest buffet ($9.95). For something more than a quick cheeseburger, the Prime Rib and Steak House offers the standard turf choices as well as weekly specials that included blackened 'ahi ($18.95), grilled duck with papaya ($19.95) and blackberry cobbler ($6.95).
BUY YOUR OWN BOOZE
There are differences when gambling in Washington vs. Las Vegas, and probably the most glaring is that you have to buy your drinks. As a result, the clientele is not as liquored up as a manic Vegas crowd clutching football beers and oversized margarita glasses. The other major difference is that most casinos are not open 24 hours.
In Washington, there are 26 Indian casinos, and these have agreements with the state allowing them to offer table games as well as video poker and video slot machines. There are other privately owned casinos with separate agreements and no slot machines or video poker. The state requires slot-machine percentage paybacks of at least 70 percent, but according to Ed Fleisher, assistant for government affairs in the office of the state Gambling Commission, most of the machines pay at least 90 percent.
One of the best advantages of a gambling run through Washington is the scenery. After a couple of sessions at the Lucky Eagle, I wanted to see Mount St. Helens. Driving from mile marker 88, I rambled south through a patchwork of trees and small farm towns.
At mile marker 49, I exited onto Highway 504, which leads directly to the mountain. A river follows the road, and fishermen wearing hip waders stood in the current, casting. As I climbed higher, I pulled over at a lookout and spotted elk that gather in the roadside meadows.
Mount St. Helens got bigger with each mile, and I noticed little puffs drifting upward from the jagged crater. The mountain, still showing signs of the massive eruption that felled thousands of trees, has been releasing steam from recent activity. I reached Coldwater Lake and took a one-hour hike over soft soil.
SMALL TOWN, BIG FUN
Back on I-5, north of Portland, the former mill town of La Center rests on the Old Pacific Highway near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. I saw egrets and blue herons. After crossing a bridge decorated with yellow ribbons for the soldiers in Iraq, I found four privately owned casinos adorning the center of town with red floodlights and a little green neon. The table games are the same; blackjack, pai gow and poker the most popular.
The New Phoenix Casino, Chips Casino, Last Frontier Casino and The Palace Casino net more than $30 million a year, with $3 million going to La Center's annual budget. The target market seems to be Asian: There's a Lucky Dragon restaurant and the Asian All Stars entertainment, though the crowd is mixed and mellow.
The casinos are clustered near the police station. The New Phoenix lounge offers $1 beers and $2 cocktail specials, while just across the way is the officers' giant DUI banner. Between the long, lonely roads and eager cops, the cheap drinks become a daunting challenge.
Want to play it safe? Nonalcoholic drinks are on the house for players at most of the casinos.
While I was getting pile-driven into debt by a card shark at Chips, the downbeat cocktail waitress charged me for every watery cup of coffee I could stomach.
After a few days of gambling, I was ready to spend less time in the casinos and more time outside. In the Portland area, I finished off the tour with a hike to the top of Multnomah Falls, a stroll through Washington Park at sunset and a ride to the coast to see Haystack Rock.
Washington is no Las Vegas, but it gives gamblers a green change of scenery — and fresh Pacific Northwest seafood — to go with the black jack, slot machines and poker games.
Kurt Umbhau, a part-time Hawai'i resident and freelance writer, lives in Vancouver when he's not traveling.