You want action, baby? Arizona's got it. From Prescott to Tucson, suckers are throwing their money away on slots, cards and high-stakes bingo. Some of the casinos operate round-the-clock. Others attract rotating hordes of bingo addicts from lunchtime til deep into the night. All are located on Indian land, just outside of cities and towns, and, until recently, just outside the jurisdiction of state government. There are rooms in this state's Indian casinos that would make typical low-rollers think they have died and gone to Vegas. Downtown Vegas, of course, not the Strip. A side street in downtown Vegas. Arizona's gambling dens are not the Mirage.
But they are real and they are ours and, until the governor, feds and Indian tribes decide otherwise, bingo balls are popping and slot handles are dropping.
Sadly lost in the political jousting over the tribal gaming issue has been any kind of aesthetic analysis of the casinos and their patrons. Now, New Times has risen to fill that void.
The following whirlwind tour of the state's Indian casinos is organized by region and designed to document this exact moment in Arizona's Indian casino history. We may never pass this way again. The tour begins to the north and heads south, starting in Prescott--Gateway to Big Bug Creek.
Two settings for slot whores are available in Prescott. One is located in the former disco of the Sheraton Resort and Conference Center, a big hotel on a mesa above town, the other in the large back room of a restaurant at the foot of the same mesa. Both are located on land owned by the Yavapai-Prescott tribe, exactly 99 miles from Park Central Mall. The lower casino, functionally named Yavapai Gaming Center, is a dimly illuminated steel barn filled with folding tables. Here bingo occurs every night except Monday; doors open at 5 p.m. Smaller rooms surround the gymlike bingo hall and are filled with slot machines and the sorry people in Windbreakers who play them. These machines are open for business every morning at 6, and open all night Friday and Saturday. Refreshments are provided by vending machines.
Once the Sheraton's disco, Bucky O'Neil's Casino and Lounge is now jammed with whirring, beeping slots and video poker games. The disco's bar area has been retained, so cocktail service is available, a unique (and welcome) feature among this state's casinos, which are otherwise all dry. Bucky's, which opens early and closes late, is located just off the hotel's lobby and not far from the big conference rooms. It is advertised as "Arizona's Only Hotel Casino." The presence of slot machines no doubt enlivens rural economic development meetings held here.
Just outside the entrance to the casino is the hotel's automatic teller machine; above it are displayed snapshots of big winners in the casino. Those pictures talk. Tapped-out slot players, lining up to access their savings accounts, listen.
Elsewhere, the Sheraton is packed with western art of all media, a theme that first greets visitors just outside the entrance. There, "Proud Heritage of the Indian," a big bronze by Cari Gail, is displayed. The work portrays an infant-toting Indian woman, who seems to be reaching for something with her free hand. Could it be a slot handle? The Valley's Vegas
The Fort McDowell Casino sits exactly two miles north of the intersection of Shea Boulevard and Beeline Highway, and just east of Fountain Hills, a town that sells itself as "All that is Arizona." A month from now, Salt River tubers and cabin owners en route to the cool pines will clog this stretch of the Beeline, but it's a delightful route now through sand-and-gravel country. According to Adopt-A-Highway markers, one stretch of the Beeline between McDowell Road and Shea is kept litter-free by the local chapter of the John Birch Society.
The casino itself--The Valley's Vegas" is written in neon on one interior wall--is a gigantic shed covering several acres. Most of the inside is occupied by the bingo operation, which cranks up every weeknight at 6:45 p.m. Weekend sessions begin just after lunch. A special "backstage" treat for anyone who visits in the morning is to glimpse the team of workers who clean the bingo room's ashtrays.
Posters throughout the huge complex encourage players to sign petitions against further state interference in Indian gaming affairs. No wonder. Advertised bingo payoffs start in the hundreds and max out at $2,500.
The slot room is behind a glass wall at the west end of the building. Poker is played behind a similar partition on the east side.
In slot land, some effort has been made to approximate the ambiance of a Vegas casino. Several of the machines are grouped around gay displays of lights and signs, the slots and video-poker machines spit out lots of racket, and human change-makers (some of them tribe members; the casino employs about 500 workers total) wander the room. Players clutch coin tubs and toss their shredded quarter sleeves over their shoulders. When swept into a pile by a custodian, the orange-and-white coin wrappers look like discarded shrimp shells.
The Yavapai Indians who run this room have had less luck approximating the powerful air-exchange systems that keep Vegas casinos relatively smog-free. The Fort McDowell slot and poker rooms stay open 24 hours a day, every day, and even on weekday mornings the air is full of smoke. The uniformed security guards are allowed to light up on the job, making this one of the all-time excellent positions in that industry. Across the big arena, the poker room has its own snack bar and is slightly less smoky, and quieter. Dealers wear Hawaiian shirts and gray complexions. Players look even less healthy. On a recent morning, an ESPN exercise program played silently over the in-house video system as gamblers played hunches at the card tables. A handmade note from a local kindergarten class is displayed on one wall of the poker room, thanking the players for contributions that bought new playground equipment. "We love you one hundred and ten thousand," the note concludes. Tucson
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Doors open at Papago Bingo at noon. Bingo commences daily and nightly at 1, 4, 6, 7:15 and 9:45. The large hall is located exactly 270 feet west of Tucson's airport, on Old Nogales Highway, not far from I-19. Though the name on the sign out front says Papago, the tribe now prefers the title Tohono O'odham Nation. Tucson's vision of Vegas, focused primarily on big-money bingo, appears much more sedate than northern enclaves. The action is so mellow, in fact, that a line in the program actually reminds patrons that "it is the player's responsibility to yell 'Bingo!' and stop the game." During matinee games, the several hundred players remain eerily quiet, and sigh politely only when one of them remembers to announce, "Bingo." The mood heats up only slightly during nightcaps.
The caller sits at one end of the room, pulling numbered balls from a bin and displaying them in front of a fixed video camera, which broadcasts numbers to TV sets around the room. The players sit in long rows. Most of them hold several long bingo cards, which cost $5 each at the entrance. Most of them also carry several felt-tipped Wink-brand (The Winner's Ink") marking pens, made especially for the bingo-playing market. The snack bar here serves great chips and guacamole, and a smoke shop serves customers who want to test the air-filtration system, which seems to work pretty well. What appears to be an empty slot room sits at the far end of the building. Though no one-armed banditry takes place at this facility at this time, billboard advertising around town says it does, so you just know it will.
The Cocopah Indians run a bingo-slots operation of their own near Somerton, which is near Yuma. A review of that facility is not included here in light of the crucial but little-publicized bill that sailed through the legislature this session ceding Yuma and its environs to Idaho.