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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Thomas Elias:  Lack of control keeps Indian gaming suspect

By Thomas D. Elias
December 20, 2005

The feel is strictly Las Vegas, Reno or South Lake Tahoe. But the results, gamblers often complain, can be very different.

Walk into many of California's modern Indian casinos, run by tribes from the Pala to the Morongo to the Rumsey and many more, and if you'd been blindfolded on the approach to the building, you could barely tell the difference between these glitzy new gaming palaces and the storied ones across the border in Nevada.

Until you look at the details of some games and -- many players say -- the results.

The Indian casinos have thousands of slot machines, just like in Nevada. They feature card tables and even craps -- with a slight difference. It's craps with cards and not dice in many Indian facilities. Rather than have players rolling dice (which have to be checked periodically to make sure they're not weighted to favor either the house or a player), dealers pull cards from two large decks stacked in card shoes just behind the come line. These decks only have cards from one to six, just like the faces of dice.

And the Indian casinos are not hurting a bit for popularity. Their parking lots are full, even on most weekdays. They operate day spas, luxury hotels, steak houses and celebrity showrooms, creating ever more opportunities for the formerly famous.

The players keep coming, armed with quarters, silver dollars and much more. But many claim their chances of winning are far less in Indian casinos than across the state line.

There is no way to confirm or deny those claims with certainty. For while Nevada has a well-funded gaming commission that oversees casinos, card rooms and even airport and drugstore slot machines, California does not. In Nevada, dice and cards and slots are subject to random checks and cheaters are severely punished. Investigators for the Nevada Gaming Commission are among the most feared and respected law enforcement officers in that state.

But in California, the state Gambling Control Commission is a toothless wonder, unable even to keep track of profits reaped by the 55 tribes operating casinos under compacts with the state.

Nominally, the California commission has the same responsibilities as its Nevada counterpart, and more. Besides inspecting the 55 casinos and 100 cardrooms operating legally in this state, commission agents are supposed to "control, collect and account for all license fees" and make sure that no tribe installs more slot machines than allowed under its compact.

But this agency has just 48 employees, with no reinforcements coming for at least another year. In his original budget request, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked to double the commission staff, but later cut that request in half -- keeping staff at current levels -- because of opposition from legislators in both major parties.

This was no surprise, with scores of lawmakers in both parties on the campaign-donation take from casino Indian tribes.

As it stands, there aren't enough inspectors today even to determine how much money the Indian gaming industry makes in California. The usual figure reported is $6 billion a year, but that's just an educated guess.

If they can't even tell how much money a tribe is making, how are the state's small corps of investigators going to police the honesty of slot machines, card games and, yes, craps with cards?

The answer, of course, is that they can't. What's more, even if it had enough money to hire more investigators, the state commission still might have problems. For it's important to find impartial testing firms to check whether slot machines pay off to their advertised levels. But almost all companies equipped to do such testing now work for the casino tribes.

That's a good argument for an independent state testing laboratory, but there's been little interest in this from legislators. Meanwhile, some gaming commissioners claim they are not equipped to assess technical reports prepared for the tribes by private slot-machine testing outfits.

In short, no one knows if Indian gaming in California is honest or crooked. And no one will for the foreseeable future.

By contrast, the odds at craps in Nevada are well known to many players. Same for the odds of winning at blackjack. And gamblers can pretty much trust that even if they lose, they at least haven't been cheated.

No one knows that about casinos in California. Which makes plunking down money in this state's gaming palaces different than gambling across the state line, no matter how similar things may look on the surface.

Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Union.

Replies to Elias
Some replies posted on the same site as the original article:

Re: Lack of control keeps Indian gaming suspect
by Anonymous on Friday, December 30 @ 17:22:04 PST

By all means, you should entertain yourself where you are comfortable. However, suspicion and inuendo should not dictate where you play. Instead, I would invite Mr. Elias to educate himself as to three levels of regulation by tribal, state (2 agencies), and federal officials of Indian gaming -- as compared to the single level of regulation in Nevada. Mr. Elias's comments at best demonstrate ignorance of the facts and, at worst, an intentional attempt to mislead the readers of his column.


Re: Lack of control keeps Indian gaming suspect
by Anonymous on Friday, December 30 @ 17:31:11 PST

Mr. Elias posits that the lack of state regulation results in tribes taking advantage of customers. Mr. Elias' comments are unclear and unsupported. Is he complaining the flipping of cards for card based craps is unfair? Is he complaining that blackjack is somehow unfair when played at a tribal owned casino? Is he alleging that the 55 tribal casinos in California have somehow set the slot machines to simply take people's money. Clearly, nothing could be further from reality. Mr. Elias' comments assume that tribes don't want to run profitable businesses and that they are ignorant of the public's desire to win when gambling. Gambling, whether in Nevada or in California requires customers to return to play. The willingness to return is generally based upon whether the customer believes that the entertainment offered was of value. Instead of providing usupported statements, Mr. Elias should demonstrate with appropriate facts and statistics that his suspicion has any basis in fact.


Re: Lack of control keeps Indian gaming suspect
by Anonymous on Saturday, December 31 @ 16:10:21 PST

In his opinion piece (Lack of Control Keeps Indian Gaming Suspect. www.theunion.com. 20 Dec. 2005), Mr. Elias, in his bias, fails to mention an element that would explain the seeming lack of control in tribal gaming, namely, tribal sovereignty. His opinion piece simply ignores that as sovereign legal-political entities, tribal governments, like the state, enjoy autonomy, self-government, and self-determination. The state cannot abridge this tribal sovereignty, any more than a tribal government can abridge state sovereignty. As a result, tribal governments and state governments exist in a parity of their powers.

This tribal-state parity prevents the state from imposing its political or legal will on tribal governments. Hence, the state and tribal governments, each as sovereigns, regulate themselves. For example, the state regulates its own state lottery, and the tribal governments regulate their own tribal casino operations.

Nothing in the law requires tribal governments operating tribal casinos to disclose to the public the earnings from their casino operations. Thus, Mr. Elias presents a red herring when he objects that the state Gambling Control Commission cannot "keep track of profits reaped by the 55 tribes operating casinos under compacts with the state." The state has no authority to gain this proprietary information.

Furthermore, Mr. Elias implies a useful connection between the state's knowing the amount of profit from tribal casino operations and the state's ability "to police the honesty of slot machines, card games, and, yes, craps with cards." Under American capitalism, honesty may or may not have anything to do with profits, but surely profits arise from a successful casino operation, as Mr. Elias describes. Suggesting that disclosure of tribal casino profits will somehow promote the achievement of honesty and avoid crookedness merely offers instead a lame attempt to pull information from tribal governments that operate casinos. Moreover, the absence of information may arouse suspicion among the suspicious, but cannot by itself support the assumption of wrongdoing.

Over the top, Mr. Elias says, "no one knows if Indian gaming in California is honest or crooked. And no one will for the foreseeable future." Under the 1989 federal law known as the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act (IGRA), the U. S. Congress established the legal framework for conducting the operation of tribal casinos, including the formation of tribal gaming commissions that see to the proper internal operation of tribal casinos. These commissions report to tribal government. Of course, via tribal custom and tradition, a tribal government as well typically maintains its own oversight of all activity within its political jurisdiction, including the function of bodies such as gaming commissions. In short, tribal governments act in their own interest, and a reasonable person must assume they do so with good and honest intentions.

Instead of trying to kindle suspicion toward tribal casinos, and by extension to tribal governments, Mr. Elias should assume that tribal people stand upright in their daily affairs and in their business activities, such as the operation of tribal casinos. If he cannot assume this positive view, then perhaps Mr. Elias could assume that tribal people, as cautious, intelligent, conservative adults, would take pains to avoid any suggestion of dishonest, corrupt, or general bad behavior in the conduct of their lives and their business. Whichever way he views tribal people, Mr. Elias would do himself and his readers a large favor by dropping his open bias toward tribal people and their successful tribal casinos.

Ed Burbee
Pechanga Indian Reservation

Rob's reply
As "Anonymous" said, the claim that "no one knows if Indian gaming in California is honest or crooked" is flatly false. For starters, it ignores the fact that Indian casinos are regulated at the tribal and federal levels as well as the state level. See Indian Gaming—Corruption for more information.

If Elias doesn't think these three levels of regulation are strong enough, he could've said so. But his omission of two of the levels tells us he's not out to offer a reasoned argument. Instead, he wants to raise the bogeyman of corruption among the Indians.

Also, players provide their own form of policing by sharing information (in person, in publications, and online) about which casinos have the best slots payouts, the best blackjack rules, and so forth. If any casino was cheating its customers, the word would spread quickly. The feds would intervene even if the state didn't. And the customers would stay away in droves.

The FBI, the Justice Dept., and other agencies all look for signs of foul play in Indian casinos. That they've found little cheating or corruption is a testament to the regulatory structure in place. Whether Elias knows it or not, Indian gaming is arguably cleaner than most forms of gaming.

Related links
The facts about Indian gaming
The facts about tribal sovereignty

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