Gambling in Costa Rica
IntroductionCasino gambling is legal and easily found in Costa Rica. However, unlike the large Vegas-style casinos in neighboring Panama, the casinos in Costa Rica are usually a small appendage to a much larger hotel. Most tourists come to Costa Rica for one of two reasons: to enjoy nature or prostitution. Evidently, neither group has much interest in gambling. However, for the few visitors who are interested, I traveled there in March 2013, in part to report on the casino scene. This blog entry reports on my findings.
General InformationCasinos are definitely understated in Costa Rica. The typical casino has about six table games and 50 slot machines. Signage tends to be small, and sometimes you have to walk through the hotel lobby to get to the casino. The Sheldon Adelson philosophy, "We are a hotel with a casino, not a casino with a hotel," seems to be the order of the day in Costa Rica.
Once inside, you should expect a quiet atmosphere where you can play in peace. Atmosphere music will be soft or nonexistent. Most of the time, the casinos are sparsely attended. Most table games will be unmanned, and many that are manned have no players. Approximately only ten percent of the slots are being played at any given time. Of course, one can expect bigger crowds depending on the time and day of the week, as anywhere.
Drink service is generally infrequent and undependable for players. Nonalcoholic drinks are free, but those with alcohol will be charged at bar prices, which can be high. For example, the cheapest beer is usually $3.00. In Costa Rica, as in Panama, smoking is strictly prohibited in public places, including bars and casinos. As a nonsmoker, this is a public policy I applaud.
While every casino is more or less the same in the above respects, the general ambiance is different depending on the casino location and policy on prostitution. Some casinos welcome the working girls, and others apparently want nothing to do with them.
For the casinos that welcome prostitutes, you can expect hoards of them. They will be everywhere — at the bars, sitting at the slots, walking about or just standing. If you don't want to be bothered by them, then the number one rule is to avoid making eye contact. If they talk or whistle at you, just ignore them. Once you are actually gambling, there seems to be an understanding between the girls and casino management that active players are not to be bothered. If you don't want to rub against that at all, literally and figuratively, then be careful to choose a casino that is not a magnet for that profession.
Table GamesFor some reason, the tables used in Costa Rica are the big tables you also find in Macau. I like these better, as there is more elbow room and inlaid holes to put drinks. The tables themselves are generally old. I've noticed the cloths are often from some other casinos elsewhere in the world.
The dealers, all of whom seem to be male, are invariably not interactive and are sometimes outright rude. Don't expect a greeting when you sit down or a good-bye when you leave. It is not a language issue, as they don't communicate in Spanish either. If you play to gamble, you will get that. If you play for the social experience, then don't expect the dealer to help with it. To be honest, I felt some dealers had anti-gringo racism.
As far as I saw, every table is stocked with chips in both U.S. dollars and Costa Rican colones. They seem to be careful with the colors and texture of the chips, so no two currencies will look similar.
Speaking of currency, the exchange rate is conveniently right around ₡500 per dollar (the symbol for the Costa Rican colon is a C with two slashes. However, you often see the ¢ symbol in signage). The rate has been artificially maintained by Costa Rica since early 2011. So, to convert colones to dollars, take off three zeros and then multiply by 2. To convert dollars to colones, add three zeros and divide by 2.
Table limits are low compared to the U.S. If playing in dollars, expect to find most tables at a $5 minimum, though some could be higher. If playing in colones, expect a ₡1,000 minimum, which is equivalent to $2. This disparity doesn't make much sense, but when you're in Costa Rica, you tend to give up questioning the logic of things and just accept them.
By law, casinos may not operate 24 hours. I'm not sure what the earliest opening and latest closing hours are (I could never get a straight answer to this), but the busy Casino del Rey opens at 11 AM and closes at 4 AM. Most other casinos have shorter hours of operation, roughly 5 PM to 2 AM.
Tipping is not as ubiquitous in Costa Rica as it is in the U.S. In particular, tipping dealers is allowed, but seldom seen. I've tipped a few times and the dealers didn't thank me nor seem to care. The number of friendly dealers I encountered in Costa Rica is zero, so I would not feel obligated to tip them by any means. In fact, there is no profession I am aware of in Costa Rica where tipping is expected. In case you're wondering about restaurants, they automatically add a 10% service fee. Nevertheless, tipping for truly exceptional service, in my opinion, is good etiquette in both countries.
I was not sure what clothing to pack for my planned casino research in Costa Rica. A friend of mine, who used to work in San Jose, emphasized not only did everybody dress very casually, but if I dressed up, I would be a target to get robbed in downtown San Jose. Conflicting with that advice, I had a printout of every land casino in Costa Rica from ildado.com, which indicated the dress code for every single one as "smart/casual." Whom to believe?
My rule of thumb is that when in doubt, it is better to overdress, so went with "pretty smart/casual." What a mistake! My friend was right. I went around with an American who lives there, and he went everywhere, including fancy restaurants, in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. He blended in just fine. My friend back home was right; nobody will care if you dress casually, and dressing nicely just marks you as a gringo loaded with money. My friend was probably also right about the danger of being robbed. While I have no crime statistics on it, I was warned numerous times to not walk around San Jose at night.
With all the generalities out of the way, let me discuss the specific games. The most popular game is a blackjack variant called rummy. Other games commonly found are roulette/canasta, pai gow poker and Caribbean Stud Poker. Following are more details about each game.
RummyAccording to most casinos, blackjack is illegal in Costa Rica, so they offer a variant called rummy instead. Here are the rules:
- Four to six decks.
- An ace and 10-point card count as 21 points. Thus, there is no 3-2 bonus for a winning "blackjack," because there are no blackjacks.
- Dealer stands on soft 17.
- Double any two cards.
- Early surrender.
- Double after split allowed.
- Re-split any pair, including aces, up to four hands.
- Draw to split aces not allowed.
- The following bonuses for a three of a kind and straight flush apply to the first three cards of the original hand only.
Player hand Unsuited Suited Total 21 Three of a kind 3 to 1 5 to 1 5 to 1 Straight flush n/a 3 to 1 5 to 1
- Bonuses pay immediately, even if the third card causes the player to bust.
- If the player gets a bonus after doubling, then the bonuses apply to the total amount bet.
- Splitting voids any chance of a bonus.
When I returned home, I did a complete analysis of Rummy, including house edge and strategy. Briefly, the house edge is 1.00%, but the basic strategy has lots of changes due to the different rules. Please see my Rummy page for more information.
Roughly half the tables at most casinos will be rummy. The game is almost entirely played by tourists. Most seem to neither know nor care that they are not playing blackjack. I'm not sure what makes blackjack illegal in Costa Rica, but I think somebody (namely myself) could do a better job at creating a variant that caters to American and other players and complies with the law.
BlackjackDespite blackjack being allegedly illegal in Costa Rica, some casinos offer it. It should be noted that both Rummy and blackjack are dealt from the same tables. Usually a small sign will indicate the game and limits. However, sometimes there will be no signage at all and you'll just have to ask the dealer whether the table is rummy or blackjack. The answer you might get is, "Whichever you want to play."
Of the ten casinos I visited, I found four that deal blackjack. Here are the rules offered by some those casinos I checked:
Casino Amon — Mona Lisa Hotel — San Jose
- 6 decks
- Blackjack pays 3-2
- Dealer hits soft 17
- Surrender — Late
- Re-split to four hands
- Double after split — Yes
- Re-split aces — No
- House edge = 0.55%
Crown Plaza — San Jose
- 6 decks
- Blackjack pays 3-2
- Dealer hits soft 17
- Surrender — No
- Re-split to four hands
- Double after split — No
- Re-split aces — No
- House edge = 0.78%
- Amapola Casino/Hotel — Jaco
- 5 decks
- Blackjack pays 3-2
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- Surrender — No
- Re-split to four hands
- Double after split — Yes
- Re-split aces — No
- House edge = 0.41%
- Casinos that don't have blackjack, at least when I was there were:
San Jose: Fiesta, Palma, Casino del Rey, Horseshoe
Jaco: Cocal, Marriott
One procedural difference between Costa Rica and the U.S. is that in Costa Rica the dealer does not take a hole card. However, if the dealer gets a blackjack, then the player will lose his original bet only. If the player surrenders against a ten or ace, then the dealer will put a marker on it. Should the dealer get blackjack, the player will lose the entire bet; otherwise, he loses half. Mathematically, this rule is the same as American "late" surrender.
Another curiosity is how surrendered bets are resolved. Some casinos follow what I term the “imprisonment rule,” as with roulette. The concept is that a bet is supposed to lose half but is automatically re-bet on the next outcome. Therefore, the surrendered bet will either lose completely or push, depending on whether the player wins or loses on the next wager. I assume the imprisoned bet would remain imprisoned in the event of a push.
The way an imprisoned bet is adjudicated is the dealer will put a laminated marker on the wager and then put both on the edge of the betting circle, in the same place an American player might place a tip. The player then has the option to make an ordinary wager, as well. What I don't know is what happens to the imprisoned bet if the player splits or doubles. It just never occurred in the several hours of blackjack I played, and I’m not good enough to articulate the question in Spanish.
Some casinos follow this imprisonment procedure every time the player surrenders. However, some only follow it if the bet is not evenly divisible by $2, because they don't have 50-cent pieces on the table.
Roulette/CanastaRoulette (ruleta in Spanish) is easily the number two game in Costa Rica. It is played in two forms. The first way is with a standard American double-zero wheel. The second, known as canasta (Spanish for basket), involves a cage containing 38 numbered balls. The cage is rotated until a single ball is randomly drawn out of the cage.
The two forms are roughly equally popular. Locals seem to prefer canasta while tourists prefer the wheel. I find the popularity of canasta very interesting. I've played in casinos in Panama, Argentina and Uruguay and never saw a single canasta game. This must be a Costa Rican thing. This form of roulette should be offered in California casinos, where the ball and wheel are prohibited per state law.
Pai Gow PokerPai Gow Poker is not difficult to find in Costa Rica. Most casinos have at least one table. Casinos catering to locals tend to have more and are often full of local Asian players. This is easily the most crowded of all the table games in Costa Rica.
Some tables had some kind of a side bet. I've seen knock-offs of the Fortune and Emperor's Challenge side bets presented with just an informal sign on the table indicating the payouts.
I've tried to ask if player banking is allowed, and I was told it isn't. However, in my jagged Spanish, they may have misunderstood me. I would probably not invoke the option anyway at a table full of locals in a foreign country.
A friend told me the Morozon casino used to alternate every half hour between the normal 5% commission game and no commission at all. He couldn't verify if they still run this promotion. If they do, during the no commission time, the house edge would be reduced from 2.73% to 1.30%. The Morozon is located near the Casino del Rey, on Avenida 1 and Calle 7. My apologies to my readers for not confirming this myself; I just didn't have time.
Caribbean Stud PokerKnown as "tute" in Spanish, about half the casinos have a Caribbean Stud table. The pay table is the same as in the US. I did not see any table with the progressive side bet, or any side bet for that matter. Some Caribbean Stud tables in Latin America, including Panama, offer the option to switch a card for the price of the Ante, but I never saw this option offered in Costa Rica.
Three Card PokerThe table layouts and signage say "Three Card Tute," in an amusing mixture of English and Spanish. I've seen this game at the Crown Plaza in San Jose and the Marriott in Jaco.
At the Crown Plaza, they offer the 10-5-3-1 Ante bonus pay table, which has a house edge of 3.28%. This is a little less than the usual 5-4-1 pay table in the US, with a 3.37% house edge. However, the Pairplus pay table is 80-40-25-6-3-1, which is the worst of the 13 known pay tables in the world, at a house edge of 7.73%. Although the U.S. 40-30-6-3-1 pay table is second worst at 7.28%. I neglected to check the pay tables at the Marriott.
SlotsThe slots were much the same as you would find in the United States, at an economy casino five years ago. The majority of slots were in U.S. dollar denominations. The games do not have TITO (ticket-in, ticket-out). When you cash out, you are paid in coins. If you cash out too much, or there are not enough coins in the hopper, then you have to wait for a hand pay. You'll be happy to know there are no tax forms for jackpots.
Video PokerYou can expect any casino to have a few video poker machines, usually with stingy pay tables. The machines generally accept player’s club cards, but I didn't investigate how any of the programs work. Here are some examples of pay tables I found:
Casino Amon in the Mona Lisa Hotel, 25 Cent
Game Pay table Return Jacks or better 6-5 95.00% Bonus poker 8-5 99.17% Double bonus 9-7-5 99.11% Double double bonus 6-5 94.66%
Cocal Casino, $1
Game Pay table Return Bonus poker 6-5 96.87% Bonus poker deluxe* 100-8-5 97.96% Deuces wild 20-12-10 97.58% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Double double bonus 9-5 97.87% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
* I forgot to note whether the straight flush paid 50 or 100 in the bonus poker deluxe game, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt at 100 in the table above. The return for the 50-8-5 game is 97.40%.
Fiesta — 5 Cent
Game Pay table Return Bonus Poker 10-8-5-3-1 94.18% Double Bonus 10-6-4 97.46% Double double bonus 7-5 95.71% Triple bonus poker plus 7-5 97.67%
Fiesta — 25 Cent
Game Pay table Return Bonus Poker 6-5 96.87% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Double double bonus 8-5 96.79% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
Fiesta — 50 Cent
Game Pay table Return Bonus Poker 7-5 98.01% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Double double bonus 9-5 97.87% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
Fiesta — $1
Bonus Poker 7-5 98.02% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Double double bonus 9-5 97.87% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
Fiesta — $5
Bonus Poker 7-5 98.02% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Double double bonus 9-6 98.98% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
Here are some pay tables at the $1 denomination found at the Marriott in Jaco.
Marriott Video Poker
Game Pay table Return Deuces wild 20-12-10 97.58% Double Bonus 9-6-5 97.81% Bonus poker deluxe* 100-8-5 97.96% Double double bonus 9-5 97.87% Triple bonus poker plus 8-5 98.73%
Finally, it should be noted that while I was playing Rummy, for research purposes, at the Casino del Rey, a friend I was with spotted a 5-cent 16-10 deuces wild game (return of 99.73%) with a double-up feature. It just goes to show that sometimes you can find a diamond in the rough.
Video KenoVideo keno can be found on IGT Game King machines. I checked the pay tables at two casinos and, not surprisingly, found them to be very stingy, ranging in return from 83% to 88%. The following two tables show the exact pay tables and returns.
Casino Amon 25 Cent Video Keno
Catch Pick 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 5 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 11 5 3 2 1 1 0 0 4 40 10 5 2 2 1 0 5 400 49 22 10 5 5 6 1000 275 40 40 25 7 2500 500 400 120 8 5000 1000 500 9 5000 2000 10 10000 Return 86.08% 84.66% 85.97% 85.79% 84.96% 85.33% 84.57% 84.25% 86.43%
Fiesta 25 Cent Video Keno
Catch Pick 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 14 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 43 4 3 3 1 0 0 0 4 92 9 4 2 2 1 0 5 805 60 21 10 6 5 6 1500 410 100 42 20 7 5000 1600 325 145 8 10000 2500 1000 9 10000 4000 10 10000 Return 84.18% 87.41% 88.01% 87.98% 88.28% 88.29% 88.29% 83.1% 88.14%
Sports BettingSports betting is a very mysterious thing in Costa Rica. A few casinos have signage indicating they have it, but I never noticed anything like a line board or a ticket writer. At the Cocal casino in Jaco, there was a small empty counter with a neon sign saying "sports betting" above it. I asked the gal behind the counter, who seemed to be occupied with something totally unrelated to the betting of sports, how I can make a bet. She told me to talk to somebody, whose name I forget, in the poker room. I didn't feel like wasting his time if I didn't plan to make a bet.
CrapsAs far as I know, the only casino with craps in Costa Rica is the Colonial in central San Jose. That doesn't mean there aren't others, but it clearly is not very popular. At the Colonial there is a single table at the far end of the table game pit. It has double odds and the stingy field bet (paying 2-1 on both the 2 and 12). At the time I was there on a Sunday night, the table was staffed but nobody was playing.
Texas Hold 'Em
The larger casinos tend to have small poker rooms with one to three tables. The Casino del Rey has a nice one with three tables. It seems that every game is no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. At the Rey the blinds are $1/$2 and the minimum buy in is $100. Most players seem American with English spoken at the table.
The only game I saw that I haven't covered is Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, which I saw at the Marriot in Jaco.
CasinosAs mentioned, most casinos in Costa Rica are more or less the same. You can expect four to six table games and about 50-100 slots. Do not expect anything else to do besides a bar and perhaps a modest restaurant. With the exception of the Fiesta, you are very unlikely to find anything in the way of live entertainment.
What tends to vary are the people in the casinos. It could be crowded or nearly empty. The players could be tourists or locals. The prostitution policies also vary. If a casino allows it, expect it to be readily available.
San JoseOne unanswered question I've had for years is why many Latin American countries place their largest city so far inland. I've asked many of my kids' history teachers and still can't get a straight answer. Compare the United States to Mexico, for example. Just eyeballing the map, I would estimate a pretty high percentage of the U.S. population lives close to either coast or the Great Lakes. However, in Mexico, most of the major cities, including Mexico City, are inland. Not only is it not close to an ocean, but I don't see any major rivers or lakes around it either.
The same goes for Costa Rica. It is a small country with great beaches on both sides. So why is most of the population living in the sprawl of San Jose right in the middle? My best theory, until this trip, was the military advantage of the higher ground. However, after experiencing the hot humid coast and the nice cool interior, I'm changing my theory to the weather. At least when I was there in early March, the weather in San Jose was just perfect. Low eighties during the day and partly cloudy. From what I know of the weather in Mexico, it is a similar situation there.
Sorry to get so off topic, but hopefully the above rambling will be useful in how to pack and dress in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, if any history professors should read this, I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Many of the San Jose casinos are located in a cluster on or near Avenida 1, between Calles 3 and 8. Be warned if you're on Calle 4 or 6, you're not in the casino district. In San Jose, they put the even-numbered streets on the west side and the odd-numbered ones on the east side. With the avenues, they are odd on the north side and even on the south side.
The general casino area is rather seedy, with hundreds of prostitutes on the streets and in the bars and casinos. Some casinos go right along with the "red light" atmosphere while others don't let it get through their front door. The casinos further outside of the center of town get more patronage from locals and are much more quiet. That said, here are my comments on the 10 casinos I managed to visit during my visit, in alphabetical order. My apologies to those I missed.
Casino Amon in the Mona Lisa HotelThis quiet casino is located near the intersection of Calle 8, between Avenidas 1 and 3 in San Jose. While still in downtown, it is several blocks west of the main cluster of casinos.
I was there late on a Sunday night, and it was quiet and sparsely occupied. The tables and machines were in a room larger than necessary for the quantity of games, so there was plenty of elbow room. There were a few prostitutes inside, but for the most part, they seemed to have given up on business for the night. One of them kept trailing me and smiled whenever I looked in her direction.
The games offered were blackjack, rummy, canasta, roulette and pai gow poker.
The manager was an American who spoke perfect English. Unfortunately, this was the first casino I visited in Costa Rica. Had it been the last, I would have lots of good questions for him, answers to which would have improved this article. He was extremely friendly and made it quite clear that I was welcome at any time.
Casino Amon web site
If you're looking for a quiet escape in downtown San Jose, I highly recommend it.
Colonial Casino web site
Crown PlazaThis hotel casino is about five miles from the airport, on the way to central San Jose. As you would expect of a Crown Plaza, the casino was more upscale than the average casino in Costa Rica. The mixture between tourists and locals was about 50/50. There was lots of signage in Spanish about various promotions going on that were obviously targeted to locals.
Games offered were rummy, blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker (tute), pai gow poker (3 tables) and canasta (2 tables).
Crown Plaza web site
FiestaThis is the largest casino in Costa Rica, located near the San Jose airport. It is associated with the adjacent Garden Court Airport Hotel. I've also played at the Fiesta casino in Panama City, which was obviously part of the same chain.
It seems to me that the airport is located in a mostly residential part of San Jose, which may explain why the players were obviously locals. A high percentage of the floor space was dedicated to slots, but there were six table games. Perhaps there were more in the VIP section, but the door leading there was locked.
The Fiesta is the only casino I encountered that offered live music. On an elevated stage near the entrance, there was a five-member band playing what was, to the best of my knowledge, salsa music. Now, I'm not a music expert, but this band seemed darn good. I felt a little sorry for them, because nobody seemed to be paying much attention. In fact, they had been playing for a while before I even realized it was live music, as the stage is easy to overlook.
Games offered at the Fiesta are Caribbean Stud Poker (tute), rummy, canasta (2 tables), pai gow poker and blackjack. See above for their video poker and video keno pay tables.
Fiesta Casino web site
According to other web sites, the Horseshoe evidently used to have a few table games, but no more. It is now slots only. My last visit the entire place was closed. Somebody guarding the door said their computer server was down, although I tend to think their power went out, because all the lights were off, including on the marque.
Horseshoe web site
MorazonDespite playing in this place for at least an hour, I'm still not sure what the name of the casino is. It seems like a little casino on Avenida 1, a block west of the Rey. Signage inside would lead one to think it is called the "Europa" casino, but there is another Hotel and Casino called the Europa several blocks away. So, I don't want to call it that, lest I confuse you. Based on research after I got home, this seems to be the casino associated with the Hotel Morazán. There is no direct entrance between the two, nor signage for the Morazán the casino, at least that I saw, so I hope I can be forgiven for not figuring this out while I was there.
The games at the Morazán are:
- Pai gow poker: 5 tables
- Canasta: 1 table
- Tute (Caribbean Stud): 1 table
- 3-Card Tute (Three Card Poker): 1 table
- Rummy: 2 tables
Here are the rummy rules:
- Limit 3,000 to 150,000 colones (equivalent to $6 to $300)
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- Four decks
- 3X bonus for three of a kind of straight flush
- 5x bonus for 7-7-7
- Surrender allowed
At the time they were running a promotion in which three sixes paid a bonus of 5x instead of 3x. The value of this is 0.08%.
While there the casino manager caught me writing some notes in my notebook and asked what I was doing. I told him truthfully who I was, gave him my card, and told him I was taking notes for my web site. He seemed to not believe me, and kept shadowing me. At one point I asked to write down the pay table of a side bet in pai gow poker, clearly posted on the table, but he said "no."
Suffice it to say I didn't feel very welcomed there, but as long as you aren't taking notes I think you'll have no problems. The casino is brightly lit with bright blue carpeting. Once I attended a lecture in casino interior design, and the speaker said blue is a terrible color for casinos. I'm guessing nobody from that casino was in attendance.
The casino neighbors, and bears the same name as, the Palma Real Hotel. The Palma Real is part of the Barceló chain of luxury hotels, mostly in Latin America and Spain. However, I don't think the casino matches the Barceló standards, which may be why there is no mention of it on the hotel website.
The casino itself is three stories high and obviously caters to Asian locals. The six table games consisted of five pai gow poker tables and one canasta. Most tables were filled to capacity with local Asian players. The slots, meanwhile, didn't seem to be getting as much attention.
I would not make the Palma Real a priority for anybody interested in gambling. The only reason I stumbled in was I had a business appointment nearby and just happened to notice it.
Palma Real casino web site
Palma Real hotel web site
Casino del Rey
When I mentioned I was going to Costa Rica, one of the first things every male who had been there before told me was, "You have to visit the Casino del Rey." It is something for which there is no equivalent in the U.S. I have not seen so many working girls in one place since the Veneto in Panama City. The difference is that the Veneto is about twice the size.
While the Casino del Rey has a respectable casino with six table games and 100 slots, I don't think many people go there to gamble. Much of the square footage is divided between two bars, the hotel lobby, and a common-space area with tables and chairs.
When I was there on a Friday night, about 10 PM, the place was teeming with prostitutes. The ratio of working girls to men was about 2 to 1. I would estimate there were roughly 100 of them crowded into this small venue. Despite their overwhelming numbers, they were well-behaved and didn't bother me, except the usual attempts to make eye contact, which I'm terrible at avoiding.
As if anyone cares, the table games offered are rummy (3 tables), Caribbean Stud Poker (2 tables) and roulette. As mentioned in the video poker section above, there is a 16-10 (99.73% return) deuces wild game at the 5c denomination too.
Hotel del Rey web site
JacoJaco (pronounced haco) is the closest beach city to San Jose and the only other place in Costa Rica I managed to visit. It wouldn't surprise me if lots of other gringos make the same claim, as the little town is inundated by tourists. You'll find no shortage of bars, souvenir shops and surfing outfitters.
There are three casinos in the greater Jaco area, and each are unique in terms of location, clientele and atmosphere. Following are the details:
The Cocal hotel looks like a nice place with lots of rooms and amenities. Like most hotel/casino pairings in Costa Rica, the hotel is the emphasis, rather than the casino. Compared to the size of the hotel, the casino is small and very crowded with tourists. The main section is for table games with a smaller section for slots. There is also a small bar. The second floor has two live poker tables.
Games offered at the Cocal are rummy (4 tables), roulette and Caribbean Stud Poker (tute). The slot machine area had about 30 machines.
The casino was crowded and noisy with tourists. I played rummy for about an hour, and I had one of the rudest dealers I've ever encountered in my 25 years of casino gambling. A friend of mine with me said to the dealer something to the effect of, "What's your problem?" The dealer put a rack over the chips, and security told my friend to leave the property.
We all left the table at that time, but lingered around the bar. Another friend of mine tried to order a drink at the bar, but the bartender said our entire group was banned, so we all left en route to the Amapola casino, which I'll get to soon. I've never been kicked out of a casino in my life, and I wanted to test if I really was. So, about two hours later, I returned to the same irritable dealer. He gave me the stink eye, but nobody stopped me from playing.
You'll find some prostitutes lingering around the bar and slot machine area at The Cocal. However, that is nothing compared to what awaits you if you depart via the door in the slot machine room, leading to the swimming pool and a much larger bar. This area is a cornucopia of prostitutes. Much like the Casino del Rey, the ratio is about two working girls to every guy. Unlike the Casino del Rey, these girls are pretty aggressive and don't mind initiating a conversation and, occasionally, touching men within arm's reach. Maybe I was there on a slow night (a Monday), but they all seemed pretty desperate for business.
Hotel Cocal web site
MarriottAbout 10 kilometers northwest of Jaco is a huge master-planned community of golf courses, marina, stores and lots of luxury condos Called Los Sueños (the dreams). Close to the entrance is the Marriott hotel and casino.
The casino is the usual size for a Costa Rican casino: six table games, a bar and a handful of slots. However, as you would expect of a Marriott, it is much more clean and modern. Unfortunately for them, at least the two times I was there, the place was almost empty. Normally I don't socialize with strangers at the table, but there is something that just isn't fun about playing in an empty casino. If I ran the place, I would consider hiring some shills to act as players, just to get the energy level up.
The table games offered at the Marriott are rummy (3 tables), Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em (the only such game I saw in Costa Rica), Three Poker Poker (3 card tute) and roulette.
The Marriott deserves a "shame on you" for their awful Rummy rules. Normally rummy carries a high house edge anyway, compared to blackjack, of 1.00%. However, the Marriott changes the standard rules to prohibit surrender and re-splitting aces, as well as hitting a soft 17. This increases the house edge to 1.68%. I encountered no other casino in Costa Rica offering anything close to such terrible rules in rummy.
Marriott web site
Be warned that lots of other websites refer to the casino at the Amapola as the "Jazz Casino." I asked all over town for the Jazz Casino, having forgotten the name of the hotel, and nobody had ever heard of it. When I finally found the place the next day, thanks to a taxi driver and the name of the hotel. I didn't see signage anywhere indicating any particular name of the casino.
This may be the smallest casino I found in Costa Rica. As I recall, there were three or four table games. The number of table game players when I entered was zero. My entourage and I indicated we wanted to play blackjack, so a dealer was summoned and the game was opened for us. The first thing I noticed was the felt was from some other casino I've never heard of, and the game was dealt with store-bought Bicycle playing cards. I might add that it looked like they hadn't replaced the cards in ages.
You might think they would be happy for the business, but the dealer and supervisor looked indifferent. At least a cocktail waitress came by quickly. I asked for a margarita, which was awful. The bartender probably had no idea how to make one. Upon thinking about it further, I can't recall ever seeing margaritas on a menu in Costa Rica. It just goes to show that there are big differences between the various Latin American countries. The one thing they have in common is they were all conquered by Spain.
Aside from the table games, the Amapola had a small number of slots, about 25, and a bar. The casino had lots of floor space relative to the number of games. Between that and the lack of customers, there is no shortage of elbow room. If you're in Jaco, and the Cocal is too much for you, then the Amapola is the 180-degree opposite.
Amapola web site
ProstitutionSince the vast majority of my readership is male, I imagine some may be wondering more about the prostitution business in Costa Rica, which is hard not to address when writing about the casinos in that country. Let me preface this section by saying that this information comes mostly second-hand from American men I spoke to that live in Costa Rica and are familiar with the profession.
In Costa Rica, prostitution is legal and practiced openly. The Lonely Planet guidebook says, "Female prostitutes are required to register and receive regular medical checkups." However, when I quoted this to locals familiar with the business, it was met with laughter. When I pressed the issue, they said it was an urban legend.
On a zero to ten attractiveness scale, the prostitutes you're likely to see in the casinos and bars tend to range from a 5 to 8. The median age seems to be about 25. I asked my more-knowledgeable male companions about the women in the 9 to 10 range. What I was told is they tend to work for private escort services. Of course, you can expect to pay more if you go that route.
The standard asking price for one hour is $100, the same as in Panama. I'm told this is very negotiable. Given the high ratio of working girls to men I encountered, I would assume the men have the bargaining power.
I also touched on this topic in my February 2011 blog entry about Panama. If forced to compare, you'll find almost exclusively Colombian women in that profession in Panama. This means full-figured women, often artificially. If you need an example, do a search on Dania Londoño, the young woman who complained about a Secret Service agent stiffing her just before Obama's visit to Columbia. There is more of a mix in Costa Rica, mostly from Costa Rica itself, Columbia, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. If forced, I think the working girls in Panama, especially as found at the Veneto casino, were more attractive.
In my articles on Panama, I wrote that many young women actually played at the tables for low stakes, hustling male players for handouts. I never once encountered this in Costa Rica. On one occasion, at the Casino del Rey, I noticed another male player invite a working girl to sit down at Rummy table with him. This lasted about one minute before the floor supervisor made her leave, above the apparent objections of her new companion.
Finally, be warned about what appear to be women who work the street corners. They are not women. However, I have to give them credit for doing an outstanding job of looking female, at least from a distance. That is about as far as I can take that topic.
My apologies to what few women readers I have for being so objective, but these are the kinds of things I know many of my male readers want to know.
ConclusionIn conclusion, I can't say that I was terribly impressed with the casino scene in Costa Rica. There are a lot of great things about the country, but gambling isn't one of them. If you like American-style casinos, you will be a lot happier in Panama. However, if you're planning a trip to Costa Rica anyway, and enjoy gambling, hopefully this article will help you know what to expect, and will lower your expectations appropriately.
Outside LinksSpanish translation of this article.