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Last Updated: May 19, 2009
Casinos of San Diego
On May 14 and 15 I made my second casino tour of the San Diego area. Last November, the Barona casino hired me to survey the blackjack, craps, and roulette rules in the ten casinos in the San Diego area that have table games. The purpose of the survey was to have an independent verification that Barona has the most liberal table game rules, which I can confirm that they do. At the time we agreed to two surveys, one in November, and a second about six months later, which I just did.
I already indicate the rules in San Diego for blackjack, roulette, craps, video poker, and video keno on my site. When I went in November I voluntarily surveyed video poker and video keno, which I did not update this trip. Here are links to those sections:
The casino gambling scene in California can be broken down into two types: Indian casinos, and poker clubs. The Indian casinos are found mostly in the San Diego area, with a few more around Sacramento, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara. The poker clubs are mostly concentrated in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.
The poker clubs feature a lot of poker, but also variants of blackjack, baccarat, Three Card Poker, Caribbean Stud, and many others. All games in the card clubs must be player banked. Each poker club has a relationship to a banking organization, whose members sit at the tables with huge piles of chips, ready to take the roll of banker in turn. Often players don't want to bank, in which case the banking organization is happy to do it. According to the California constitution, the popular traditional games are not allowed. So, the poker clubs get around the rules by making subtle rules changes. For example, in blackjack games, there is always some rule twist, usually in that a blackjack is not the highest hand, or some unusual dealer hand will cause the player to push if he already busted. One such game I analyzed is California No-Bust Blackjack. However, since I wrote that page, the blackjack games are becoming much more like traditional blackjack.
The Indian casinos are much like the full-blown casinos in Las Vegas. They feature most of the table games found in Nevada. However, in craps and roulette, the dice or ball alone may not determine the outcome, so cards are introduced to replace the dice/cards, or add another layer of randomization. I indicate how each casino does it in my San Diego craps and roulette pages. The slots are the same kind as found in Nevada. In many Indian casinos outside of California, the outcome must be determined by an electronic draw of bingo balls, known as Class II slots. I believe this used to be the case in California, but the law was relaxed to allow a quota of full-blown Class III slots. The quotas are about 2000 to 3000 per casino, which is plenty. I did see some class II slots in the bingo room at the Sycuan casino.
Other differences between California and Nevada casinos are that California casinos are much more focused on gambling. There are not as many shows, restaurants, night clubs, and other stuff to do as you will find in find in Las Vegas. Some of them do have nice golf courses. Much like Atlantic City, I get the impression that most of the San Diego casino patrons come on day trips, and often by bus. Finally, there are no free alcoholic beverages to players in California. There is cocktail service, but anything with alcohol will come at a price. A Bailey's coffee I ordered at Pechanga was $5. Had I remembered this policy, I would have had cream & sugar instead.
Geographically speaking, the San Diego casinos are in inland, and obviously on Indian reservations, if it still okay to use that word. They are scattered over eastern San Diego County. The map below shows the location of each of them.
Map image from GooleMaps.com
- A — Pechanga
- B — Pala
- C — Pauma
- D — Harrah's Rincon
- E — Valley View
- F — Santa Ysabel
- G — Barona
- H — Sycuan
- I — Viejas
- J — Golden Acorn
- k — La Posta
As you can see from the map, five of them (Pechanga, Pala, Pauma, Harrah's, and Valley View) are clustered together in the north part of the county. Actually, Pechanga is just over the county line, in Riverside County. Three of them (Viejas, Golden Acorn, and La Posta) are off of the I-8 highway, in the east part of the county. The other three (Barona, Sycuan, and Santa Ysabel) are off by themselves, and don't fall easily into a group. What follows are my comments about each casino individually, going from north to south.
Pechanga is by far the largest casino in the San Diego area. In fact, it is the largest casino in the western United States, according to their web site. Pechanga has 188,000 square feet of casino space, compared to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at 156,023. After living in Las Vegas for eight years, I had almost forgotten what it feels like to get lost in a casino.
My first to Pechanga I asked the dealer if I could exchange a $100 Pala chip for a Pechanga chip, a request usually honored in Vegas. She snipped back, "This isn't the Pala." After explaining that I knew where I was, she called over the supervisor, who also denied me, as if it were a ridiculous request.
My second visit went much better. My dealer in the high limit room was very sociable, but was not shy about sharing the casino tip policy with me. At most casinos dealers will pool their tips together. Pechanga is not one of those casinos. My experience in casinos where dealers keep their own tips is that you get great service if you do tip, and lousy service if you don't. The room where I spent one night was clean and comfortable, and the check-in went quickly. When I retured I received a very generous mailer, good for a free room, and I think $100 in free play in slots of table games. Unfortunatley, I lost the mailer. My play there was flat betting $100 in blackjack for 40 minutes, where I lost about $1000.
If you keep going south down the road from Pechanga, you'll soon end up in the small town of Pala. Turn right, and you'll soon see the Pala casino. The Pala is another large casino, with high ceilings, and somewhat Asian looking in decor. I first visited Pala a few years ago and found it pleasantly non-smoking, except for a small glassed off room. Last November, I found they had reversed their policy, and made the glass room the only non-smoking part. This trip they even did away with the glass room, as part of a major renovation they were in the middle of. Score a point for the smokers. My impression of Pala is that it is a clean and efficient place. However, I found many employees to be cold and impersonal. If you are the kind of gambler who just wants to play, and not be bothered, I think you'd be happy with the Pala.
The Pauma is a medium-sized casino, in a tent-looking type of building. No hotel, one diner, and the rest was pretty much casino. The Pauma is the only casino I've ever been to (and I've been hundreds of them) where the dealers wear Hawaiian shirts. They get more points for having good blackjack rules. I find the atmosphere friendly and easy going, except some of the dealers are evidently not fluent in English, and shy away from conversation. The service in the restaurant was slow, but the waitress was apologetic about it. When I was there, they had a generous promotion for new players. For signing up for a player card, you received $10 in slot play and back pack. I'm skeptical of the slot and table game numbers below, from CasinoCity.com. The casino seems smaller than that, but maybe it is an optical illusion.
As expected, Harrah's entry in the California market is a huge affair. The casino seems very new, spacious, and busy. Every employee I encountered was friendly, helpful, and outgoing. My compliments to the staff. I do not know how generous they are with comps, because I never played enough to warrant asking for anything.
Address: 777 Harrah's Rincon Way, Valley Center, California 92082
Phone: (760) 751-3100
Table and Poker Games: 73
The Valley View is a medium to large sized casino, a short distance down the road from Harrah's. It is a crowded place, which seems to get a lot of bus play. The service spans the range. I had some nice dealers, and some brick walls. On my first visit, the pit boss offered me a free buffet, without being asked. I happily accepted, but the line was too long and slow to justify the time standing in it. Still, any time a casino offers me something without having to be asked, they earn points.
The Santa Ysabel is a small casino, way out in the hills. My first visit there I almost had the place to myself, and the dealer and floor supervisor were very nice to me. My second visit the place was crowded. I could see that a bus had just come in, and unloaded a large group of elderly people. The only manned table had a smoker right in the middle, so I didn't play. I questioned a supervisor about the blackjack rules, and he questioned me back about what the Barona was doing. He might have known who I was. My opinion is you have to hit the Santa Ysabel at the right times, to avoid the tour busses, and you'll likely have a good time.
Address: 25575 Highway 79, Santa Ysabel, California 92070
Phone: (760) 787-0909
Table and Poker Games: 6
Let me restate that Barona paid for this trip. So perhaps my review of Barona is biased. To start with the facts, Barona is a large casino in a scenic area, next to a lake and golf course. They are best, or tied for best, for the most liberal blackjack, craps, roulette, video poker, and video keno in my surveys. I found the service at Barona was always friendly and professional. I never encountered a long line. There is always a host of promotions going on. One thing you will not find at Barona, except in the steak house, is alcohol. The reason for this is a visit necessitates a drive on a winding two-lane road, which would not go well with intoxicated drivers.
The Sycuan is another large property, not far from downtown El Cajon. The upstairs has not one, but two, huge bingo rooms, by far the largest I have ever seen. Downstairs are lots of slots and table games. The casino seems small at first, but there is one room after another. The service I encountered a Sycuan was fine on average. I applaud Sycuan for having a devoted non-smoking wing.
The Viejas is a large casino right off of interstate 8. You can easily see the casino and outlet mall from the highway. The casino is a busy place, and the gaming tables are generally crowded. The dealers I had were all fast and efficient, but barely spoke a word to the players.
The Golden Acorn is a small casino off of the I-8, the furthest east of the San Diego casinos. The dealers I had there were all very outgoing and friendly. They were running a t-shirt promotion when I was there, get 21 blackjacks and get a free t-shirt. Although I'm a sucker for a free t-shirt, I only had time to accrue six stamps on my card. I begged the pit boss to let me play three spots, to earn stamps faster, but she refused me.
The La Posta is a small slots-only casino off of the same exit at the Golden Acorn. To get there requires a short drive up a hill, north of the I-8. I didn't go there my recent trip, because I didn't want to fuss with video poker and video keno again. Back in November I only spent a few minutes to get the video poker and video keno pay tables, so it didn't have a chance to interact with anybody.
Border Control Checkpoint
I have revised what I have said about this a number of times. The facts of the matter are that there is a border control checkpoint in a remote part of San Diego County for west-bound traffic on the I-8. Before the checkpoint cones force traffic in the right lane to merge into the left lane. Long before this point, signs indicate that that the right lane is closed ahead and to merge left. I think everyone could also agree that the majority do merge early, and back up into a long line, and a minority take advantage of the fast-moving right lane as long as possible. There should also be no debate that at the cones, some of the early mergers refuse to let the late mergers cut in, which can result in heated emotions, or worse, from both camps.
What is subject to debate is whether the early or late merge is the right/courteous/efficient/legal thing to do. Documents by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln indicate that the early merge is the safer in light traffic, and the late merge is safer in heavy traffic. They also indicate that both methods are superior to the conventional, confusing, and dangerous situation where early and late mergers meet. Personally, I was always led to believe that when signs say merge, it means to do so as soon as it is safe to do so. The following resources agree with me on early merging:
"Slow down, get into the correct lane early and merge cautiously." Wisconsin Department of Transportation
"The best policy is to safely merge at least a quarter mile before the lanes merge." AutoTrader.com
"As soon as you see a sign telling you a lane will be closing, get out of that lane." eHow.com
I wrote to the California Department of Transportation about it. Here is what I asked, and the response:
Q: On the westbound I-8, there is a border control checkpoint.Signs indicate that traffic should merge left. Are drivers supposed tomerge ASAP, or wait until the cones force the merge. The same situation appears at road consruction sites everywhere.
A: These signs are in place as a warning of what is ahead. You can merge at anytime as long as it is safe to do so.
I also asked the "Road Warrior" at the Las Vegas Review Journal. He answered my question in the May 27, 2009 paper. Here is the Q&A:
Michael Shackleford asks: When signs appear that say "road construction merge left/right," are you supposed to merge as soon as it is safe to do so or wait until cones force the merge
Motorists are running into this problem on Interstate 15 as the Nevada Department of Transportation continues to build express lanes between Sahara Avenue and Russell Road, especially on the southbound portion of the freeway.
Robert McKenzie, spokesman for the Transportation Department, said according to the uniform traffic control manual put out by the Federal Highway Administration, motorists should merge as soon as it is safe to do so.
"An alert motorist should move over as soon as possible," he said.
But there are those motorists who speed up to the cones because either no one will let them in or they think they can somehow avoid congestion.
"Common courtesy should play a role but doesn't always," McKenzie explained.
And congestion is exactly what happens in that case as motorists in the merging lane often have to come to a complete stop before squeezing in, McKenzie said.
Drivers also need to realize these merges are there because it is a construction zone and they need to slow down, McKenzie said.
For now I will continue to abide by the social norm of merging early. To do otherwise I think is cutting in line, which is nothing less than stealing the time of the drivers in back.