Indian Land, Texas Hold ‘Em

We decided to pull up stakes and head out of the broiling desert, closer to the coast: Temecula. The Pechanga Resort & Casino. But before we hit the road, I traded in the Nissan for something a little more German: a BMW 325i Hybrid. Have to say I was impressed. Except that I couldn’t figure out how to start it. Once I mastered the “on” function, we hit the freeway and wound our way down to Pechanga.

The Temecula Valley wasn’t quite as beautiful as the desert. More development, naturally. One friend, a woman from Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota who grew up in Temecula, told me, “When we were kids we tried to stop development as much as we could. We’d ride our horses out into the scrub and pull up the survey stakes. It was fun. We played in the middle of the road. Back then, there was only Indians there. Just Indians and horses and dirt.”

There is a lot more there now. Strip malls, housing developments, big-box retailers, and, crowning it all, Pechanga. It might not have been one of the first Indian casinos, like the ones near Palm Springs, but it has caught up. I once again flipped the car keys to the valet and nodded as coolly as possible (he didn’t seem impressed, probably because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the car off) and sauntered into the lobby. There is a huge, fake (but very nicely faked) coast live oak in the lobby and a stained-glass window showing another oak tree. I learned later that one of the oldest coast live oaks is on the Pechanga reservation, near the 11th hole of the golf course (which I golfed on Day 4). When I checked in and went to the room, I noticed a lot more Native kitsch motifs in the carpet and the choice of artwork on the walls.

Casinos have an interesting aesthetic, and Indian casinos even more so. In the 18th century (in Europe, that is), casinos were playgrounds for the rich, and they were built to resemble aristocratic chateaus and mansions. (Think Casino Royale.) In fact, the word casino is derived from the Italian word casino, a small house, summer house, or pavilion built for pleasure. It is interesting to note that casino now means whorehouse in Italian, and the gambling establishment is spelled the same way but with an accent over the O: casinò. It is interesting because American casinos, as reinvented in Las Vegas, worked to combine the excitement of a carnival or circus (the big top, marquee entertainment, the “big show”) with the intimate naughtiness of a bordello. Then the 1980s came, and those of us who’ve watched Casino know that the honest dirt of mob-controlled Vegas was replaced with dishonest, Disney corporate dirt. With new leadership, casinos became “family destinations” with water parks and boats and gondolas and so on.

None of these evolutions was able to erase completely the species of the past, so casinos are a weird aesthetic jumble with blackjack dealers in tuxedos, circuslike dings and whistles coming from the slot machines, big shows (many a has-been rock and country band have Indians to thank for their continuing careers—Whitesnake, Styx, and Air Supply are all regular performers at Indian casinos), theme parks, a whiff of prostitution, and now Indian images and motifs. I actually tried to find some crime (it’s research, baby), but I couldn’t. (Craigslist discontinued its “erotic encounters” section the very week I arrived in California because of Philip Markoff’s alleged murder of a woman who posted ads on the site. His destination when he was apprehended: Foxwoods Casino.)

Instead of crime, I opted to play in the poker tournament offered nightly in the Pechanga card room. Small poker tournaments are kind of hilarious. I don’t know why, but the white guys (almost always between the ages of 18 and 28) wear caps and sunglasses and fiddle with the headphones of their iPods as though they, and not someone else, were being filmed on the World Series of Poker. These guys are almost always the ones who lose first. Go figure. Since I was pretending to be rich and successful and mysterious, I, too, wore my sunglasses and listened to my iPod. I didn’t dare tell anyone that the mix I was listening to included Cyndi Lauper, Chris Isaak, and My Morning Jacket. I lost. I made it just short of the final cut and decided to play poker at the $3-to-$6 table instead.

Poker, in particular Texas Hold ‘Em, has become a huge phenomenon. Partly because of cameras that allow TV viewers to see the players’ cards, and partly because Indian casinos have allowed backroom players to play in public with strangers all across the country, Texas Hold ‘Em has entered millions of American households. It’s a brutal sport. Each player is dealt two cards. Betting ensues. The dealer then deals the “flop”—three cards faceup. More betting. Another card is dealt faceup—the “turn.” More betting. Then the last card is dealt—”the river.” More betting. At each stage, there is serious mental warfare, frustration, hope, a chance that the last card will make your hand. Even at a $3-to-$6 table ($3 being the minimum bet, $6 the maximum), it can get expensive. The problem is that it isn’t expensive enough, so people will play just to play, regardless of their hand or their position. Hands that most sensible people would fold are kept until the river. And good hands lose—they’ve been “rivered” as they say.

My table was a weird mix—to my left a Vietnam vet there with his son. To my right a Gulf War I Marine vet now working in Army intelligence. And to his right a young racially vague kid, age 21, who had just enlisted and was supposed to ship out two days hence. It felt comfortable to a certain extent. My grandfather, father, and not a few uncles and cousins all served—in World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I heard the usual tomahawk jokes one hears from non-Natives when they think that Indians aren’t listening. But I couldn’t really get mad: The more they lost, the more some Indians (without tomahawks) got a little richer. Across from us were a mixture of Asian men—Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese.

I was winning. The kid kept betting against me and kept losing. I felt bad. But poker’s poker. And if you play your position (that is, if you keep in mind where you are in the circle of betting) and play your cards, you can play for a long time on $60.

And then it happened: Just before I was about to cash in, the table won the “bad beat jackpot.” The bad beat is a great hand that loses to a slightly better hand. The bad beat jackpot is an institution that casinos have set up to create excitement and to keep gamblers at the table. Basically, a pot of money grows and grows and grows until a very rare combination of cards comes up. The combination is made up of the flop, turn, and river and at least two of the players’ hands. In our case, Pechanga’s bad beat jackpot was winnable only if one player had a full house with jacks or better beaten by a better hand. Jackpot amount: $25,000. The table, which had been a mix of forced joviality, genuine joke-telling, and snide comments (“Hey, Heineken, thanks for playing, your money feels better than mine”), erupted in a moment of unabashed togetherness. The Vietnam vet high-fived the sour-faced Cambodian. The Army kid smiled and then frowned when he realized he would have only two days to spend his winnings. And I tallied my trip expenses and realized I wouldn’t even break even. But still. The bad beat got $8,000, the winning hand $4,000, and the rest of the table split the remaining $12,000. I walked away with $1,423.

I felt rich. And if casinos play in illusion, the illusion at Pechanga was enchanting—a beautiful casino in which one can find brotherhood, equality, and wealth. A place that rose from poverty and struck it rich and where you can, too. In short and ironically, inside a casino (that manages to suggest aristocracy, bordello, Indians and nature, the big top, and a theme park) on Indian land, I finally felt, well, American.