Room review: Agua Caliente - Poker among the Posh

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: November 20, 2022 08:12 PST

Moving on up

It's a 30-minute drive from Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa to the Agua Caliente Casino & Resort in Rancho Mirage. But you change worlds in that drive. Morongo is in the middle of nowhere, right on Interstate I-10, and has a huge truck plaza on their property. Agua Caliente sits on Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage, which is an upper class neighbor of Palm Springs. It's sometimes called the "City of Presidents" because it's so popular with the ex-White House crowd.

For instance, I paid $99/night (plus tax and res*rt fe*s) at Morongo. A startlingly similar room at Agua Caliente was $283/night, plus fees. In fact, the shower at Agua Caliente wasn't as nice because of the humongous deep tub in the bathroom – a feature that seems anachronistic during a severe drought in the desert (yes, it was functional).

But certainly the room was 100% comfortable and functional, and had a sweet view of snow-covered mountains to the northwest.

And some attributes of the property were noticeably more luxurious than Morongo...

The musical acts playing at Agua Caliente hew toward the age demographic of the Palm Springs area. Both Frankie Valli and Johnny Mathis are scheduled to play there, though I hope it's soon. I wondered aloud at the poker table what the combined two ages of those guys must be, which struck up a spirited discussion. In the good old days, that might have prompted a prop bet, but with smart phones, the answer is known before a good wager can get its running shoes on. Answer: 175.

Unlike Morongo, the 12-table Agua Caliente is in a corner of the main casino, and – conveniently – very near my favorite eatery on the property: Java Caliente (I mean, what else do you call the coffee place?).

They have a good selection of fruit, pastries, and the usual fare, all at prices I'd consider a bargain for an upscale casino property. But more importantly, they make a mean smoothie with protein powder, fruit, juice, etc., meaning you can drink a healthy breakfast (or dinner) at the poker table. It's hard to overstate the value of that.

And speaking of the poker table...

Unlike Morongo, Agua Caliente doesn't spread a $1/2 NLHE, which is just as well – $1/2 with a $100 cap is nothing but an absolute rake trap. As I type this on a Friday evening, Bravo reports that they have five $1/3 NLHE games, three $2/5 games, a $5/10 PLO game (!), and a $6/12 Limit O8 game. Plenty of action to be found there.

The tables are reasonably spaced, but the first time I sat down in a $1/3 game, nothing felt right. I couldn't immediately say why I felt uncomfortable, but finally the details came into focus. First, the table was crowded. I did a quick nose count, and yes, we were playing 9-handed. But I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the people bracketing me, and nobody else looked any more comfortable. The cards looked and felt weird. I quickly realized that they use actual "poker" size cards – stay with me here. Almost all public poker rooms use "bridge" size cards, 2.25" x 3.5". "Poker" size cards are a quarter-inch wider – 2.5" x 3.5". Doesn't seem like a lot, but believe me, you notice it instantly.

Also, they use large-index cards, no doubt in deference to a demographic that's going to see Frankie Valli and Johnny Mathis. The combination of poker-size cards and the big indices was quite disorienting. After just a few minutes in the $1/3 game, I was moved to a $2/5 game. Suddenly, there was ample room.

Me: "Look, I don't want to sound nuts or anything, but is this table bigger than that one over there?"

Dealer: "Oh yeah – it's one of the old stud tables [8-handed, for those of you that never played that game that nobody misses]. All the new tables are longer."

Me: "Phew. Not crazy."

Lady in the #1 seat: "Not about that, anyway."

Boom, she got a $1 chip. I appreciate players who are on their verbal toes.

Good company is everything

That lady in the #1 seat of the $2/5 game, her name is Gloria and I really enjoyed her. In #2 was a kid named Josh. He and I spent two hours visiting and the time flew by. He plays nearly as snug as I do, so we did a lot of folding, and chatting. In fact, I may have folded a hand or two extra, just so I wouldn't have to interrupt my conversation with Josh to play some suited connector I probably shouldn't be playing anyway.

Josh did make the mistake of quizzing me about songs that the casino was playing over the P.A. "Okay, what about that one?"

"Season of the Witch, by Donovan. Good to jam on because of the simple I-IV-I-IV pattern, just like Feelin' Alright. There's a really good version by Stephen Stills. Donovan is more famous for Mellow Yellow and Hurdy Gurdy Man."

"Hrmph. I make it $25."

Josh had also attended a couple of PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) festivals as a hanger-on with the legendary Maryland poker-crusher crowd (Tony "" Gregg, Greg Merson, Christian "charder" Harder, etc) and we enjoyed trading stories about them.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

And yet, despite both Gloria and Josh's great company, and the general good nature of most folks, I never felt quite as comfortable at Agua Caliente as I did at Morongo.

First, while most of the TV's in the room were tuned to sports, during the day, one of them was tuned to Fox News. By way of full transparency, I am a progressive moderate, or moderate progressive, depending on the day. But I check my politics at the door of a poker room, as I wish all people would.

The political gulf separating Americans threatens every social aspect of our lives. When I am playing poker in a public casino, I want the most serious argument to be whether Smokey Robinson (also on the bill at Agua Caliente) is older or younger than Johnny Mathis (Smokey is a spry 82). But having either political extreme on the TV is simply a match thrown on the tinder of wildly different political perspectives at the table.

Look, Rancho Mirage is distinctly upper crust, male, old, and white. This demographic is heavily reflected in the poker room, the most natural thing in the world. But I felt – and feel – more comfortable in a menudo of skin tones and ages, as Morongo has. Also, I never got a single comment about wearing a mask at Morongo. While playing at Agua Caliente (and I wasn't there for that many hours), somebody made a comment about my "flower tattoo." I didn't understand him until I realized that I had a flower-pattern mask on.

While the management and staff at Agua Caliente were absolutely on-point at their jobs, they seemed more buttoned down than their Morongo counterparts. Maybe fewer smiles? It's hard to put my finger on it, but I didn't get the same relaxed vibe.

Not my jam, but could be yours

I'm old and opinionated. If all you want from a poker room is cards being pitched and pots being pushed, Agua Caliente is a great choice. They've got lots of games going on, the chairs are comfortable, and work better than those at Morongo. The dealers are good, the coffee is excellent, and you're a quick 10-15 minutes from all that Palm Springs has to offer. And there are those smoothies at Java Caliente.

But me, when I'm back in the Inland Empire, I'll drive on out to Morongo, and fade the walk from the hotel over to the poker room / bowling alley complex.

Final tasting notes

Agua Caliente by the numbers

Hotel (8/10, one point deducted for cost)

  • Non-smoking throughout the building
  • Casino soundtrack: Start Me Up, Gimme Three Steps, Desire (U2),
  • Room amenities: K-cup coffee, laptop safe, refrigerator, mini-bar, flatscreen TV, working desk
  • High end restaurants, 6:00am-midnight coffee/snack/smoothie bar, spa, outdoor swimming pool
  • Excellent WiFi in public areas and rooms, including poker room
  • Electric Vehicle charging (Morongo has none)

Poker room 7/10

  • Non-smoking
  • Minimum age: 21. Morongo is 18 because it's tribal property, and thus sovereign, and can set their own age limits.
  • Restrooms: immediately outside entrance to poker room
  • Table management: Bravo. You can’t get on wait lists via Bravo, but you can see what games are available.
  • Mask usage: 5% of patrons, 5% of staff. One mask-shaming incident
  • No-limit hold’em buy-in caps: $1/3 – $100-$300; $2/5 – $200-$1000
  • Rake: No flop no drop, $2 at flop, $2 at $11, $1 at $40, $1 at $60. So Morongo is $1 cheaper for a $100 pot, but if there's no flop, Morongo still takes $1.
  • Automatic shufflers: Deckmate2 and some of a brand I don't recognize. All dealers at both Morongo and Agua Caliente riffle the deck before putting it in the shuffler. Some actually wash the deck before doing so. You can't be too careful.
  • Cards: Triton brand, poker size, large index
  • Tables: Have a hard-surface racetrack that makes stacking chips easy. But it's narrow, so chip stacks have to spill messily onto the felt or spread wider than they would otherwise.
  • Straddle: UTG only, exactly twice the big blind
  • Bomb pots: Never saw one
  • Tables have USB chargers that worked
  • Excellent WiFi.
  • Cocktail service, really good coffee