There are two kinds of regulated “casino” poker in the United States – California and Other. Outside of California, it’s played in poker rooms at casinos. Within California, there are two kinds of regulated poker – that played in licensed card clubs, and poker at tribal casinos. The 70-80 card clubs are licensed by the California Department of Justice (here’s a list of all of them), while the tribal casinos operate under a pact that they’ve signed with the state.
You might wonder how these two groups co-exist when they’re competing for the same consumer dollars. Let’s just say it’s fraught – my colleague Haley Hintze has written recently on this topic.
But while the various entities battle for turf, California poker players have a huge variety of regulated games from which to choose. Because the tribal reservations are often in far-flung locations, getting to the casinos can be quite a schlep (e.g. Casino Morongo). But the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria struck red and white gold – Graton Casino is five minutes off Highway 101, square in the heart of Napa wine country. It’s less than an hour drive from much of the Bay Area, and “next door” to anybody who is headed up to the wine and food mecca.
A wine-filled MUG
Graton is just an hour from my front door, but I have card clubs much nearer to get my poker action. However, Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen were bringing their legendary moveable feast known as a “Meet-up Game” (MUG) to Graton, and I wasn’t going to miss that. If you’ve been to a Neeme/Owen MUG, you won’t need any further explanation. And because Brad Owen grew up in the region, there’s a special “family reunion” quality to their MUGs at Graton.
For those of you that haven’t attended a MUG, it’s a lot of poker – serious poker – but in the context of a party. It’s a celebration of the game and its community – something that frequently gets forgotten. Importantly, most of the people who attend the MUGs come with the spirit of gathering, fun, and poker, in no particular order. Sure, there is the occasional predatory pro, but they’re a tiny minority.
Furthermore, the rooms that host MUGs get it. Brad and Andrew bring in huge crowds on days that would usually be barely going. On a Thursday afternoon, they had 11 – eleven – tables of $2/$5 running. The regulars told me that typically that would be more like one or two. That’s a lot of rake they wouldn’t be seeing otherwise (indeed, including mine), so they bend over backwards to give the players a good time.
For example, it came time to have a bomb pot. Owen/Neeme MUGs routinely have Double Board PLO bomb pots (DBPLOBP). So we said to the dealer, “PLO Double-board!”
Dealer: “We don’t do those here.”
Us: “But… but… MUG!”
Floor person listens to us, clearly between a rock and a hard place. But he looks up at the wait list board. With its eleven tables of “You Tube” games (I’m not making that heading up).
Floor person: “Okay, just for the MUG tables.”
Somehow, I managed to win one DBPLOBP outright (I had the magical experience of flopping a set of aces on both boards), and chop another one. That propelled me into healthy profit territory, in which I stayed for the entire session.
One of the ways that I managed to retain my profit came on a subsequent DBPLOBP. I flopped trips with an ace kicker on one board, but nothing on the other. Before I had put a post-flop dollar into the pot, it became clear that there were very much bigger hands afoot and I was in deep trouble. I quickly folded and sat back to watch the carnage.
Before I could blink twice, there was a four-way all-in. The pro in seat #1 had flopped nines full on one board, and a set of nines on the other. He filled up on the turn on the second board, and scooped a $6k pot. In a $2/5 game. As far as I could tell, none of the other players in the pot had any business losing more than $100 or so on the hand. Before you play any DBPLOBPs, I encourage you to check out my DBPLOBP tutorial over at PokerCoaching – it would allow you to escape train wrecks such as this with your chip stack intact.
The poker room itself
Even without the virtual cake and ice cream of a MUG, Graton is a lovely place to play. The chairs are comfortable, the dealers are good, and the felts are fast. The room is, as you’d hope, non-smoking, but the tribal casinos aren’t covered by California anti-smoking ordinances. So while the California DoJ-licensed card clubs are non-smoking, most of the tribal casinos (including Graton) permit it. Like the no-peeing section in the pool, diffusion happens – some amount of smoke makes it into the poker room.
On the upside, the food court is right around the corner, and there’s an entrance from the parking lot right next to the poker room. You can enter and exit for poker without having to fade the entire casino.
There’s a large luxury hotel attached to the casino, but room prices there are often higher than a poker player necessarily wants to pay. However, because of Graton’s proximity to the highway, there are a dozen hotels within a ten-minute drive.
And 15 wineries within a 20-minute drive.
Graton by the numbers
- Tables: 20
- Minimum age: 21
- Restrooms: immediately outside entrance to poker room
- Food: The big casino food court is just steps from the poker room. People like the barbecue restaurant, and I found a number of healthy vegetarian choices.
- Table management: Bravo. You can’t get on wait lists via Bravo, but you can see what games are available. Those lists were up-to-date as far as I could tell.
- No-limit hold’em buy-in caps: $1/3 – $100-$600; $2/5 – $300-$1500. They have a $10/25 game on Fridays (but call to be sure it’s on). Look at the picture above to see the sign-up list for it – they got colorful names up there in wine country.
- Rake: $5 per hand, plus $1 for promotions, plus $1 on the river, because they can get away with it.
- Bomb pots: Rarely. Always NLHE single board. Unless Neeme and Owen are in town.
- Tables have USB chargers. All the ones I used worked.
- Good quality WiFi throughout the casino.
- Cocktail service