As I’ve discussed before, California poker is bifurcated – there are the “cardrooms,” which are regulated by the California Department of Justice, and the tribal casinos, which operate under a compact with the state.
Thunder Valley Casino Resort, 30 minutes north of Sacramento up I-80, is owned and operated by the United Auburn Indian Community, and provides a major casino/hotel for people who don’t want to schlep the extra 120 miles up to Reno, NV. Furthermore, the trip to Reno involves crossing the Donner Summit at 7,000 feet – if you catch a snowstorm wrong, you can be for a long ugly day and night of it.
Thus, Thunder Valley has become a preeminent poker destination for all of central/northern California, and it now hosts major stops on both the WPT and WSOP circuits. I made the quick two-hour trip from my home in the San Francisco East Bay and was already on the wait lists when I pulled into the parking garage.
Using your Atlas
That’s because Thunder Valley uses Poker Atlas, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – what poker room wait list management should look like in the 2020’s. You log into the PokerAtlas app, select the casino of interest, bring up the list of games, and then select the ones you want to be wait-listed for. No phone calls to the desk, no guessing where you are on the list (you can click on the list to see where you are). I realize that Bravo has the greater market share, but for my money, PokerAtlas gets this right, and it makes game management easier for the room and better for the players.
With the WSOP in town, the 50-table room was jumping. The poker room is in the shape of a giant “L,” with one leg of the L devoted to tournament tables. So with that many tables, I was able to get into the cash game I wanted quickly because they hadn’t poached the entire cash game area for tournament tables.
Not that I get tilted about such things.
Even with the big WSOP crowds, the room functioned smoothly, and the staff was noticeably calm and collected, something you don’t take for granted.
Bring your (gas) mask
When you walk in from the parking garage, you get punched in the face by the cigarette smoke. Because the tribes operate outside the normal California state ordinances, they can (and do) permit smoking in the casino proper. Or maybe it’s mandatory – I’m not sure. All I know is that the air filtration system at the Thunder Valley casino is not up to the standards of modern Vegas casinos.
It makes it all the more ironic when you are required to sign a document agreeing that the hotel is non-smoking, and that you’ll pay a cleaning fee if you smoke in the room. Because I was still hacking from the smoke in the casino, I asked the woman if that included off-gassing from my clothes in the room. She looked sad.
The good news is that the poker room is sealed off with glass walls – anything else and the concept of a “no-smoking poker room” would be a joke. The bad news is that the restrooms, though close to the poker room, are outside the Safe Zone. Also, all the restaurants are out in the main casino area, so you’re marinating in smoke while you eat.
Speaking of eating
There are multiple restaurants scattered around the casino, which is important because the property itself sits in the middle of nowhere in California agricultural country. It’s ten minutes to the nearest restaurant. The “Dos Coyotes” cafe has good Mexican food – I was happy with a grilled mahi burrito. There’s also a small food court with Fatburger, Pizza Hut, and a Ben & Jerry’s. Cherry Garcia will take the sting out of any bad beat.
They also have a fancy steak house that’s secluded from the casino and smoke. If you eat there, please drop me a note and let me know how it was.
[Editorial update: I got a note from WSOP broadcasting legend Norman Chad, saying that the steakhouse is excellent. So it’s a sure bet.]
After poker and eating comes sleeping
There are a number of mid-range chain hotels ten minutes from the casino, but it’s awfully convenient to roll out of bed, and take an elevator down to the poker room (walking past the 24-hour Peet’s Coffee as you go).
There’s an added benefit to staying at the Thunder Valley hotel, which is that you can get a nice long charge on your electric vehicle. There is a big bank of complimentary EV chargers on the 7th floor of the parking deck, but they are the old technology 6kWh AC ones (beggars can’t be choosers). So a three-hour poker session won’t do much for you, but if you leave it there for 8-10 hours, it will get you to where you’re going next. That right there makes a dent in the cost difference of staying off-property.
I don’t usually wax eloquent about casino hotels, but this one ticks all the boxes. The rooms are attractively furnished, and are the kind of place that you’d be comfortable in for hours if you had to work from the road. USB and AC outlets abound and the work area is well-designed. There’s an in-room safe, though it’s on a 7′ high shelf, and you have to insert/remove a shelf within the safe to access your stuff. A Keurig machine sits above a small dorm refrigerator, so you can load up on coffee pods and sodas at the nearby Walgreen’s.
The bed is comfortable, with an intriguing array of pillow choices. Even the black-out curtains are top-notch, allowing you to sleep through the central California dawn, if need be.
A great destination
If you’re in the general northern California vortex, and are looking for a place to have a poker retreat, Thunder Valley is a great destination. There are plenty of games going, the room is well run, and there’s nothing to compete for your attention for miles around. Sounds like poker heaven to me.
And before we do the numbers, there’s an indication that the games are good, even before you step off the hotel elevator.
Thunder Valley by the numbers
- Tables: 50
- Non-smoking (until you step outside the poker room)
- Minimum age: 21
- Chairs: comfortable 5-caster office chairs with adjustable height.
- Restrooms: immediately outside entrance to poker room
- Food: Mexican cafe, steak house, food court, buffet, 24-hour Peet’s.
- Table management: Poker Atlas, with full Table Captain management, including wait-list sign-up and monitoring via app.
- No-limit hold’em buy-in caps: $1/2 – $40-$200; $1/3 – $100-$400; $2/5 – $200-$1000. $5/10 – $400-$2500, maybe match-the-stack. Buy-in caps seemed to be only loosely enforced.
- Rake: $5 per hand, plus $1 for promotions. No flop, no drop (including no promotional drop). That’s really nice.
- Straddles: UTG only, but for up to 1/2 your stack (!). It fails me why rooms permit this sort of insanity – all it does is create meteorological conditions to have a perfectly fine (rake-generating) poker game implode. Fortunately, the only straddle abuse I saw was a guy who would straddle $15 in a $2/$5 game.
- Bomb pots: Many tables have them on every dealer change. Always NLHE single board. Unless the players at the higher stakes game talk the dealer into double-board PLO bomb pots.
- Tables have USB chargers. All the ones I used worked.
- Good quality WiFi throughout the casino.
- Cocktail service