The rise of Indian tribal casinos in Washington has been accompanied by a decline in the state’s social card rooms.
Since 1994, the number of card rooms has dropped from 113 to 86, and revenue has also plummeted. After rising throughout the early 1990s, the cash taken in by card rooms dropped from $18.4 million in fiscal 1995 to $15.3 million in fiscal 1996.
“We used to have a good game, but we’re just scratching now,” said Gary Kangas, a floor manager at Bailey’s Card Room here. “We lost all of our blackjack and half of our poker games.”
The slide at Bailey’s began in the last two years after the Lucky Eagle casino opened in Rochester, and the Little Creek casino in Shelton. This weekend, the Nisqually Red Wind casino opens near Yelm.
Many of Bailey’s players were hired as dealers by the Indian tribes, while others started going to the tribal casinos because the wagers - and potential winnings - are higher.
While the number of card rooms declines, tribal casinos are multiplying. The Nisqually casino will be the state’s 12th since the Tulalip tribe opened the first one in 1992.
The tribal casinos are allowed to offer a greater variety of games and higher bets than the social card rooms.
“Card rooms have been slowly dying over the years,” said Carrie Tellefson of the Washington State Gambling Commission. The Legislature has been trying to help the card rooms.
Last year, lawmakers changed the law to allow card rooms to operate 15 tables, up from five.
This year, they passed a measure that will allow card rooms to run blackjack games in which the restaurant or tavern owner serves as the bank. Previously, the players had to take turns being banker, which required them to carry a lot of money.
Gov. Gary Locke also is considering whether to sign another measure that would cut the maximum tax rate local governments can charge card rooms from 20 percent to 10 percent of gross revenue.
“These small businesses are struggling to make a profit and to stay in business,” said state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, chairwoman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. “It’s appropriate to look at our taxing structure and see if there’s a way to make it more even.”
Card room operators say they welcome the help.
“It’s little card rooms like this that have supported the state for years, providing steady income,” said Gordon “Woody” Wood, a manager of the card room at King Solomon’s Reef restaurant in downtown Olympia. “We need the support, because we supported them for years.”
Actually, tax revenue from card rooms goes to local governments, and local officials oppose the tax break. City officials who testified against the proposed tax cut said they need the revenue to pay for policing the establishments.
Bingo operations run by charitable or non-profit organizations are also feeling the pinch from tribal casinos. There are now 213 licensed bingo operations in the state, compared with 279 three years ago.