Differences Between Indian Casinos and Commercial Casinos

There are two typical venues for casinos in the United States – Indian reservations and commercial casinos.  Each comes in varying sizes among the groups.  There are also differences within the class inside certain states that have different rules for reservations and casinos on state land.

Where to Find Indian and Commercial Casinos

Native American Indian Choctaw CasinoIndian casinos are always located on reservation land.  The land often belonged to the tribe for generations.  In some instances, Native Americans put the land into a trust and asked for the U.S. Department of Interior to declare the land sovereign to a tribe.

Commercial casinos are located in places specifically approved by the state legislature or voters.  In many states, this means on a boat on or near a body of water.  Some jurisdictions permit casinos only in tourist areas.  This may include historical mountain communities or beaches.  Others only permit gambling at racetracks or assign one license to a specific geographical area.

Why Do Some States Not Have Indian Casinos?

There are two reasons a state may not have any Indian casinos.  Some do not have any reservations.  The other reason is that the state has not reached a compact with tribes within the border.  Georgia and Tennessee are examples of the former.  Utah, South Carolina, and Alaska are examples of the latter.

Why Can’t All Native American Tribes Have Casinos?

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires one of two situations to occur before a reservation may offer gambling.  The type of gambling that the tribe would like to offer must already be legal in the state.  In that case, the version of gaming may be spread without limitations or taxes.  Examples of this often include bingo or raffles.  If a state has legal horseracing or casinos available by commercial licenses, the tribes may also offer this type of gaming.

The other scenario involves a gaming pact with the governor of a state.  In this situation, tribes propose a tax rate and set of games they would like permitted.  The governor can decide whether or not it may happen.  This may require approval by voters or the state legislature.  In this situation, tribes often pay taxes to the government because the activity has a monopoly.  The state government has the leverage to require this as part of the gaming pact.

USA Casinos – State Laws

For more information about specific gambling laws for each state, visit our State Casino Laws page.

Differences Between Games at Indian and Commercial Casinos

  • State Legislation – The differences between the types of games on reservations and at commercial casinos depend on the state.  If the state permits commercial casinos, tribes may offer the same games.  There are instances where tribal casinos offer more games.  California, Washington, Minnesota and North Dakota are examples of this.  That is because some card games are legal outside reservations but the Native American tribes created compacts to expand the offerings.
  • Game Variations – The most common games added to reservations are slots and video poker.  This may include video versions of table games that card clubs cannot spread.  In some circumstances, gaming outside reservations is limited to bingo, horseracing, and raffles.  In this case, all table games and poker are typically offered on reservation land, assuming a gaming compact has been reached.
  • Video Poker Machines – There may be some differences between video poker machines offered on a reservation when compared to commercial casinos.  Indian casinos may not spread typical class II machines that are commonly found in Nevada, Atlantic City, and regional commercial gaming markets.  Some Indian casinos that have internal regulators may opt to offer class III machines.  These may not be totally random when it comes to cards and numbers.

    This means that the cards or symbols dealt to players does not resemble a true deck or whatever it is meant to represent.  The machine has a level it is set to return and does so.  A player that is dealt four of a kind could discard it and receive four of a kind on the current hand or next one to help maintain the set payout on these devices.  This is also common in backroom casinos in truck stops and bars.  This is why one may find unusual video poker and keno machines on a reservation that are not carried by commercial casinos.

  • Payouts – The payouts at tribal casinos are not necessarily the same as commercial ones, even between those located in close proximity.  Different reservation casinos may also offer different payouts.  This can vary due to the rules of the game.  For example, one casino may hit soft 17 at blackjack and another could stand on it.  Video poker pay tables may be different.  Some may use class II machines, even if they are not required to do so.  Others may choose to spread class III devices to lower variance.

Who Operates Indian Casinos?

Each Indian casino’s management team is different.  The tribe is typically the sole beneficiary of the profits, however, this is not always the case.  Some large tribal casinos opt to enter into management contracts with experienced commercial gaming operators.  Examples of these types of companies include Caesars Entertainment with casinos like Harrah’s Cherokee and Station Casinos like the Graton Resort & Casino.

Size of Different Types of Casinos

Tribal casinos and commercial casinos can vary greatly in size.  Some may be no larger than a convenience store or bar.  Others may be lavish resorts with full amenities.  There are typically no state laws that restrict the size of a tribal casino or resort.  The large ones tend to be in heavily populated areas.  Rural casinos are often on the smaller size, especially if there is competition.  In rare occasions, a casino may not be permitted to build a hotel if there are already enough rooms in the local market when it is developed.  This restriction is never found at tribal casinos.

Native American Culture Pertaining to Casinos

Native American casinos often use branding that is related to the tribe.  This may include the name of the tribe or a part of its culture.  Casinos and connected hotels may offer a museum of sorts to tell its rich history.  There may also be some games within the casino that share this type of branding.

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