Casino Del Rey Costa Rica – Gambling in Costa Rica Introduction Casino gambling is legal in Costa Rica and easy to find. However, unlike the huge Las Vegas-style casinos in neighboring Panama, Costa Rica’s casinos are often suited to larger hotels. Most tourists come to Costa Rica for one of two reasons: to enjoy nature or to engage in prostitution. Clearly, neither group has much interest in gambling. However, for a few interested tourists, I traveled there in March 2013, partly to cover the casino scene. This blog post reports my findings.
General Information Casinos are definitely underrated in Costa Rica. A typical casino has about 6 table games and 50 slot machines. The signs are usually small and sometimes you have to walk through the hotel lobby to get to the casino. Sheldon Adelson’s philosophy, “We’re a hotel with a casino, not a hotel with a casino,” seems to be in vogue in Costa Rica.
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Once inside, you should expect a relaxed atmosphere where you can play in peace. Ambient music will be subdued or non-existent. Casinos are sparsely populated most of the time. Most table games are unsupervised, and many of the games that are attended have no players. Only about ten percent of machines are playing at any given time. Of course, like anywhere, larger crowds can be expected depending on the time and day of the week.
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Drink service is often infrequent and unreliable for players. Non-alcoholic drinks are free, but alcoholic drinks will be charged at bar prices, which can be high. For example, the cheapest beer is usually $3.00. Like Panama, Costa Rica strictly prohibits smoking in public places, including bars and casinos. As a non-smoker, I agree that this is public policy.
While every casino is more or less the same in terms of the above, the overall atmosphere varies by casino location and prostitution policy. Some casinos welcome working girls, while others clearly want nothing to do with them.
For a casino that welcomes prostitutes, you can expect them to stack. They will be everywhere, at the bar, sitting at the slot machines, walking around or just standing around. If you don’t want to be bothered by them, the number one rule is to avoid eye contact. If they talk or whistle at you, ignore them. When you actually get down to gambling, there seems to be a consensus among the girls and casino management that active players should not be bothered. If you absolutely do not want to contradict this literally and figuratively, then be careful to choose a casino that does not appeal to the profession.
Table Games For some reason Costa Rica uses the same table games as the big ones in Macau. I prefer these because there is more elbow room and tab holes for drinks. The tables themselves are mostly old. I noticed that these pieces usually come from other casinos in other parts of the world.
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The dealers seem to be all men and they are not always interactive and sometimes downright rude. Don’t expect a hello when you sit down and don’t expect a goodbye when you leave. It’s not a language issue because they don’t communicate in Spanish either. If you play, you will get it. If you’re playing for a social experience, don’t expect the dealer to help. I honestly feel that some dealers have anti-gringo racism.
As far as I could tell, every table was littered with dollar chips and Costa Rican coins. They seem to pay attention to the color and texture of their chips so that no two currencies look alike.
Speaking of currency, the exchange rate is comfortable, around 500 pounds to the dollar (in Costa Rica, the colon symbol is a C and two slashes. You’ll often see the ¢ symbol on signs, though). The exchange rate has been artificially maintained by Costa Rica since the beginning of 2011. So, to convert two points to dollars, subtract three zeros, then multiply by 2. To convert dollars to colons, add three zeros and divide by 2.
Table limits are lower compared to the US. If you’re playing in USD, expect a minimum of $5 at most tables, but some may be higher. If you play with two points, expect a minimum of 1000 ₡, which is equal to 2 dollars. The difference doesn’t make much sense, but when you’re in Costa Rica, you tend to stop questioning the logic of things and just accept them.
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By law, casinos are not allowed to operate 24 hours a day. I’m not sure what the earliest and latest closing times are (I’ll never be able to answer that directly), but the busy Casino del Rey opens at 11am and closes at 4pm. Most other casinos have shorter hours, roughly 5pm to 2am.
Tipping is not as common in Costa Rica as it is in the United States. In particular, tipping dealers is allowed, but rarely. I tipped several times and the dealer neither thanked me nor seemed concerned. The number of friendly dealers I’ve encountered in Costa Rica is zero, so I don’t feel obligated to tip them in any way. In fact, as far as I know, there are no professions that require a tip in Costa Rica. If you want to know about restaurants, they automatically add a 10% service charge. However, tipping for truly exceptional service is, in my opinion, good etiquette in both countries.
I’m not sure what clothes to pack for my planned casino exploration in Costa Rica. A friend of mine who used to work in San Jose pointed out that not only was everyone dressed casually, but that if I dressed appropriately I would be a target for muggings in downtown San Jose. Against this advice, I took a printout from ildado.com of each land-based casino in Costa Rica, which states that each casino’s dress code is “formal/casual”. Who do you trust?
My rule of thumb is that when in doubt, it’s best to overdress, so go for “very smart/casual”. What a mistake! My friend is right. I was hanging out with an American who lived there in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, including fancy restaurants. He fits in really well. My friends at home were right. nobody would care if you dressed sloppily, and dressing nice just marks you as a rich gringo. My friend is probably right about the risk of being robbed. While I don’t have any crime statistics on this, I have been warned several times not to walk around San Jose at night.
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All generalities aside, let me discuss specific games. The most popular game is a variant of blackjack called rummy. Other popular games are Roulette/Canasta, Pai Gow Poker and Caribbean Poker. Below are more details on each game.
Rummy Blackjack is illegal in Costa Rica according to most casinos, so they offer a variant called rummy. Here are the rules.
When I got home, I did a full analysis of Rummy, including the house edge and strategy. In short, the house edge is 1.00%, but there are many variations in the basic strategy due to different rules. Please check my Rummy page for more information.
About half of the tables in most casinos are rummy. The game is played almost entirely by tourists. Most people don’t seem to know or care that they don’t play blackjack. I’m not sure what makes blackjack illegal in Costa Rica, but I think someone (aka myself) could do a better job creating a version that would satisfy the US and other players and comply with to the law.
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Blackjack Although blackjack is allegedly illegal in Costa Rica, some casinos offer it. It should be noted that both Rummy and Blackjack are dealt from the same table. Usually a small sign will indicate the game and the restrictions. However, sometimes there is no sign at all and you just have to ask the dealer if the table is rum or blackjack. The answer you will probably get is: “You can play whatever you want.”
Out of ten casinos I’ve been to, I’ve found four that offer blackjack. Here are the rules offered by some of the casinos I checked.
A procedural difference between Costa Rica and the United States is that in Costa Rica the dealer does not draw cards. However, if the dealer hits a club, the player simply loses their original bet. If the player folds a 10 or an ace, the dealer will put a marker on it. If the dealer gets a club, the player loses his entire bet, otherwise he loses half. Mathematically, this rule is the same as America’s “delayed” surrender.
Another point of interest is how the capitulation bet is settled. Some casinos follow what I call “freedom rules” like roulette. The concept is that if a bet were to lose half, it would automatically be re-bet.
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