I'm spoiled. Back in New England, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, and California, where I play most of my poker, when there's a poker room open, it's open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Not so in New Mexico, where rooms keep more selective hours. Some are open whenever the casinos are open, from 8:00 AM until 4:00 AM. Some are open by 11:00 AM. And some, like Camel Rock Casino, located about 30 minutes northwest of Santa Fe, don't open until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.
Here's a story of those limited hours and a decent New Mexico poker room.
I drove up to Camel Rock from Bernalillo, just north of Albuquerque. For an eastern boy such as myself, this is a gorgeous drive. I spent one hour or so passing high desert countryside with buttes and mesas and rock face and Indian pueblos along the way. I took in the scenery. The route is also littered with signs for casinos. Some, like Santa Ana and Cities of Gold, have poker rooms. Others, like the Hollywood Casino, do not. But Hollywood had a nice little diner-style restaurant where I stopped for some Indian "fry bread". It was an Indian version of what we carnival and state fair attendees generally know as fried dough. For the $1.95 I was expecting something relatively small. Instead I got a piece of round fried dough the size of an entire pie plate. I confess that though I had already had breakfast, I ate it all. I used the honey they gave me for it, too. It was delicious. And even though there was no poker room, I got myself a nice free travel mug and $10 just by signing up for a player's card while I was there. Not a bad deal.
I finally arrived at Camel Rock at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.
Camel Rock has a small room that barely fits three tables. It opens to a hallway that passes right by, separating it from a small snack bar. Unfortunately, though the casino itself was open, the poker room was closed and not scheduled to open until 2:00 PM — with a tournament scheduled at 3:00. No matter. I drove off to visit points west and north (ending up in the Colorado birthplace of boxer Jack Dempsey, of all places), only to return at 2:30, figuring to play a few hands before the tournament went off.
The room was not empty when I arrived. There were four staff and two players hanging around waiting for the 3:00 tournament. I asked if they would have any live action before the 3:00 event. "Before the tournament?" the room manager asked me, incredulously. "No, I don't think so," he concluded.
I made my way over to the Camel Rock promotions desk and got a player's card. It came with $10 of slot play — but you could only redeem it after you played $10 on the slots. So I went to the nearest $5 machine, played the maximum two bets at one time, won $10, and cashed out $10 to the good. Sweet!
I walked over to the restaurant, located next to the poker room, to check out their menu. They're open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 AM until 9:00 PM and then on Sunday from 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM for brunch and 3:00 PM until 9:00 PM for dinner. Their menu ranged from reasonable on the high end (a great seafood buffet on Friday nights with sushi, clams, Alaskan King Crab and the like for $16.99) to an enormous bargain on the lower end, with "green plate specials" for $7.00. I returned later in the day, after the tournament was over, and had a T-bone steak with all the trimmings for $7.77. By my plebian standards it was excellent.
The poker room is non-smoking but it abuts a large smoking area, so cigarette smoke wafts in. A sensitive nose would detect the cigarette smoke even without active smokers. When there are folks congregating outside the poker area it becomes very annoying to anyone (like me) who doesn't like cigarette smoke.
The tournament itself was part of the Heartland Poker League. The League is two and a half years old and includes eight casinos. Competitors win not just cash but points that can be used to qualify toward regional tournaments with large fields, large cash prizes, television coverage, and great fame and notoriety to the winners.
Our event attracted 14 people. The entry was $80, with $60 going to the players and $20 going to the house.
Three hours after it began there were three of us remaining. We agreed to a chop. Seeing as they could only award points to the final two contestants, and seeing as I would not be playing in any other league events since I was returning to Boston that week, I agreed to officially finish third while they fought it out for the points. We each won $280. I also got a nice Heartland Poker Tour hat.
After the tourney I played some $1/2 no-limit with a $300 max buy-in. The house provides a $2/hour comp for players and rakes the standard 10% with a $3 maximum. There's also $1 taken out of the pot for the bad beat.
In general, the level of play was pretty poor, though there were two players who seemed to know what they were doing. No one was too serious about either the cash game or the tournament.
The room itself was crowded, the lighting pretty poor, the chairs about average in comfort, the table, chips and cards relatively new. It was one step up from the truly crummy poker room at Cities of Gold Casino, about five minutes down the way from Santa Fe.
The main problem for me at Camel Rock would be making sure that there was a game when I wanted to play. I'd suggest calling ahead whenever you were thinking of playing there. I'd play again if I were in the area. And the area is so beautiful that I relish a return before too long. Oh, and if you can, try to be outside during sunset. It is truly a spectacular site to behold.
Camel Rock Casino
17486A - Hwy 84/285
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87506