The largest casino in the US

Our writer joins the tables at a giant casino run by descendants of the Pequot tribe – this time it’s the Indians who are winning

Dominic Wells (The Times, April 2008)

Foxwoods Casino

Foxwoods Casino

I’m $300 up already. Just $200 more, and I’ll have done it: I’ll have won the cost of my air fare to America. But poker is a ruthless game. I could just as easily lose it all on a single hand.

I’m dealt a king and a queen, a great start until the three flop cards come – ace, king, six. True, that gives me a pair of kings. However, with two other players betting big, it almost certainly gives one of them a pair of aces. But when the rodent-faced youth in blue shades raises all-in on the turn card, something in his body language tells me he is bluffing. And now the second guy, the one I was sure had two aces, is scared off by the huge bet. He folds.

I look away for inspiration, across one of the world’s biggest poker rooms, further swelled by America’s recent online poker ban: 104 tables and every one of them full. Do I call? Can I trust my intuition? Should I stake my plane ticket on this hand?

If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be playing. I call. Blue-shades-guy has nothing. “Balls of steel!” drawls one old-timer approvingly, as I cascade $225 in chips to my side of the table.

Ah, poker. What a great way to meet the locals. Or, to paraphrase that old army recruitment parody, “travel the world, meet interesting people… and take them for every last penny”. I’ve visited Vegas, naturally. Twice. But I’ve also played poker through the night in Paris’s wood-panelled Aviation Club by the Arc de Triomphe; tracked down a game in Budapest where no English was spoken; moonlighted during a skiing holiday in Lake Tahoe.

But where I am now, in a Native American reservation 200km (120 miles) from New York, is in many ways the most fascinating. Resembling a huge white and green wedding cake dropped in the middle of a swamp by giants of questionable taste, Foxwoods is the largest casino in the US, some say the world. And it’s owned by the 800-odd surviving members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe.

It is a delicious irony that, after years of being stereotyped as feckless wastrels drunk on “fire-water”, it’s now the Native Americans who are cashing in on the vice of the palefaces.

The Pequots were the first tribe to oppose the settlers. Badly hit by European smallpox, then annihilated in a battle in 1637, they were eventually given an ever-decreasing territory of their own. By the early 1970s, only one Pequot was left living here: an indomitable old woman who persuaded surviving tribe members to return and fight the continuing attempts to annexe their territory.

How to survive on land like this? By working the loophole that lets Native American territories negotiate their own by-laws, such as to permit gambling. First came a humble bingo hall; then this ever-expanding casino.

It’s a pleasant two-and-a-half-hour train journey from New York or Boston to this monument to Mammon. The nearest station is New London, a quaint little fishing port that has a small-town friendliness: when we inquire after buses, a woman offers to call us a cab.

Foxwoods is vast: you could, and do, get lost in here. The standard rooms are plenty big enough for my poker buddy, Steve, and I to share; there are a couple of award-winning restaurants, where you can celebrate a big win with Kobe beef or lobster, as well as cheap and cheerful ones; and a gigantic spa area where a masseuse will tease enough tension from your shoulders to make your bluffs undetectable.

Las Vegas it ain’t. There are no superclubs or supercool people to frequent them. Where Vegas boasts bevvies of perma-tanned, thrill-seeking youths of both sexes, the Foxwoods dress code is baseball caps, jeans and burger-bellies. My Philip Treacy-designed Elvis-print hat proves quite a conversation-starter.

The management know that despite their success they have an image problem. Next month they will open their solution: the £350million MGM Grand, which will be as tripped-out trendy as anything Vegas can offer – plasma TVs in every room and giant pillars like huge copper lotus blossoms sprouting from the gaming floor. It’s the culmination of a great American dream, and this time, for a change, the only sure winners are the Indians.

I’m living proof of that. Having won back my air fare on the first day, I can’t resist going back the next night. With hindsight, it might not have been strictly prudent to play till 4am, jet lagged and falling asleep between hands. I lost the $540, and another $700 on top. That’s poker. Perhaps I’m not quite ready to fund a trip around the world just yet.



Foxwoods Resort Casino, (001 800 369 9663, has three hotels with rooms from about £90. The MGM Grand (www.mgmatfox opens on May 17.

Virgin flies to New York six times a day (0870 5747747, www.virginatlan from £558.

Train fare from New York (Penn Station) to New London from about £41 return