How Do Tribal Gaming Casinos Compare to Commercial Ones?

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The idea of tribal gaming facilities vs. commercial ones is a topic that many players hone in on. Here are some examples of questions we’ve received recently:

Do tribal casinos have to comply with the same gambling rules and percentage of pay back as non-tribal casinos, for instance a tribal casino in Oregon versus a casino in Nevada?

Sue I.


Can Indian casinos operate differently than big corporation casinos?

Leana S.

Broadly, the legalization of casinos for commercial purposes tends to take a different track than when states agree to allow slots and other banked games by tribes under the framework the federal government has set up for tribal gaming. 

But the reality is that, whether commercial or tribal gaming, things are set up state by state. So there will be differences state by state under both constructs.

Players often get worried about the potential payouts in some casino types vs. others, so let’s start there. When it comes to commercial casinos, the rules differ state by state. The minimum payout any individual slot needs to achieve in Nevada is 75 percent. But in New Jersey it’s 83 percent and Maryland it’s 87 percent.

For tribes to offer Vegas-style slots, they have to sign an agreement with the state, generally called a Compact, that sets the rules. Some states set minimum payouts as part of the terms with the tribes, while others don’t. California and Oregon have none, which makes some players fearful that the payouts are abysmal. Other states, like Minnesota, have minimums set in the compact.

Whether commercial or tribal casinos, a lot of thought goes into the regulations, and many states will follow the lead of mature markets like New Jersey and Nevada for best practices. 

Both commercial and tribal gaming markets also approve third-party labs through which they will accept game certification. These third-party labs run tests to ensure the games both meet the expectations the game developer says they will, and are in compliance with all rules and regulations of a specific market.

The other thing to remember is that the same slot machine titles are sold into multiple markets. So even if Nevada only mandates 75 percent payout, most manufacturers aren’t selling games that pay below 85 percent. So casinos only can do so much with the payouts because the games have a floor. 

And the reality is, while payback reporting isn’t often required for tribal gaming (Connecticut is a rare exception), there is often more subtle indications that higher paybacks are found at regional tribal gaming properties than in tourist-focused markets like Las Vegas. 

While you can’t see the slot payout information, it can be more obvious on games where payback is more clearly calculated, such as Video Poker, Keno and Blackjack. Lower limit 3:2 Blackjack can be found more readily at tribal casinos in California and is basically non-existent on the Las Vegas strip (you’ll have to venture downtown or to locals casinos to find it). Similarly, we tend to find more generous Video Poker payback in California than on the strip too. 

Casinos that are willing to be more generous in some areas are often willing to be more generous in others, and vice versa.

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