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Santa Ana Casino
Albuquerque's casinos offer every amenity and game that gamblers look for on the Vegas Strip. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Destination Well-Known: Albuquerque's Great Casinos

PGA.com's John Kim went looking for some excitement, and hit the jackpot – literally. Thanks to some great advice from PGA Professional Derek Gutierrez, he discovered that Albuquerque's casinos offer a fine alternative to those on the Vegas Strip.

By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- So maybe Derek Gutierrez, the PGA Head Professional at Twin Warriors Golf Club, got lucky on his first recommendation (Old Town Plaza) as to what sites and sounds I needed to check out while here in Albuquerque as we gathered for this 42nd PGA Professional National Championship. But it was I who needed to get lucky on his second pick.

On Sunday morning, Derek made a compelling pitch, claiming that Albuquerque was a hub of entertainment -- that golfers who came to visit would find as much excitement and enjoyment once the sun went down as they would find on one of the several sensational golf venues in the area during daylight hours. Concerts, sports teams (there really is a baseball team called the Isotopes! -- I thought that was just on The Simpsons) and a lively theater community make this region a great destination for those who want to expand their cultural horizons.

I was impressed with Derek’s depth of knowledge about the entertainment community, and there is obviously an abundance. But honestly, I didn’t really hear anything that seriously piqued my interest -- until he asked if I would ever visit a casino.

That’s like asking the Octomom if she would visit a diaper store.

Uh, yes! Little did I know that, though maybe not as numerous as Las Vegas, Albuquerque has several casinos run by some of the local Indian tribes. I honestly had no clue when I booked this trip. And even when I learned of the local casinos when I arrived, I have to admit to being kind of a casino snob from my annual trips out to Las Vegas. In other words, I had no real interest in finding a dirty, one-room shanty with a few slot machines out in the middle of the desert. 

I say as much as we talk. Derek tells me not to worry, that I’ll be extremely impressed with the casinos in the area. Well, Derek is my travel expert this week, so I will take him at his word. He suggests two casinos in particular -- The Santa Ana Casino, which is affiliated with the Hyatt Regency and the Santa Ana Pueblo group (and the one Derek strongly recommends), and the Sandia Resort and Casino, which is just off the interstate outside of Albuquerque.

I solicit my good friend PGA Professional Michael Breed, who is here serving as the lead analyst for The Golf Channel as it covers this championship, to accompany me to one of the local gaming establishments. (Many of you may also recognize Michael from several items he has done for PGA.com, his presence on the PGA.com Advisory Board or his Monday night show on The Golf Channel, The Golf Fix.)

By the time we leave the course, get dinner and find our casino, it’s close to 10 p.m. -- midnight in our East Coast body times. We are tired, I’m on a pretty tight budget and more than anything, I want to just see if this is the type of place worth mentioning as a vacation destination for those who might so be inclined. We decide we will eventually make two trips this week -- to both casinos. Tough call, I know.

On this night, we end up at the Sandia Resort and Casino because it is closer to our hotel. Derek was right, the place is spectacular. It is large, it is grand and it has every amenity and game that I ever look for at the more famous establishments on the Vegas Strip. But of course, you can’t really judge a casino until you sit at a table or in front of a machine and spend some time (and hopefully, not too much money.) And so I did.

For most of our limited time there, I did pretty well -- which means I didn’t lose too much. But as it was getting time to go, Michael felt a strong blackjack shoe in his future and asked if I’d mind waiting as he played it. I agreed and went and found something less expensive to play. 

I settled on video poker. I drop a twenty in and it disappears in a flash. I wait on Michael -- he’s still playing. I decide to drop one more twenty in -- knowing I am now at my budget limit for the week. After a few hands, I see a lot of face cards. They come up in spades. I’ve hit the jackpot -- a royal straight flush! This very good casino just became great.

Thirty minutes and one W-9 form later (I have to pay taxes on this?!), I’ve collected a small but significant fund that should keep me coming back and entertained for a few more nights. (I know, I know -- this is not a good thing.) But the money was secondary in many ways. The casino was everything Derek said it would be -- win, lose or draw. 

One woman -- from Dallas, Texas -- who sat next to me at a table told me she comes to Albuquerque every couple of months for the casino action because she finds Vegas too “over the top.” Another fellow gambler echoed that thought when he said that he’d rather lose money in Albuquerque than win in Nevada (which I totally do not believe but nevertheless…)

So yes, casinos are plentiful in the Albuquerque area and they are everything you could want. Let’s be frank. I enjoyed my Saturday night trip to Old Town (good call, Derek) but I absolutely loved my Sunday night experience gambling in New Mexico (great call, Derek!). 

I have no idea how to top this for the rest of the week, but Derek says we can and will. If this type of fun continues, I might not make it back to Atlanta.

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