Arizona’s journey into the realm of gambling has been unique.
Although the legal machinations that led to its current situation — 23 casinos open for business — are common in the United States, Arizona may be the only state that’s journey toward legalization involved an armed standoff between a group of casino supporters and law enforcement.
As is often the case with non-Las Vegas or Atlantic City casinos, Arizona’s casino scene arose due to the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act of 1988. The act allowed federally-recognized Native American tribes to negotiate agreements (denoted as “compacts” in the language of the act) with their resident state governments. This allows the tribes to operate casinos on reservation lands.
In Arizona’s case, that meant 22 tribes could potentially come to the state legislature in search of agreements allowing Vegas-style casinos on their property.
Unfortunately, many of Arizona’s tribes chose to move forward and install gaming on their reservations in the early 1990s. They did so without the benefit of negotiating compacts with the state.
Arguments between the two parties continued until May 1992. At that time, the National Indian Gaming Commission clarified that tribes must have a compact with the state to operate slot machines. As a result, Governor Fife Symington asked the FBI to raid the offending casinos. What happened at the Fort McDowell Casino was unprecedented in the movement toward gambling within a state.
The Yavapai Indians operated a casino with about 300 slot machines on their Fort McDowell reservation. At the time of the FBI’s raid, several other tribes had already had their machines seized. So the tribe prepared for action when its turn came.
At dawn on May 12, 1992, federal agents converged on the casino. They loaded the machines into trailers to be hauled away. The tribe responded by blocking the only entrance road to the casino with heavy-duty machinery and large vehicles. After an eight-hour standoff that featured an agent with a rifle and binoculars keeping watch on the roof of the casino, the agents agreed to leave the machines behind for a cooling-off period. The incident ended up lasting three weeks.
In the end, the tribe’s pleas about the casino’s economic impact found an audience. Pressure on the governor caused him to come to the negotiating table. He eventually agreed to compacts with 16 of Arizona’s 22 tribes.
Ultimately, Arizona ended up signing deals with all but one of its tribes. The Hopi are the lone nation without a compact. Of the 22 tribes with compacts, 16 operate at least one casino. Currently, there is a total of 23 facilities operating in the state.
Below are the six largest casinos (by number of slot machines) in Arizona:
Land-based Slots Options
|Property||Location||Number of Slots|
|Casino del Sol||Tucson||1300|
|Desert Diamond Casino – West Valley||Chandler||1089|
|Fort McDowell||Fountain Hills||900|
|Gila River – Vee Quiva||Laveen||900|
Online gambling options
Arizona’s gambling laws do not address online gambling. Residents have no state-sanctioned or regulated online casinos inside state lines to play. There are also no prohibitions against playing on offshore sites.
As is the case in many states, Arizona state law simply has not kept up with the electronic version of gambling. For Arizonans, it exists in a grey zone.
Social casino site options
Several of Arizona’s casinos offer free play options through their websites.
Casino del Sol offers a connection to Double Down Casino. Ak-Chin brings players to Harrah’s online site (which includes Slotomania). Talking Stick Casino and the Desert Diamond properties each have their own sites.
These offerings have advantages for both players and casinos. It allows players to experience the thrills of playing slots without losing money. At the same time, they can familiarize themselves with the machines they’re likely to see at each casino. For the casinos, these sites bring in new customers who are already prepped on what each casino has. Thus, if the customer visits, they’re already loyal.
As usual, Arizonans also have access to the usual Facebook and mobile device apps not covered by the casinos themselves – Big Fish, Zynga, and such.
It also bears mentioning that Arizona’s proximity to Las Vegas (particularly in the northern part of the state) increases the value and usefulness of using the MyVegas app, which is owned and operated by MGM.
MyVegas has a wide list of partner organizations (including most of its Las Vegas properties). Through diligent free play, players can earn loyalty points. Players can redeem points for real world comps, like free hotel rooms, free food in restaurants, or real money for use in the casino.
Desert Diamond Casinos
Desert Diamond Casinos is a group of four tribal casinos located in Tucson, Sahuarita, Why, and Glendale (“West Valley”).
Together, they offer Arizonans options for gaming, dining, and entertainment. The casinos are clustered around the major metropolitan areas in Arizona. Each casino offers hundreds of slot machines, dozens of table games, and shopping options. The Why location even has a convenience store.
There is no doubt that these casinos are geared toward locals. There are amenities and entertainment options, but the focus in a suburban setting is more on the pure gaming side of things. People going to these casinos just got off work and have their own places to sleep. They just want to unwind and play a few hands or spin the reels a few times.
The Desert Diamond Casinos are owned by the Tohono O’odham Nation, a branch of the O’odham people, which includes the Ak-Chin and Gila River groups (who own casinos themselves).
The larger nation used to extend across the border into Mexico. But the Gadsden Purchase, and the drawing of borders between Mexico and the United States, have created a delicate situation for the people of the tribe who want to visit and use their traditional lands. Regardless, the tribe has managed to prosper through the rights afforded it by the IGRA. In doing so, it’s fashioning its own history each year.
State legal environment
|Permitted/Offered?||Notes & Restrictions|
|Land-Based Gambling||Yes||Tribal casinos only|
|Online Gambling||No||No legal status|
|Lottery||Yes||State and multistate drawings available|
|Charitable or House-Based Gambling||Yes||Bingo and raffles|
|Minimum Gambling Age||21 for any gambling, land-based or online|