The stretch of two-lane highway rambled through a desolate part of Mississippi. Six months earlier, the road tar bubbled and the summer heat shimmered over the asphalt. On this day, though, it was a mere 70 degrees in late November and the roadside Native American child in her diaper wasn't at all cold.
This was Choctaw country, the road into Philadelphia, the highway through Neshoba County. For the past forty years, this county was famous for the civil rights era deaths of three social workers. You know about it because of Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe or the countless other movies made about the bad old days in Mississippi.
Now, the Choctaw run the show an the Klan is nowhere to be seen.
"You'll see it when we get over this hill," my father-in-law said. Before the hill's crest, I found it hard to believe what I'd been told about a Vegas-style casino in the middle of this Deep South state. I looked to my left and there was, quite literally, a half naked man on the front porch of his single-wide trailer. He was tossing out what very well coud've been the bathwater.
Mississippi is the joke-state of the nation. It's a symbol of backward attitudes, racism, and poor education. In some cases, it's an unfair representation. There are some very good and reasonable people who live there. However, there are places in the state where every one of the blue state jokes are 100% correct. I thought about all of this as we tore through the poverty on our way to play poker at a place called the Golden Moon.
The Golden Moon, I thought, sounded more like a massage parlor than a casino. I'd been to Philadephia ten years earlier during a 18-month sentence in the Magnolia State. Back then, the only Indian casino in town was the SilverStar and there was no poker room. Philadelphia was not a destination location. Back then, if you lived in the state capital, Jackson, it was preferable to go to Vicksburg to gamble. It was 45 minutes closer and the riverboat casinos were better. Now, I was told, the Golden Moon had the best poker room within a 90-minute drive from Jackson.
That morning, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife said, "My Dad and brother were thinking about going to play poker today. Do you want to go?" Inside, I laughed. She knew the answer to the question before she even thought it. I answered as clearly as I knew how: "I will never answer no to that question." Half an hour later, I was riding through the center of the state and wondering what could possibly be at the end of the ride.
We crested the hill and I started looking for the casino. It was still daylight, so looking for lights was no good. I tried to imagine what is was like in the early days of Las Vegas and trying to find the gambling outpost from a distance during the daytime. I scanned the horizon and saw nothing. I squinted just as the road started to smooth out and widen.
"The Choctaw paid for all of this," my father-in-law said, gesturing to the brand new section of highway. I looked up from the road and saw the strangest building I've seen in a very long time.
The Golden Moon casino sat across the highway from the old SilverStar Casino I remembered from the late 1990s. The SilverStar was still a dated, white, sprawling building that looked like what it was--a hastily put-up structure that required little thought in the race to build casinos in the mid-nineties. The Golden Moon--despite being connected by a catwalk to the SilverStar--was something entirely different. The main section of building looked like the remainder of the cloth after you cut out a Nike swoosh. The shimmering gold building climbed up in a dangerous parabola and licked at the Mississippi sky.
The reverse-arc was not what impressed me, though. It was the giant sphere that some casino god balanced precipitously on the top of the building. What looked to be some joke of engineering was apparently an actual functioning restaurant and nightclub. I would never see it, though, as I was there to play poker.
When the poker boom boomed, it appears the Golden Moon (part of the Choctaw Nation's Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi Pearl River Resort) did what most casinos failed to do. It actually put some thought into where it would locate its room. What was once the Sports Ticker Sports Bar is now the Sports Ticker Poker Room. (Full disclosure: I have no idea if the above is actually true. I'm just making an asusmption based on the fact that naming a poker room The Sports Ticker is pretty silly unless it was already a sports bar). The result is actually a pretty interesting room. One wall is filled with giant television screens and a room-length bar. The back corner of the room was host to a snack bar (that, oddly, didn't open until 4pm). The rest of the room was full of smaller TVs and poker tables.
The Golden Moon Sports Ticker poker room has 13 tables and spreads an impressive variety of games. On the day I was there, the room was spreading $3/$6 and $6/$12 limit hold'em, $2/$5 no-limit hold'em (with an interest list for $5/$10 no-limit), $2-$6 seven-card stud, and $10/$20/$30 Omaha.
The Golden Moon staff generally had its stuff together. Their wait lists were digital and the brush was efficient. Players who didn't want to sweat the tables could wander the casino while waiting for their table and listen for their open seat over their PA system announcements. Three floor people worked the room during a period when eleven tables were running. The wait staff was generally pleasant (if a little thick in the midddle).
The bad beat jackpots were huge. Quads beat opened the door to a $88,000 jackpot. The stud and Omaha games also had sizable jackpots. None of them were hit while I was there, despite a level of play that made it clear people were playing for the big one.
If you're the type of person who doesn't like playing against locals, the Golden Moon is not for you. While I was there, the dealers knew the first names of half the people playing in the $2/$5 NL game. That said, the play was not so localized that ABC poker doesn't earn you a profit. As I was with other folks, I only played for about five hours. I walked away with a profit after playing a fairly standard tight-aggressive game. Had I not laid down pocket aces on the flop on my last hand of the afternoon, I might have walked away with a huge payday (or, more likely, broke). Nonetheless, I'd happily play at the Golden Moon again.
I've now been to casinos in four different regions of Mississippi. The coast is still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. Vicksburg never really got going. Tunica is the place to be (in terms of southern poker, anyway). With all that in mind, the Golden Moon is still the best poker room in Mississippi right now. If it weren't in the middle of nowhere, it could teach Tunica a thing or two.