Kevin Parker, the director of casino operations at Red Earth Casino, a small gaming operation owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe near Southern California's Salton Sea, leads with care, precision and a risk-taking attitude that keeps the competition on its toes.

They say that father knows best. For Kevin Parker, director of casino operations at the Coachella Valley’s Red Earth Casino, grandma knew best.

In the mid 1990s, Parker, now 42, was a mental health counselor working with at-risk youth in Shelton, Wash., a blink-and-you-miss-it town on the Puget Sound. Parker has a big heart-maybe too big-and the stress of working with kids appeared to be heading down various roads to nowhere was taking its toll. In the space of one week, two of Parker’s young clients had died. The one that hit him the hardest was a teenaged girl who was raped and killed under a freeway overpass within shouting distance of the crisis center where Parker had recently counseled her.

Kay Gott, Parker’s grandmother, sensed that her grandson was nearing his breaking point.

“So she took me to a casino,” Parker said, continuing the story. “I had never been in one, but she said, ‘You’re burned out. This is what you need to do.’”

Odd career advice, but grandma had her reasons. Gott was and remains an enthusiastic roulette player. Casinos seemed like cheerful places where people forgot about their cares and had a good time. Moreover, Indian casinos were becoming a big thing in Washington state. The Squaxin Island Indian Tribe was building a new property right in Parker’s hometown. Grandma was sure there had to be a spot for someone as bright and ambitious as her grandson.

Before long, Parker, a registered Chippewa Indian, was sporting a smart-looking croupier’s outfit at the Little Creek Casino Resort. He liked the vibe right off. It was fun, exciting and a refreshing change from his work with troubled teens.

A dozen years and three Native American casinos later, Parker is still in the casino business. Early last year, he piled all his stuff into a U-Haul and drove to Southern California from Washington state, where he had been working at the Angel of the Winds Casino, to help run the newest addition to the Coachella Valley gambling scene, the $20 million Red Earth Casino.

Just down the road

Since opening April 1, the 13,000-square-foot Red Earth, owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians and located an hour’s drive southeast of Palm Springs, has quickly gained a reputation as the little casino that could. With no entertainment venue, VIP room, or even a regular bar or restaurant, this little casino on a lonely stretch of highway by the Salton Sea nevertheless manages to lure players away from the competition.

“We’re not creating new gamers, we’re stealing them,” Parker said, laughing.

Headcounts for November and December approached a healthy 1,000 a day, and might have been higher had not the Southern California wildfires kept snowbirds at home. Eventually, Parker hopes to see an average of 1,200 players a day during the peak months of January and February.

The heavy traffic counts defy the Las Vegas logic that bigger is better. Red Earth has just 349 slots and four table games. The bar is nothing more than a self-service window at the end of a hallway. On Christmas day, with the restaurant at the adjoining truck stop closed for the holiday, Parker was left with no other choice than to fire up a hot dog rotisserie.

Red Earth may lack size, razzle dazzle and amenities, but Parker makes up for it by running an attractive, clean operation with player-friendly touches not found at many of Red Earth’s seven or so competitors in the Coachella Valley.

To guard against sore-arm syndrome-the bane of the slot enthusiast who likes to play from sunup to sundown-Parker and his boss, Dave Seufert, lowered the slot machine stands by about one-third, down to 15 inches. They went wide on the stands-30 inches compared to the standard 25-26 inches-so that players wouldn’t feel hemmed in. Rather than use vendor-supplied chairs, Parker and Seufert splurged on chairs with good lumbar support at $345 each. Pricey, yes, but Parker said they’ll pay for themselves in the long run.

“The biggest issue we all struggle with is how to increase our coin in. We put all our money into great new titles, and that’s important, but we tend to forget about the customer’s comfort level,” Parker said.

Welcome to the humble abode

The soft pink lighting on the casino floor? It’ll take 10 years off your face.

Parker led Slot Manager on a tour of the floor. He flitted here and there, from one bank of slots to another, with hardly a break in his patter.

“The guys laugh at me because I’ve got a little bit of an attention deficit issue,” he said. “I can’t even sit still through a movie.”

Anthony Williams, Parker’s slot tech, cast a knowing smile our way.

Finally, Parker stopped at an IGT machine and slapped the palm of his hand on the SpinSation mystery top box wheel.

“When we put this on, our coin in was OK. It was holding $105 a day,” he explained. “Now we’re holding $180 a day just by adding a top box feature.”

How’d he manage that? Parker is a risk taker. He likes to try new stuff that no one else has. He frequently hosts beta tests of new products. Red Earth customers get a kick out of playing games that none of their friends has tried. Plus, beta tests are a good way to get new products on the floor with a minimal investment.

“At a small casino like this, every dollar counts,” Parker said.

Red Earth was the first casino in the country with the SpinSation product. Parker explains how it happened. James Acres of Acres Bonusing (his father holds the patent on SpinSation’s underpinning) stopped by Red Earth one day.

“He said, ‘I heard through the grapevine you have a reputation for giving people a shot.’ So I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Can I try this out?’ I was taken by his enthusiasm,” Parker said. “That doesn’t mean we didn’t check this thing out from top to bottom to make sure it didn’t violate any patent structure, because we don’t want to get into the middle of something with two vendors. But everything checked out so I said, ‘Sure.’”

As it turns out, the SpinSation top is phenomenally successful.

Does he ever bet on the wrong horse?

Parker practically fell on the floor laughing. “Oh, heck, yeah!”

Treating the customer right

The Torres Martinez isn’t a rich tribe. Parker has learned to stretch a dollar any way he can. The Red Earth is a smoking casino. Parker dislikes stale cigarette smell, but he couldn’t afford an expensive ionizing system. He cut a deal with the distributor to do a low-cost installation in exchange for using Red Earth as a demo site to show off the system to potential clients.

The Salton Sea famously suffers through one or two fish kills a year.

“We’re probably the only place around here that doesn’t smell like dead fish,” Parker joked.

Red Earth can’t comp hotel rooms and restaurant meals like some of the competition. Instead, Parker offers cash comps placed directly on the loyalty card or machine.

Most places give away cars and vacations to Tahiti. Parker’s budget doesn’t accommodate that kind of largesse. Instead, Red Earth gives away inexpensive Dell desktops. Many slot players are older folks who’ve never caught up with the computer age, so the PCs come preloaded with instructional software for first-time users. Williams has a strong computer background. He cut a deal with the software company for free products in exchange for billboard publicity.

The Salton Sea is a major destination for the ATV crowd, so Red Earth sponsors local ATV competitions. Happy hour cocktails are $2, even for the good stuff like Patron tequila. The casino provides free taxi transportation within 30 miles and stations an employee outside the front door to greet patrons as they enter and leave the property.

Brand-new machines account for about 50 percent of Parker’s slot floor. The remainder is older, refurbished machines, many of them five-reel games that appeal to Red Earth’s demographic, which averages 45 to 50 years old.

“Video machines are the bomb in northern California, but down here, reels drive what we do,” he said. “We have 50- to 100-line games on the floor, but they won’t play them. You go over 25 lines, and it’s just too many.”

Red Earth employs about 154 people. Parker isn’t always able to match the competition’s wages.

“I bring people in the door and say, ‘Look, I can’t pay you as much, but I can teach you a whole lot of things. If you’re willing to learn, I’ll teach you everything I know and then you can go somewhere else and make more money, ’ ” he said.

“Too many folks in our business hold on to every bit of their knowledge because they want to stay valuable to the organization. To me, there’s nothing more valuable than having a staff that’s capable and competent. I tell each and every one of them, if they think they should have my job, maybe they should. But they’ve got to prove to me they can do my job, first. And as long as I continue to improve every day, I think I can stay in front of them.”