Casino's first early morning draws small, dedicated crowd

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When 2 a.m. came Friday, the sound of coins hitting metal — electronically replicated, of course, since the slot machines pay out with a printed ticket — continued at Maryland Live casino. About 1,000 people stayed where they were, plugging money into the video terminals and ordering drinks.

Terry Cohen of Randallstown was there to celebrate the new schedule that will keep the casino open 24 hours a day.

"There's nothing to do around here at night," she said. "The town shuts down. This is nice. It gives you a place to go and spend some time and mingle and play some slots."

The Cordish Cos.-owned facility in Hanover became the first Maryland casino to take advantage of new state regulations allowing all-day operation, opening at 8 a.m. Thursday without any plan to close again. The expanded hours — approved by voters as part of the Question 7 referendum in November — are expected to boost casino revenue, but some worry about the impact on gambling addicts.

Rob Norton, president and general manager for Maryland Live, said the casino expects a 10 percent increase in revenue. It generated $34.4 million in November; 67 percent goes to the state.

While Norton said the economics made the decision to stay open an easy one, gambling experts see Maryland Live's commitment to full-time operation as another move to stake out ground in an increasingly crowded scene. A Horseshoe casino is scheduled to open in Baltimore in 2014, and a casino in Prince George's County could give Washington residents and visitors a nearby gambling spot as early as 2017.

"Maryland Live has a huge advantage, in that it is up and running and can try to build that customer loyalty that is so important," said James Karmel, a professor at Harford Community College who has studied the gambling industry. "Those people gambling at 4 or 5 a.m. are going to be hard-core, and that's a niche you want to establish as the market gets more crowded."

But mental health professionals worry that the lack of a closing time will cause new gamblers susceptible to addiction to fall more quickly — and lose more money while doing so.

Evonne Gershon, coordinator of Maryland's 24-hour problem gambling help line, plans to monitor calls over the next few weeks to measure any change caused by the new hours.

Maryland Live's opening caused a sharp increase in calls, she said, and mental health professionals across the state have clamored for more training to deal with problems related to gaming. Some of the most difficult cases Gershon has faced since she began working with problem gamblers 18 months ago came after callers went on long binges.

"Once I talked to someone who was suicidal after spending 24 hours in a casino and spending everything they had," she said. "Staying open all the time means that much more temptation."

Maryland Live is required to post the number for the help line, and pays $475 per machine — with 4,750 machines, that's $2.26 million — each year into a state fund set aside to assist treatment of compulsive gambling.

"Maryland has one of the most extensive problem-gaming programs out there, and we work closely with them," Norton said. "We are being proactive, and we do not anticipate an increase in instances of problem gaming. We see [staying open] as an attempt to reach out to a group that might live a different lifestyle, not something predatory on the casino's part."

Maryland Live officials already had some idea of the market for early morning gambling, as about 500 people were placing final bets at closing time on an average night.

Norton said the longer hours will open the casino to those who were unable to make it under the previous schedule — 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. (4 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays). He believes shift workers, people with irregular schedules and night owls will make use of the expanded hours; many of the people at the casino early Friday fit into those categories.

Solomon Fersha, a limousine driver from Silver Spring, came into the casino about 7 a.m. between runs. A regular patron — and member of the VIP program — Fersha often finds himself with downtime between trips and looks forward to being able to gamble on his own schedule.

"It doesn't feel good when they tell you to leave," he said.

Antonio Wilkins, a chef at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore, said he is not a gambler but often accompanies his wife to the casino. They arrived at 11 p.m. Thursday and stayed more than nine hours. They'd driven to Delaware for similar sessions in the past.

"It's much better to be here, closer to home, putting the money back into the state where we live," he said. Wilkins said he and his wife will continue to use the overnight hours because they fit into his sleep schedule; his work shift often starts at midnight, and he is accustomed to sleeping during the day.

Cohen said she had grown tired of driving to Delaware to take advantage of full-day operations there.

Management at Dover Downs estimated that 42 percent of its $217 million gambling take in 2011 came from Marylanders and advised investors that expanded gambling in Maryland could severely curtail profits.

Many of the 500 or so patrons still at Maryland Live at 4:45 a.m. Friday congregated around the electronic versions of popular table games and pushed aside half-empty cocktail cups in favor of bottled water or coffee.

Kevin Carlson and Chris Martin, friends from Columbia, posted up at a Royal Match 21 machine and played blackjack for hours. Carlson, a recent University of Maryland graduate, expects the casino to become a popular destination for people in their 20s once table games are in place in the first quarter of 2013.

"People putting money in slots are just wasting their money," he said. "[Table] games, you can have some control and win."

The state's second-largest casino, Hollywood in Perryville, has not announced plans to stay open all day, every day, but the Cecil County facility might do so once it installs table games early next year. Ocean Downs, near Ocean City, is working on a plan for integrating table games and has not indicated whether it will request full-time operation in the near future.

Although industry experts say table games appeal to a younger crowd and encourage longer stays at the casino, Norton believes the customers using overnight hours at Maryland Live won't necessarily favor slots or table games.

"It's just going to be a cross section," he said.

Karmel, though, sees 24-hour gambling as appealing largely to poker players. "They're much more likely to get involved in a long game and keep it going."

Poker remains popular among college students, who also will be tempted by Maryland Live's ability to serve alcohol around the clock, said Joanna Franklin of the University of Maryland's center for problem gambling.

"That's a concern for us," she said. "Young people simply don't have fully developed impulse control. They're up late anyway. They're looking for things to do. They like risks. This is not a good combination."

Franklin expected the loosening of restrictions that were put in place when Maryland voters approved the introduction of slot machines in 2008. Once established in the Mid-Atlantic region, casinos have been adept at persuading state governments to match or exceed deregulation steps taken in nearby states, she said.

"It's just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses," Franklin said. "Casinos want to compete, and it's hard to stop the momentum once states see the money coming in."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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