Play starts at Maryland's first table games

Many were off work because of a snowstorm that never came, so they went to Hollywood Casino, tucked off Interstate 95, in search of games they thought they'd never see here: blackjack, roulette, craps and poker.

For the first time Wednesday and about four months after voters approved it, Marylanders played table games without leaving the state. About 35 people were waiting when Hollywood sent out a small team of dealers to begin table play about 2 p.m., immediately after the Penn National-owned casino in Cecil County received permission from the state.

"We've been waiting for it, and, being off school, we thought we'd check it out," said Jaime Hartline, a teacher in Cecil who ducked away from a blackjack table with $90 in winnings. "It's really nice for us, not having to leave the state and knowing more money is going to go to education."

The state will receive only 20 percent of casinos' table game revenues, as part of its gambling program that has been years in the making. Hollywood, unlike other casinos in Maryland, will not receive a tax break for introducing table games, and will continue to have slots taxed at 67 percent — most of that going to education.

The state's agency for lottery and gaming control watched a demonstration of Hollywood's table game operation Tuesday night, as about 150 invited guests were brought in for a dry run. After a meeting Wednesday morning, Stephen Martino, the agency's executive director, determined the casino was ready to open.

Hollywood officials had said table games would become available at 8 a.m. Thursday. But general manager Bill Hayles planned all along for cards to hit felt as soon as possible, and brought dealers in to wait out the agency's decision.

Hollywood also began operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week on Wednesday.

Hayles said he didn't expect large crowds Wednesday, having announced the start of table games on Facebook. The threat of bad weather also served as a deterrent, he said.

The casino hired 115 dealers to handle table game play, training 77 in a six-week school and luring others from casinos in Delaware. Floor managers were quick to assist dealers who appeared shaky, stepping in to remind them of their training.

"They're still learning, but they'll get it down in another month," said Anthony Saunders, a cable contractor from Havre de Grace who waited near the blackjack tables.

Gina Suiter, one of the newly trained dealers, said it was a little "nerve-wracking" as she prepared to face her first shift dealing to a table of stern-faced poker players. Suiter, from Fair Hill, had worked with horses at the training center there and at Delaware Park. When friends suggested she sign up for dealer school, she gave it a try despite having never visited a casino and now is focused on building her new career.

Hollywood cleared a central area of its gaming floor to make room for 12 gaming tables. There's one craps and roulette table each, three tables set aside for variations of poker and seven for blackjack. By 5 p.m., six of the tables were in use.

A separate poker area has been cleared out in a corner near the Sunset Bar. Two of the eight tables with 10 seats each began hosting players almost immediately.

"It looks OK so far," said Brian Logue, an instructor at nearby Cecil College who was waiting for his chance to get into a game. "It might be a little too loud, but they can adjust it. I just hope they don't have a wait like this all the time."

Logue said he had been traveling to Delaware Park about once a week but now would play closer to home.

Word spread through the tight-knit poker community that the tables were open, and players could be seen stepping away from tall stacks of chips to call friends they'd been playing home games with for decades.

"I'll never drive to Atlantic City or Delaware again," said Gordon Craven, a retiree from Bel Air who had been working the phones to tell friends the news. "There's no need. This is exactly what we wanted."

Hollywood moved swiftly to introduce table games to try to build a customer base before the state's dominant casino, Maryland Live in Hanover, can do the same early next month. In February, the Perryville casino took in half what it did a year earlier, before the Cordish Cos. opened its huge property next to the Arundel Mills Mall.

Hayles acknowledged the threat posed by Maryland Live but said Penn National remained pleased with the profits generated at Hollywood, saying it had succeeded in stemming the flow of gaming money out of the state to the north. He also said he believes table games will open the state's casinos to a different demographic of gambler and will help Maryland tap new revenue.

"This is definitely a different customer than we usually see," he said, surveying a group of blackjack players.

Hollywood is working to reduce the number of electronic, slot-style games it offers. Facing stiff competition from Maryland Live, it's already trimmed them from 1,500 to 1,148 and is seeking to return an additional 148 to the state for economic reasons.

Hollywood made about $185 per day per machine last month — compared with Maryland Live's $302. Hayles said the company had run projections for what the casino will earn per seat at the new table games but did not want to share that information. The casino could request permission to further change its floor plan and distribution of gaming options based on how popular table games prove to be.

The launch of table games in Maryland comes during the 11th annual National Problem Gambling Week. Experts on that subject in Maryland have expressed concern that table games, and specifically poker, appeal to a younger crowd more apt to succumb to addiction.

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

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