'Free money' draws surprise casino crowd

Frank Jones said he's never before seen traffic like that in Hanover.

Hundreds of cars circled the Arundel Mills mall in gridlock Wednesday morning. It took Jones 45 minutes to reach the Maryland Live! Casino - he lives about three miles away.

Casino officials say they were overwhelmed by the deluge of gamblers on Wednesday. Promotional cards were mailed out promising free slots play to celebrate the addition of more than 1,000 new machines and gamblers turned out in droves.

"I've been here about a dozen times and I've never seen it like this," Jones said.

He waited nearly a half hour for a turn at the 30-cent slot machines. The gaming floor was choked with crowds. Some lined up three deep to play the slots.

Outside, a media event was delayed a half hour because TV news trucks were ensnared in traffic.

Tammy Mason, of Hyattsville waited 45 minutes for her turn at the slots.

"This is ridiculous," she said. "Thank goodness they gave us free money."

The brief window to use the $100 promotional cards, originally from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., was extended at least 90 minutes as gamblers complained about traffic and crowds.

"I thought I was a special person when I got this card in the mail," Mary Dixon of Waldorf said. "But when I got here, I realized everybody was special."

The promotional cards were mailed out to celebrate the opening of 1,043 additional slot machines on Wednesday morning. Now, the casino offers about 4,750 slots and electronic table games, making Maryland Live! the third-largest gaming destination in the country.

It's bigger, in fact, than any casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, said Joe Weinberg of The Cordish Cos., developer of Maryland Live!

About 20,000 people turned out Wednesday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. That's about twice as many people as Tuesday, according to casino spokeswoman Carmen Gonzales.

David Cordish, chairman of The Cordish Cos., admitted the crowds came as a bit of a surprise.

"We weren't quite expecting this many people," he said. "It's overwhelming."

The new wing of the gaming floor opened at 11 a.m. and thousands of people rushed inside to try their luck.

"It filled up in seconds," Cordish said.

A brief ceremony marked the completion of the $500 million casino that's now the largest taxpayer in the state. While casino officials were pleased with the attendance, some gamblers voiced frustrations, even calling the gaming floor a "madhouse."

A series of promotional events, offering $100,000 in cash and prizes, has been announced for the coming weeks as officials work to sustain the interest. Maryland Live! will give away 21 cars next month and players club members can win one of 50 Caribbean cruises.

A room of high-limit slot machines, a retail store and grand entrance also opened to the public Wednesday. And The Prime Rib steakhouse will open this fall to complete the venue.

When Maryland Live! opened June 6, its first phase included more than 3,000 slot machines, along with the casino's Live Market buffet, The Cheesecake Factory, Bobby's Burger Palace, Noodles and Baltimore-based Phillips Seafood. A ceremony was held in July for the opening of 531 additional slots and electronic table games.

Now, the 300,000 square-foot facility also features several bars and the Rams Head Center Stage, an entertainment venue featuring nightly live music. The stage opened last month with a private concert by The Charlie Daniels Band. The announced lineup of classic rock performers also includes Foghat and a lead singer from Three Dog Night.