A prominent Maryland slots developer once told me that, for a variety of reasons, a gaming company could choose to simply throw up what he called “slots in a box.” Walking through the new Hollywood Casino, it’s tough to see the place as anything more than that—although the “box” is still a major new development for the area, it lacks the bells and whistles found at its regional gaming competition.
Still, the cachet of Maryland’s first gaming operation wasn’t lost on either the local populace or visitors from around the region recently. A line more than 80 people long greeted those arriving at the casino just after 7 p.m. on the first Friday night the operation was open. Due to the overload happening at local casinos, developers started making gambling online, and that was the beginning of new casino sites in a modern era.
Though the wait stretched only to 15 minutes, it was clear why the velvet rope was in place. An employee at the door with an old attendance-clicker showed that more than 6,000 people had entered that day up to that point. Inside, more than 75 to 80 percent of the games were occupied, from the predominant penny slots up to the large, $5 minimum bet video poker and blackjack stations. On its face, it looked like a solid win for the state’s gaming aspirations.
A Struggling Plan
Maryland’s latest attempt to make gambling a reality could charitably be called snake-bitten. Five casino licenses for a total of 15,000 slot machines were approved in 2008 for development zones in Perryville, near Ocean Downs in Wicomico County, in Baltimore City, in Anne Arundel County, and near Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County.
But when the bids for those licenses were submitted in February 2009, things didn’t go according to plan. In all, the bids proposed just 10,500 total machines statewide. A New York company applied for the Rocky Gap license, but didn’t include the required licensing fee, holding out and demanding the state lower its tax cut of the gaming revenues. The Ocean Downs location has experienced construction-related delays, but is expected to open later this year. A development group’s bid for the Baltimore City location was tossed out late last year; an appeal is currently before a state board.
Magna Entertainment Corp. submitted a bid for 4,750 machines at Laurel Park, but failed to include the $28.5 million licensing fee. Its bid was later tossed out, and the company filed for bankruptcy in March 2009. A competing bid for the same number of machines was submitted by Baltimore-based developer The Cordish Co., but now faces a referendum that will be one of the key issues in November’s general election.
Penn National Gaming Inc. submitted an initial plan for 500 machines at a Perryville facility out of 2,500 authorized, though they later amended the proposal to include the 1,500 machines which now operate at the site. Backed by a stable, experienced gaming company and requiring only the construction of a new building rather than the updating of an aging one, maybe it wasn’t so surprising that Perryville was the first Maryland casino to open its doors.
The legalization of gambling, at its core, breaks down to an arms race, where the typical arc begins with the legalization of slot machines, continues to table games, and ultimately ends with sports betting. While Maryland struggles to get its slots act together, the former Charles Town Races and Slots in Charles Town, W.Va.—another Penn National operation now rebranded as Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races—launched table games this summer, as did Dover Downs, Delaware Park, and Philadelphia Park. Delaware Park also offers sports betting.
(A sidebar for the gamblers out there: Delaware Park does have sports betting, but requires you to correctly pick a three-team parlay against the spread. For the non-gamblers out there: this means their sports book window could be located next to the “Light Your Money on Fire” window. Full sports betting might happen someday, but not at the moment.)
Maryland chose to enter at the first step of that ladder, and Perryville offers the basic slots options. There’s a plethora of penny slots, which saw the heaviest action on that Friday night. Most bore the generic themed names typical of slots found anywhere, though there were colorful exceptions: Jumpin’ Jalapenos, Kickin’ Ass (think donkey, not rear end), and Cougarlicious. There were few licensed properties displayed on machines—the only ones I saw were The Sopranos, Survivor and, oddly, the movie Airplane! In larger operations, there’s usually a few more branded machines such as Monopoly, a large Wheel of Fortune game, or others. But they’re expensive, both for the operator to set up and for patrons to play.
Also offered were several banks of classic video poker and blackjack, of the type that date back decades. But one side of the building also offered a next-generation version in large, five-seat machines for blackjack and poker. These machines attempted to replicate a table game experience, with players clustered around a large video screen displaying recorded video of a “dealer” who made various motions as the cards dealt out. As close as you’ll find at a slots operation to a real blackjack or poker felt, it was still hard to shake the idea that a virtual deck of cards meant the computer was determining the percentages, not random chance or, in the case of blackjack, a semi-predictable pattern.
Yet, as probably any longtime slots player would tell you, the machines always seem to know just when you’re ready to stand up. Playing a few bucks worth into “Bullets and Badges” a nickel at a time, I went on a 50- or 60-cent “tear” just when I was ready to move on. Of course, five minutes later I was back where I started and stood up.
Rougher was the few minutes of video blackjack I played—on the classic-style, $1minimum bet machines, not the next-gen ones. I play blackjack occasionally in casinos and know basic strategy, but of approximately 25 hands I won five or six, pushed on four more, and lost the rest. That’s not a big enough sample size, or enough of a stake being played, to draw any deep, meaningful conclusion, but it was still a tough run.
It’s unfair to Penn National to say that Perryville suffers for only having slots gaming, since that’s all it could ever have. But when virtually every other regional venue offers some other type of gaming—including Penn’s own Grantville, Pa. and Charles Town facilities—something feels missing. And it could end up cutting into the Perryville casino’s bottom line.
One school of thought holds that horse racing and betting can’t compete with more modern slots and casino operations, because while you can only bet on the ponies once every 45 minutes, you can play a slot machine once every 4.5 seconds. True enough.
But when a gambler feels tapped out, or wants a break, I’ve found that taking a 45-minute break from the action to watch the thoroughbreds or harness racers run isn’t the worst thing. An alternative to constant gambling could stretch out the time a player stays at Hollywood Casino Perryville, and ultimately increase their donation to Maryland’s future. There’s little Penn National can do about this, since that’s the way the state law was written. But one wonders how long the average person will enjoy the non-stop use of what begins to feel like 1,500 reverse ATMs, and if the site will rake in the $116 million predicted this year by state estimates.
If the “slots in a box” reference seems unkind, it may be. But after two hours at the facility, that’s the impression I began to have. In fairness, Penn National has a fair argument why that’s the case. More on that in a minute.
Start with the building: it’s a box. From the outside, the building is a bit imposing, sitting on a slight rise on its land and featuring a large, pillared entrance and drive-through valet port. But inside, it’s possible from virtually anywhere to see all four corners of the rectangular room. There are no walls or different levels, or tucked-away areas. It’s a gaming floor, with a few nooks and a larger area for the buffet, charging $14 for lunch and $22 for dinner.
In those nooks are the gift shop, called “Rodeo Drive” (the emphasis is on the second syllable, like the street, to evoke the Hollywood theme), a deli-style sandwich shop, several free soft drink dispensers, and small semi-circle bar.
This “Sunset Bar,” which seats about 12 people, raises the other issue with the building—an almost total lack of any space to pause, enjoy the action, and take a break. The semi-circle bar is thrown into a corner of the building, and is in a high-traffic area, where the wait staff is constantly flying back and forth filling drink orders. It’s not very relaxing and it’s tough to imagine a group of more than two or three finding the space on a busy night to enjoy their $5 pint bottles of Bud, Coors and Miller.
At other Hollywood Casinos, including Charles Town and Penn National Raceway, there are restaurants, full bars, and other areas to spend time without spending money. But Perryville is one of the company’s smaller operations, according to Marc DeLeo, the casino’s director of marketing. Totaling about 34,000 square feet, the facility is dwarfed by its bigger brother at Charles Town, which houses 7,000 slot machines in about 75,000 square feet.
That space felt somewhat cramped, several patrons said, with machines spaced closely together. However, DeLeo said the company hasn’t been aware of any such complaints.
“I haven’t heard that at all,” he said. “In fact, I’ve heard quite the opposite, that it has a nice flow, it’s comfortable, it’s easy to find everything.”
The size of the building and the lack of other attractions are in part due to the amount of revenue taken by the state as tax, DeLeo said. The state keeps 67 percent of the casino’s earnings, a high amount compared to other states nationwide. As a result, every square foot has to earn its keep.
“It’s 67 percent tax, so we had to build something that was cost-effective for us,” DeLeo said.
It’s the same reason given by New York-based Empire Gaming when that developer failed to submit its licensing fee for the Rocky Gap slots license. And, along with the weak national economy, it’s been offered up as a reason for the problems with all five slots sites.
Still, without something additional attraction, either at the casino or on the developable land nearby, it seems like an unlikely bet Hollywood Casino Perryville will find a large number of repeat visitors.
After two hours roaming the casino floor and giving a few games a shot, I ended up spending the most time—and most of The Dagger’s $20 investment in Maryland’s future—at the basic, deuces wild, old school video poker machine. It felt familiar, and for good reason—it’s the same game I’ve been playing at my corner bar for years.