BOSTON (SHNS) – Gaming regulators made clear to Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield on Thursday that they are not satisfied with the scant availability of live poker nearly a year after the two casinos were given the go-ahead to fully reopen.
Before the pandemic shut down the state’s gaming facilities in March 2020, the two casinos had a combined 95 poker tables (74 at Encore and 21 at MGM) that were open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. MGM brought poker back in October and now operates 14 tables daily from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m. Encore reintroduced poker in January and has 13 poker tables that are open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday only. The Everett casino plans to open three more poker tables in the coming weeks, a Gaming Commission official said.
The two casinos resumed normal operations last May without reintroducing poker and the commission got an earful from players who were upset that the pandemic had wiped away the popular game. After the commission applied some public pressure, both casinos agreed to reintroduce poker.
“A lot of people love to play this game and they’re very disappointed that we only have, if I’m doing this right, 27 tables throughout the entire commonwealth,” Commissioner Brad Hill said Thursday after a presentation from gaming agents on the status of poker in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Hill added, “Just disappointed is all I can say at this point.”
Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said she could not understand the rationale for Encore offering poker only during the daytime and not later than 8 p.m. She also pointed out that MGM Springfield has brought poker back at about 67 percent of its pre-COVID capacity, but that Encore is only offering about 17.5 percent of its pre-pandemic poker capacity.
“That’s a marked drop from the representations made in the application and opening, and I haven’t been able to see the new room but I have to say the photos of the pre- and post- for Encore, that’s a completely different feel to that space,” O’Brien said. Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein, who has visited the new poker room, said the space has “a very different feel.”
O’Brien continued, “And while I understand that they have business decisions and that post-COVID everyone is tweaking their model, they are supposed to be resort destination casinos that offer a number of amenities, poker being one of them.”
The commission’s top lawyer previously told the commission that it “has very broad and expressive authority to address this issue” and noted that one condition of a gaming license says that the licensee “shall have an affirmative obligation to abide by every statement made in its application to the commission.”
In the case of Encore, the casino’s application stated: “There will be an exclusive poker area with 25 dedicated poker tables covering all variations of the most popular poker games…” An Encore executive last year reminded commissioners that a more detailed response in the application noted that the casino would “constantly refresh the mix of slot and table games on the floor” to make sure the most popular games are available.
“At the heart of MGM Springfield will be approximately 125,000 square feet of gaming excitement, which will feature approximately 100 table games, including a 25-table poker room and a high-limit area reserved for VIP customers,” the state’s first resort casino wrote in its application.
The regulators took no action related to poker Thursday, but Judd-Stein suggested that the commission’s general counsel, Todd Grossman, should circulate the language of the casinos’ applications to commissioners for further review. The chairwoman said commissioners would likely address the issue with each casino when it makes its next quarterly report to the commission.
While the number of tables got the lion’s share of attention during Thursday’s commission meeting, poker players have also been complaining to the commission about the hours of operation for poker at Encore Boston Harbor and about the casino’s increased rake, or the amount of money taken from each pot by the house as a commission for running the game.
Before the pandemic, Encore’s rake was 10 percent of the pot up to $6 and MGM had a rake of 10 percent of the pot up to $5. Since reopening, Encore has claimed a rake of 10 percent of the pot up to $10 and MGM has bumped up its rake to 10 percent of the pot up to $6.
The limited availability of poker does not appear to be harming business for either casino: March was the best month on record for Encore Boston Harbor and the third-best month ever for MGM Springfield, in terms of gross gaming revenue.
“Poker rooms are somewhat notorious for their inability to produce competitive levels of profit per square foot. Others have described live poker as something of a loss-leader, existing only because of assumed revenue contributions to slots and table games,” researcher Anthony Lucas wrote in a paper published in the UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal in 2013. “While live poker rebounded from near extinction in the late nineties to reach unimaginable heights in the mid-aughts, it would seem as though some are once again beginning to wonder whether it is the best use of casino floor space.”