BOSTON (SHNS) – While it works on a parallel track to oversee the addition of legal sports betting to the state’s gambling universe, the Mass. Gaming Commission on Thursday took a closer look at how the offerings at the state’s casinos stack up against their initial promises and pre-pandemic levels.
The state’s 2011 expanded gaming law has room for further expansion and the three facilities that have opened have not lived up to expectations for various reasons. The review of gaming positions was spurred in part by the public outcry over the lack of poker when Massachusetts casinos reopened from their pandemic shutdown in mid-2020 and the continued crowing about the limited availability of the popular game.
“Of course, the reason why this is important is the less table games they have, the more they look like a slots parlor. And that’s not, Commissioner [Brad] Hill, what you and your legislative colleagues envisioned back when gaming was expanded,” Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Thursday about the state’s two resort casinos. She later added, “We want the full complement of games, not only because that’s what our patrons want, but also the jobs that are attached.”
The commission’s foray into gaming positions at the casinos comes as the regulators and gambling centers prepare for the launch of legal sports betting. The casinos and slots parlor have been lobbying hard for the ability to offer betting for years, making the case that they need to be able to offer wagers to compete with facilities in nearby states for the limited pool of gaming dollars in the region and generate the kind of tax revenue the state expected when casino gaming was legalized here.
A report from the commission’s Gaming Agents Division laid out for commissioners exactly where each facility stood as of the time of its initial RFA-2 application, March 2020, July 2020 and July 2022.
Encore Boston Harbor’s application referred to 150 table game tables, 25 poker tables and 3,072 slot machines. When gaming shut down in March 2020, the Everett casino had 167 tables, 74 poker tables, 2,804 slot machines, 40 stadium gaming spots, and 1,064 table game employees. At the time of the July 2020 reopening under state distancing and capacity restrictions, Encore had 186 tables, no poker (it and other games were prohibited by the commission), 1,852 slots, 34 stadium gaming spots, and 883 table game employees. As of last month, the casino had 184 table game tables, 15 poker tables, 2,756 slots, 54 stadium gaming spots, and 1,001 table game employees.
MGM Springfield mentioned 100 table game tables and 25 poker tables in its application. In March 2020, the casino had 79 tables, 22 poker tables, 1,844 slots, 24 stadium gaming spots, and 444 table game employees. When it reopened in July 2020, there were 43 tables (though not all always open), zero poker tables, 869 slots, 15 stadium gaming slots, and 210 table game workers. As of last month, the Springfield casino had 48 tables, 14 poker tables, 1,525 slots, 15 stadium gaming seats and 269 table game employees.
The slots parlor at Plainridge Park Casino talked about 1,500 slots in its application, had 1,320 at the time of the March 2020 shutdown, and 789 when gaming came back online in July 2020. The Plainville facility had 946 slot machines running as of last month.
“I think it’s probably time to have a deeper sit-down, our staff with their staff, in terms of particularly the employment numbers on the table games. I’m curious, again, to dig a little deeper on the poker in terms of what happened to those dealers,” Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said. “And then maybe they can circle back to us with some more information that would give us a little more clarity on next steps we might want to consider.”
O’Brien suggested that the commission staff work with the casinos to get more frequent reporting on the number of gaming positions and table game employees, potentially as part of each facility’s required quarterly report. Commissioner Brad Hill, who had previously voiced his concerns about the limited number of poker tables and the limited hours they are available, said he agrees that it’s time for the commission to dig deeper on the issue.
“We’ve been bringing this issue up for a few months now and I’m not satisfied with some of the answers we’ve been receiving in terms of how they are looking to increase the numbers back to where they may have been or were pre-COVID,” he said.
The commission’s top lawyer has 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.”
Later in Thursday’s meeting, Encore Boston Harbor Senior Vice President Jacqui Krum said she understands the Gaming Commission’s concern “about us becoming a slot parlor.”
“I don’t think that we’re there. I think that we have more tables generally offered than we initially proposed or even had prior to COVID,” she said. “But you know, we certainly understand the concern and we’ll continue to look at that.”
Krum also said that the Everett casino plans to soon expand its poker offerings (available Sunday through Thursday) by extending the end time to 4 a.m. (it had been 8 p.m., then 2 a.m.) and will offer poker seven days a week when or if it is able to hire and train new dealers. She estimated it would be “on or before” Oct. 1, but said there are no plans to increase the number of poker tables.
“During COVID, we didn’t provide poker but some of the other states did. So we saw a huge number of our poker dealers move to the Las Vegas area and the Texas area, where poker was put in place much earlier. Cost of living being what it is, I think a lot of those people are happier where they are now,” Krum said. “So that created a new challenge for us. And what we’re doing is, well we’re going to continue to do this, is to train people through the dealer school. We’ve also found, frankly, that the dealers that we do train through our dealer school who are local to the area tend to have the highest retention rates. So it’s a good model and program for us to continue to roll out.”
Commissioner Jordan Maynard said he was concerned about the wait times for poker at Encore and what poker players might end up doing during the time they’re waiting for one of the limited number of poker seats.
“My major concern is, to the slot parlor piece, that it’s a little more nuanced than just turning it into a slot parlor, but using the idea that someone could play poker as a form of advertisement to get them to the door and have them wait. And while they’re waiting, of course, they’re going to do something else and likely because of the availability, they’re likely going to gamble with a slot machine,” he said. “And that’s just something that I’m concerned about.”