Poker furor: Complaints flood in about game’s absence at casinos

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – As players grow increasingly antsy about the lack of poker at Massachusetts casinos and the vague timeline for a decision on its fate, regulators and lawyers from the Gaming Commission are looking for answers from gaming executives.

Poker was one of the games prohibited when the Gaming Commission first allowed Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield to reopen last summer and neither casino asked the commission to allow the game, as they did successfully with craps and roulette. The commission’s restrictions were lifted at the end of May, but neither Encore nor MGM Springfield has committed to bringing back poker as part of a return to normal operations.

Bruce Band, the assistant director of the commission’s Investigations and Enforcement Bureau and chief of the Gaming Agents Division, told commissioners Thursday that complaints about the absence of legal poker in Massachusetts “have increased tenfold in the last two weeks.”

“Basically people [are] saying if the properties aren’t going to offer poker, we should establish poker parlors, which we explained the statute doesn’t allow for,” he said. Band has been updating commissioners on the complaints about poker for months.

When the commission’s restrictions were in effect, the casinos said poker would not have been profitable for them with only four players allowed at a table. But with the commission’s limit on the number of players at a table lifted, officials from each facility said in May that they would announce a decision on whether to bring poker back by the end of 2021.

“We probably should pursue a few questions down the road, so stay tuned,” Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Thursday, adding that she had asked the commission’s legal department to look into the issue as well.

Poker is different from many other casino games in that gamblers play against (and win money from or lose it to) each other rather than the house. Instead of the casino generating revenue by winning a game, as it usually does, casinos generally profit off poker by claiming a rake, or a percentage of cash game pots and tournament entry fees.

“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.”

Commissioner Enrique Zuniga agreed that the Gaming Commission ought to seek an explanation and said the rationale for not offering poker is “something that we might want to hear in more detail at a future meeting from the licensees.”

“I would be very curious to see what they have to say,” he said. “Clearly, if the public is asking for it and that was something that was initially promised as an option, I think that’s worth inquiring.”

Spokespeople for Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield did not respond Thursday to requests for comment from the News Service.

Band offered one possible reason for the decision to hold off on deciding the future of poker until the end of this year.

“I think both of them are actually waiting to see what happens with sports betting,” he said. “And with space and gaming kind of forging ahead, it’s kind of a wait-and-see for both properties, I believe.”

After almost three years of studying and debating the issue, key legislators have signaled that they will be ready this session to debate sports betting in earnest. All three gaming licensees — Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield and the Plainridge Park Casino slots parlor — have expressed an interest in adding sports betting to their offerings if or when the activity is made legal here.

Even without poker or sports betting, Massachusetts’ casinos and its slots parlor have been recording strong financial results.

The Gaming Commission announced Thursday that June saw the three properties generate a combined $84 million in gaming revenue, which yields about $23.74 million in revenue for the state.

Encore Boston Harbor pulled in more than $52.5 million in revenue from its slots and table games — the third-best month in the two-year history of the Everett casino. MGM Springfield generated about $20.2 million in gaming revenue and Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville counted about $11.32 million in June revenue.

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