Poker players began gathering near the entrance of Maryland Live's poker room at 7 a.m., hours before the noon opening.
Nearly 1,000 waited in line when cards finally began to fall on the casino's 52 poker tables.
The opening of the poker room, a 14,800-square-foot, two-story addition to the Hanover facility, gives the state its first large-scale poker venue and establishes the Cordish Cos. property as the dominant full-service casino in the Mid-Atlantic. The room won't be a financial windfall compared with other tables or slots, but it has already tapped into a younger audience that longed for a place to play.
"It's nice to be able to stay close to home and know that any money I lose is going to go to the local economy," said Jason Cooke, a 29-year-old Baltimore native and Manchester resident. "We're all a little tired of driving to other states and leaving our money there."
Cooke was one of the first players to climb a short flight of stairs into the new room about a half-hour before noon. He milled around with a dozen others, all of them serious poker players accustomed to sitting for hours at a time, methodically studying their cards and the faces of nine rivals at a table.
The group buzzed about the plush finishes. Players sit on padded leather seats. They have access to electrical outlets, a must-have for charging cellphones and tablets. The lights are dim and cocktail waitresses move from table to table, serving anything from water to booze to sandwiches. In a few weeks, players will be able to order table-side massages.
The accommodations were nice, but the quality of play was all they really cared about.
"They've got to treat the players right," said Jason Harbeck, who had traveled from Alexandria, Va. "Run the room well, ensure great games and this will work."
The casino's director of poker, Mike Smith, spent as many hours engaging with the players — many of whom form a tight community online and are accustomed to playing against one another in West Virginia and Delaware — as he had overseeing construction. He'd come to Maryland for the opportunity to build a poker operation from scratch, but ended up corralling an already-bustling community and trying to create the room they desired.
"They're passionate, and they don't hold their feelings back," Smith said. "I figured it made sense to work with them on the front end."
Maryland Live will host daily no-limit hold'em tournaments in September and October and has announced an affiliation with the Players Poker Championship, offering players a chance to earn their way to the series' main event in Aruba.
Dealers from across the region flocked to work under Smith, said John Stockton, a 25-year-old Catonsville native who attended the casino's free dealer school. He'd served in the Army and was looking for a new career.
"It's amazing how it came together and was there right when I was looking," Stockton said. "Obviously, it's been great for me and I don't feel any nerves now. I'm just ready to get started on this."
Smith said the opening had gone as planned, though the room was filling more slowly than he would have liked. Players who finally entered the room and registered were frustrated with how long it took to get seated, even when there were empty tables. As of 2:30 p.m., about 20 tables remained empty as casino employees worked to sign up players and provide the games they requested.
"We'd hoped to work out all our kinks, but some weaknesses you don't know about until you open up," Smith said.
Outside the room, the line snaked through the casino. It eventually became so long that officials split it in two.
"I'm willing to wait since it's the first day and this is such a big moment for poker here," said Michael Jonathan, 46, of Baltimore. "But it can't be like this on a regular basis."
But even as players celebrated the arrival of big-time poker in Maryland, they looked forward to the opening of casinos in Baltimore and Prince George's County and the competitive pressure that they would create.
"That's going to be better for the players," Jonathan said. "We'll go from having nowhere to play to a lot of options, and they'll want our business."
In Las Vegas, a typical table game makes the casino about $2,000 a day, while a poker table nets only $416, said David Schwartz of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas' Center for Gaming Research. But casinos offer poker because players might bring along friends who opt for slots instead, or decide to gamble their winnings on tables that have more favorable odds for the house.
"Poker also just has more cachet," Schwartz said. "It is more popular, more current, and it's important to offer that."
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