Maryland Live Casino officials pounded through a wall near the facility's high-stakes slots and table games rooms Thursday, revealing the construction going on inside a 14,800-square-foot addition that will open next month with 52 poker tables.
The ceremonial sledge-hammering marked the public introduction of poker director Mike Smith, a 20-year-veteran who has been chatting with area poker players in online forums. He has sought their feedback on how the room should be run — from which games should be played to how tournaments should be structured — and is working through final details.
"We'll have a really good room as far as the service and the consistency of the play and the comfort — comfort's important," said Smith, who spent the past six years running the poker room at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach, Fla. "There should be something here for everyone."
Shortly after 10:30 a.m., Smith and other casino executives aimed a few whacks at drywall that had been cut along the sides, allowing it to fall open and revealing the two-story structure — and the workers building it. The facility has been added on to the part of the Hanover casino that faces east over Arundel Mills Circle, toward a wooded area.
Maryland Live's much-anticipated poker room is scheduled to open at noon Aug. 28, pending approval by state regulators. It will offer 27 tables and a bar on the first floor and 25 tables on the top floor, which often will be reserved for tournament play.
"It's going to be packed for a while," said Brian Bohlayer, a Baltimore-area teacher who runs the website Maryland Poker Connection. "And that's what players want. It's shaping up to be the sort of place we've hoped for."
Smith said the casino's first tournament affiliation would be with the Players Poker Championship. Starting Sept. 2, players will be able to enter $60 buy-in events during the week for a chance to play in $520 buy-in tournaments every Sunday, where a $5,000 prize package will be at stake. Winners receive a $2,500 buy-in at the 2013 PPC Aruba World Championship in October — with a guaranteed $200,000 prize pool — another $550 buy-in for a $40,000 pool and six nights at a hotel plus $360 toward travel expenses.
Smith, who also serves as director of the Aruba World Championship, said play at Maryland Live should meet local players' demands. The poker room will feature tableside food service, and massages will be offered for players. The casino is evaluating ways to make sure there are plenty of charging stations available for cellphones and iPads.
A reasonable rake — the amount the casino keeps from each hand — and tournament fee structure will be the most important factors for local players, Bohlayer said.
"Showing that you're going to give a little back to the player is important," he said. "That's got to do with the structure, but also with rewards programs and special promotions."
Smith said players will be eligible for rewards through the casino's current tracking system, but said details must be worked out before he can discuss the program.
Bohlayer said Smith's dialogue with players on the website TwoPlusTwo.com has endeared Maryland Live to the poker community.
Opening the poker room will require Maryland Live, which is owned by the Cordish Cos., to hire 300 employees, bringing its workforce to 2,700. Smith said about 170 experienced dealers from around the country have signed on and 70 to 80 more are in training. Poker dealers tend to make more money than dealers at other tables, he said.
Smith was not prepared to discuss exactly which games will be offered, saying only that typical versions of hold 'em, Omaha and stud poker would be offered. The casino is working with the state Lottery and Gaming Control Agency to gain regulatory approval for the games.
Smith said he took the job at Maryland Live because he had never overseen the construction of a poker room. He said he's been in touch with professional players — 2012 poker player of the year Greg Merson is a former University of Maryland student and Laurel resident, and Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps' roommate, Jeff Gross, also is a pro — about possibly serving as ambassadors for the casino but that no partnership has been established.
Maryland Live is by far the state's largest casino, paying about $1 million per day in taxes. Table games are taxed at 20 percent; 67 percent of slots revenue is turned over to the state. Though some slot machines have been out of play during construction, the casino eventually will have more than 4,300 available, equaling the number on the floor before the addition of the poker room.
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