Cards started turning and dice began rolling early Thursday morning at Maryland Live, already the largest slots casino in the Mid-Atlantic.
Opened just 10 months ago, the casino next to an Anne Arundel County outlet mall rakes in more money from slot machines than any other casino from New Jersey to West Virginia, including those in Atlantic City.
And now it has added table games such as blackjack, roulette and baccarat, taking a big step toward becoming the Mid-Atlantic's dominant full-scale casino.
It marks the payoff on a $500 million-plus bet David Cordish and his Cordish Cos. placed on the expanding appetite for and acceptance of gambling by Marylanders. As slot machines clinked incessantly nearby on Wednesday evening, Cordish threw a ceremonial first roll of the dice at a craps table in the company of Baltimore-born actress Stacy Keibler and others.
Cordish said Wednesday night that the casino had delivered on his vision "100 percent."
"Not 99 percent," he said. "We got all the way there. It feels great."
Dealers were brought in from across the country, part of an influx of 1,200 hires that doubled the casino's employment.
The 122 tables opening Thursday are spread throughout the 160,000-square-foot gaming floor, lining the aisles and lending a more open and sophisticated feel to the casino. They will be joined this summer by a separate, two-story poker room boasting an additional 50 to 60 tables.
"We're confident that when we get that going, there's going to be no better place, certainly in the region and hardly anywhere, to have a full gaming experience," said Joe Weinberg, a Cordish Cos. partner and president of the gaming operation. "Pairing the shopping and the amenities we have, there's nothing like it in the rest of the country. Consumers have proven that so far with slots play, and we expect that to translate to tables."
On Wednesday night, dealers took their seats more than an hour before the tables were set to open and began shuffling cards from the 118,000 decks the casino purchased to prepare for the opening. Some worked under the tutelage of pit bosses to spread the cards in a "U" shape on the baccarat table. Over at the black jack tables, dealers invited those waiting to take a seat. Talk turned to hometowns and favorite gambling spots as even novice dealers worked to make gamers feel comfortable — and more likely to stay for another hand, or flip over a hefty tip.
Bill Bell, of Halethorpe, sat with his son Billy awaiting the chance to ante up and be dealt the first hand of black jack. Not an avid gambler, he had been to Atlantic City only a few times and had been anticipating the chance to play closer to home.
"You don't have to make a big trip out of it," he said. "You can just go play, enjoy and relax whenever you have a bit of free time."
Thousands of people had filtered into the casino with 15 minutes to go before the tables were set to open. A voice over the loudspeaker counted down the final seconds and, after a brief smattering of applause, players set their money on the table and asked for their share of chips.
While Maryland Live is the second of the state's three casinos to open table games, it has a huge head start on what will become its real competition. Caesars Entertainment only recently began work on its planned Horseshoe casino, scheduled to open in Baltimore next year, and a Prince George's casino cannot open until 2016.
"Bring 'em on," Cordish said of future competition. "They're worthy adversaries, but everything we've done is first in class."
Maryland Live has a great advantage over those adversaries, said James Karmel, a gambling analyst and associate professor of history at Harford Community College. "To be up and running and establishing a customer base while there's still an open market, that makes a huge difference."
Hollywood Casino in Perryville became the first to take advantage of expanded gaming, approved by Maryland voters in the November election, when it opened 20 tables March 5. Its tables brought in $1.5 million last month as the casino located off Interstate 95 snared many who had been leaving the state to play. Hollywood also brought in $8 million in slots revenue, a significant boost after several months of bringing in between $5 million and $6 million.
Maryland Live officials expect a similar boost, but the real payoff could come from the poker room.
Thousands of poker players have yearned for a place to play against live competition in Maryland. Tired of driving to Delaware Park or Charles Town, W.Va. — only to join games populated by people from White Marsh or Rosedale or Towson — they rejoiced when Perryville opened its small operation last month. Still, players expect Maryland Live to become the center of a booming business in Maryland, said Brian Bohlayer, a teacher in Baltimore County who runs a website that monitors poker play in the state.
"They haven't released a lot of details, but what they've said makes it seem like it is going to be one of the best places to play not just in the area but on the East Coast," he said. "The possibilities are really sort of incredible."
Maryland Live has already made its mark in slots. In February, it generated about $8 million more in slots money than Parx Casino in Philadelphia, the Mid-Atlantic's second-largest slots casino.
While more labor-intensive, table games promise more payoff for Cordish since they are taxed at only 20 percent, while 67 percent of slots revenue goes to the state. Cordish officials have complained about the slots rate in the past, but Weinberg said the current situation is sustainable.
Out-of-state competitors are not standing still. Operators in Atlantic City, still the nation's second-largest casino market when measured by gross revenue, have bankrolled a major marketing push that includes advertising in the Baltimore area. The proliferation of casinos has forced the city to try to change its image, said Liza Cartmell, the CEO of the Atlantic City Alliance.
"We lost our monopoly long ago, and we realize gamers can take shorter trips if they just want to play," she said. "We're trying to show that we've got more of a broad-based spectrum of attractions, and that this is where people can come if they want to get away for a day or two."
Slots revenue at the Hollywood casino in Charles Town, W.Va., has dropped 15 percent since Maryland Live opened, a smaller decrease than the Penn National-owned casino had predicted, said Al Britton, the casino's general manager.
He does not expect a deep dive in revenue due to new competition from tables at Maryland Live. Hollywood has the advantage of veteran dealers, smoking and non-smoking areas, a wider variety of games and easier access from the highway, Skinner said.
"The traffic getting to Maryland Live is difficult, which is putting it lightly, and it hasn't gotten better," he said.
Maryland Live officials, too, are planning for a more crowded casino market. Cordish Cos. is "pretty far down the line on design" of a new hotel near Maryland Live, though it has set no timetable for building it, Weinberg said.
Of the 700 new employees brought in to deal table games, 500 came from the local dealer school run by Maryland Live. They've been mentored by the 200 experienced dealers lured from other casinos.
"Getting in on the ground floor, it's the sort of opportunity I've been looking for," said Maggie Neiss, who trained at the school and worked the table where Cordish made his roll.
The 23-year-old Glen Burnie resident hopes to make a career of dealing after working as a waitress at a Cheesecake Factory.
Table games do increase the risk for problem gambling, said Sam Skolnik, author of the book "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction."
"It's very easy to not consider the various social costs of increased gaming," said Skolnik, who began investigating the impact of gambling expansion as a reporter in Seattle.
Skolnik, who now lives in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., said he expects to see an increase in addiction and subsequent difficulties for problem gamblers who rack up debt, show up late to work and abuse or ignore family members.
Table games, he said, attract "action" gamers — rather than "escape" gamblers playing slots — who believe they can beat the house or fellow players by studying poker and blackjack.
"For 99 percent of them, that's not the case," Skolnik said. "And for a small percentage of them, there can be very, very bad consequences. Maryland has set aside money for problem gaming, and yes, the state is getting revenue for schools. But it's very rare that anyone takes an honest look at the impact of making it so easy to gamble."
Doug Walker, a professor of economics at the College of Charleston who has studied gambling, said academic research on the impact of casinos has been largely inconclusive. While the tax benefits to individual states probably are overstated, he said, the positive impact on the job market and tourism cannot be ignored.
"In Maryland's case, with casinos already there, the biggest impact of adding table games is for the consumer," he said. "They don't have to drive so far anymore."
A previous version of this article misidentified the general manager of the Hollywood casino in Charles Town, W.Va. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.