Maryland Live Casino

A row of gambling machines at Maryland Live Casino, which celebrates its grand opening Wednesday. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / May 28, 2012)

Last month, David Tewell gathered a group of friends and headed north to Atlantic City's new Golden Nugget casino and resort for two nights of eating well, club-hopping and, of course, gambling. For the 27-year-old Annapolis resident, hitting the poker tables makes the three-hour trip up I-95 worth it.

"A successful Atlantic City trip is going out at night and playing poker during the day," Tewell said. "Nothing around Baltimore rivals it."

That may change tonight, with the grand opening of the roughly $500 million Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills Mall. The 330,000-square-foot casino, four years in the making, joins Perryville's Hollywood Casino and Berlin's Casino at Ocean Downs as the state's only casinos. (Two more are likely on the way: Harrah's in Baltimore and Evitts Resort in Allegany County.)

Maryland Live is the state's largest casino by far, with 3,200 slots and electronic games, including poker, roulette and blackjack. By year's end, Maryland Live plans to have 4,750 total machines operating. Electronic games are consoles hooked into video feeds of real-time card-deck deals, dice rolls and more.

The only hurdle for Tewell? There aren't human dealers manning the games — a practice currently prohibited by Maryland law. It's a minor difference to some, but to him and other fans of table games, it's a dealbreaker.

"Frankly, slots are for older people," he said. "It's not fun to me. Poker and table games really bring out more of a crowd I'm familiar with. Maryland Live is going to be enormous but until they get table games, I don't know how much I'll go."

This is one of Maryland Live's most daunting challenges: Young people might check out the new casino, but will they consistently choose it over Atlantic City, a relatively close tourist destination that's frequently expanding and renovating in order to appeal to new crowds?

Although Maryland Live boasts some of the amenities you'd expect to find at an Atlantic City resort — a celebrity-chef-owned eatery (Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace), the Rams Head Center Stage concert venue, which opens in August — its competition in New Jersey has table games which Maryland Live isn't permitted to have.

While Maryland Live's president and general manager, Robert J. Norton, acknowledges live table games "would help" draw a younger crowd, he says the majority of Live's clientele will be the 40-60-year-old demographic. Still, he's aware of the importance of getting potential customers such as Tewell through the doors now.

"You have to consider them in everything you do," Norton said.

Hollywood Casino's Marc Deleo, director of marketing, says the majority of its customers are 50 and older, and skew more female.

"Table games definitely bring a younger and more male-dominant demographic," Deleo said.

If Norton had his way, Maryland Live would have live table games. But for now, their prospects are uncertain.

On May 21, Gov. Martin O'Malley constructed an 11-member gambling task force to study gambling in Maryland and the possibilities of its expansion. The likelihood of permitting table games could be discussed by the General Assembly at a July 9 special session.

"I hate to project what will be discussed but I hope table games are discussed for the [existing] five locations only," Norton said.

Statistics on young gamblers are scarce-to-non-existant, but Jeff Vasser, president of Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, says the 21-35 demographic is a significant, growing portion of Atlantic City's clientele. The key, he says, was the opening of the Borgata resort nine years ago, which flipped the industry standard of catering toward older gamblers and instead drew younger crowds based on its entertainment and restaurants.

"Come to Atlantic City on a Saturday night and it's just dominated by that 20-30-year-old set," Vasser said. "They're here for the nightclubs, the restaurants and they love playing poker. We needed to introduce Atlantic City to that younger segment. That's our future and that's where we're headed."

The grand-opening of Revel, an Atlantic City resort that debuted this spring, featured a four-night Beyonce concert series that even first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters attended.

Maryland Live has a similar plan, with the hope its restaurants and entertainment options — including the R Bar, a flashy, interactive hang-out that highlights the gambling action around the floor — will attract younger customers.