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."
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.
Center Stage will be Maryland Live's "main vehicle" for bringing in younger consumers, according to Mario Maesano, vice president of marketing for Maryland Live. He says the venue will host theme nights, DJ sets and local cover bands seven days a week starting in August. There are plans to feature national headlining acts one or two times a month, as well. "We're looking hard for '80s and '90s acts, as well as classic rock and hard-rock acts," Maesano said.
Mark Mangold, talent buyer for Rams Head Center Stage, says the 500-person capacity Center Stage cannot accomodate many of the A-list acts Atlantic City typically gets. The Borgata, a $1.1 billion resort with a 161,000 square-foot casino floor, has hosted concerts by Pearl Jam and Kelly Clarkson in its 2,400-seat Event Center. "We're open to anything and we're not targeting any [demographic] specifically," Mangold said. "But with the size of the space, it's not going to be the Borgata."
That puts more pressure on its other services to draw in younger crowds. It could also highlight the casino's lack of table games. Experts agree table games play a role in driving young people to new casinos, but they're hesistant to say exactly how much.
David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says table games are "somewhat important" because they drive in the type of customer who's going to spend more time gambling. But he says slots are now catering to younger crowds.
"If you look, a lot of the games' themes skew a lot younger, like 'The Hangover' and 'Lord of the Rings,'" Schwartz said. "You're not going to see a lot of people in their 20s playing [the classic] Red, White and Blue slot machines."
Table games could add 10-20 percent total gaming win, based on the experiences of other states, including Pennsylvania and Delaware, according to Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. But could table games draw droves of young people to Maryland casinos?
"Having table games creates [a] much better atmosphere than slots-only casinos, but it's hard to say that it could be substantially transformative in attracting a younger clientele," Eadington wrote in an email.
Norton is confident Maryland Live's "e-games" — which he says use the same card decks, dice, roulette wheels and more that you'd find at live games, just electronically — will change the minds of skeptics.
"Anybody that comes here that wants to play a traditional craps or blackjack game is going to see the excitement they're used to having," he said. "It just won't be in the same form. Some people will love that and [for] some people, it will take some time to grow to love it."
Cheryl Johnson, a 24-year-old from Mount Washington, may fall in the latter. She typically travels to Atlantic City once per year and twice per year to Delaware Park to gamble. She's never been to a Maryland casino, but that will likely change when Maryland Live opens.
"I've never really played anything but table games, so I wouldn't know what to do with the slot machines," Johnson said. "But I'm not opposed. When things like this open up, I'm definitely trying to check it out. There's nothing like that around here."
If you go
Maryland Live is the state's newest casino, but Perryville's Hollywood Casino and Berlin's Ocean Downs came first, both in late 2010. Here's a look at Maryland's three operating casinos:
Maryland Live Casino
Hours: 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-4 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Games to play: There are currently about 3,200 slots and electronic table games.
Getting there: About 14 miles and a 25-minute drive from Baltimore.
Information: 7200 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover. Call 443-842-7000 or go to marylandlivecasino.com.
Hollywood Casino Perryville
Hours: 8 a.m.-2 a.m., Sundays through Thursdays; 8 a.m.-4 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays
Games to play: There are 1,500 slot machines on the floor.
Getting there: About 40 miles and a 50-minute drive from Baltimore.
Information: 1201 Chesapeake Overlook Parkway, Perryville. Call 410-378-8500 or go to hollywoodcasinoperryville.com.
Hours: 8 a.m.-2 a.m., five days per week and until 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Games to play: There are electronic table games and 800 slot machines, ranging form penny to $25 plays.
Getting there: About 130 miles and a three-hour drive from Baltimore.
Information: 10218 Racetrack Road in Berlin. Call 410-641-0600 or go to oceandowns.com.