Maryland's largest casino bets heavily on Asian community

Rising at the center of the sprawling casino floor at Maryland Live at Arundel Mills — a prime piece of money-making real estate, if there ever was one — aren't shiny new slot machines or table games.

Instead, an Asian-themed eatery is being constructed for chefs to begin serving up dim sum and wok-fried noodles in clear view of an 80-person seating area.

The new addition, which replaces a tiny noodle bar that's been slammed by demand for months, is just one example of how Maryland Live is placing a heavy bet on catering to Maryland's growing Asian population.

"We had it as part of our plans to integrate with the Asian community, among others, when we first opened" in 2012, said Rob Norton, the casino's president and general manager. "But the introduction of live-action baccarat has definitely increased the level of interest."

The casino's Asian clientele exploded after the introduction of table games in March, helping Maryland Live become one of the top-performing table-game venues on the East Coast, Norton said.

Cultural traditions of gambling — watching for signs of luck and prosperity in numbers and small victories — run deep in many Asian communities, Norton said.

"I think it's cultural," said Lawrence Chang, president of the Columbia-based Maryland Center for Foreign Investment, of the popularity casinos enjoy among Asians and Asian-Americans. "Gambling is really big in Asian countries. For Chinese and Vietnamese in particular, I think it's a way of testing their luck, their superstitions," he said.

That's why the card game baccarat is so popular with Asian gamblers — it's based more on luck than skill, Chang said.

Chang isn't a gambler himself but has hosted networking events at the Arundel Mills casino. And when Cordish Cos. was developing the project, he worked with the company to bring in foreign investors.

With such broad interest from the Asian community, Maryland Live wanted to be sure to go big for the Lunar New Year last weekend and will continue to find new ways to engage with the community, Norton said.

For the Lunar New Year celebration, red lion dancers wriggled along the casino floor, interacting with Asian gamers looking for a little luck and extra prosperity.

At both 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. today, famed Hong Kong singer Johnny Ip Chun Tong will perform at Rams Head Center Stage, the Arundel Mills casino's music venue.

"There's been a nice response," Norton said of the casino's string of events this past week to celebrate the Asian holiday.

With gambling rapidly expanding in the United States and gambling markets becoming increasingly saturated, casino officials at Maryland Live and other venues around the country are constantly on the lookout for ways to draw in new and growing demographics, Norton said.

Maryland Live has programs geared toward the Hispanic population, for African Americans and for other niche and minority groups. But going after the Asian market, especially in states like Maryland where the Asian population is expanding rapidly, is considered casino outreach 101, Norton said.

"Awareness of the Asian customer base in the casino is not just a Maryland Live phenomenon, it's an industry-wide standard," he said.

Maryland Live is working hard to connect with that base before two large new casinos open in the state. Caesars Entertainment Corp.'s Horseshoe Casino is set to open later this year in Baltimore, and MGM Resorts International just won a license to open a casino south of Washington in 2016.

In promoting its ability to draw strong revenues for Maryland, MGM cited its presence in the Asian casino destination of Macau and its contacts throughout Asia.

In addition to Maryland Live's baccarat tables, Asian players also like blackjack, Norton said. The casino also offers more traditional Asian games like Sic Bo, Pai Gow and Pai Gow poker, he said.

According to U.S. census data, Maryland's Asian population grew by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2010, from about 211,000 to nearly 319,000. Hundreds of thousands more Asians live within easy driving distance of Maryland Live in neighboring states and Washington.

Maryland Live's website is available in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. It advertises in those languages in niche newspapers and specialty publications to attract Asian gamblers and shore up their patronage ahead of coming competition.

The casino offers translators and "hosts" to its Asian clients, and puts all of its staff through "Asian cultural awareness training," Norton said.

"We try to explain and educate our team members who may not be well-versed on the cultural differences through their day-to-day lives, on what those differences may be and how to interpret them and how to handle them," Norton said.

When handing an Asian customer a business card, for example, the custom is to do so with both hands, Norton said.

"It's a small thing, but it's a sign of respect," he said.

A majority of Maryland Live's Asian players are first- and second-generation Asian-Americans from Maryland and surrounding states, but the casino also draws foreign tourists, Norton said. He declined to say what percentage of Maryland Live revenue is attributable to Asian players. The casino generated more than $586 million in revenue in 2013.

Some researchers, such as Donald Black, a psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa, have conducted studies showing that problem gambling can pass through families just as traditions of luck and chance can, which raises concerns. Maryland has a program that allows individuals to place themselves on a list that bans them from playing in the state and serves as an extra barrier of red tape between them and an undesired urge to play.

Many in the Asian-American community say gambling is no new threat, but a tradition rooted in the culture of their native countries, where games of chance and a belief in luck and fortune have a long history. Certain numbers and colors can be deemed lucky or unlucky, for example, making a casino the ideal venue to test out such notions.

Bringing in Asian artists and DJs, such as Johnny Ip, also draws customers.

"There's been amazing entertainment — they'll bring in a famous DJ or musical performer from Korea," said Charley Sung, 38, an attorney who lives in Columbia and has attended Chang's networking events at Maryland Live.

Sung's wife, Heidi, 35, a stockbroker who now stays home with their two young sons, said the casino offers the kind of night life experience that seems familiar to Asian Americans.

"You get a table, you order drinks — it's like the Asian clubbing style," she said of the networking parties. "You get vouchers that you can use for the slots, and it's fun."

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