Opening of Maryland casino brings early crowd

When Mike Lee heard that the Hollywood Casino Perryville was opening Monday morning, a few days ahead of schedule, he scratched his plans for golf and headed for the slot machines.

The casino opened its doors to the public at 8 a.m. - beginning a new chapter in Maryland gambling - and Lee was the first of about 35 people in line. "I could have played golf in the rain. This seemed a little more entertaining," said the 59-year-old retiree from Havre de Grace.

Within an hour, nearly 200 people had braved a steady rain to get a peek at the new casino, the first of the five planned in Maryland to open. The casino got a test run Saturday with a group of about 1,400 invited guests, and that event went so well that the public opening was moved up to Monday.

Even though news of the public opening was passed mainly through news reports Sunday and phone calls among friends, the crowds grew during the day. By midafternoon, the valet parking area was at capacity. Casino officials did not release statistics on the amount of money wagered or Monday's attendance.

Lee and other gamblers were curious to see how the Perryville slots parlor would compare with competitors in Delaware, West Virginia and other nearby states. Many were upbeat, though the lack of table games in Maryland sparked some criticism.

Brad Turner of Perryville said the new casino was similar to others he has visited, and he expected to return about once a week. The 58-year-old former plumber was already off to a good start — he came with $100 and doubled his money in less than an hour. But his bad back started acting up, so he headed home with his winnings and a half-eaten bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

Michele Roberts of Bel Air liked the freshness of the new building — she said the Delaware Park casino smells of cigarette smoke. Still, she and her husband, Al, expected to return to the Delaware casino because it offers table games such as blackjack.

Regular casino patrons were weighing the costs and benefits of the Perryville location, just west of Interstate 95, off Route 222. For those driving north from Baltimore, the casino's exit off I-95 is just after the $5 toll booths at Perryville.

Janice Mears, who lives near Delaware Park, said the Maryland casino was smaller — and the drinks were more expensive. Sipping a $5 bottle of Michelob Ultra, she said, "At Charles Town the drinks are free; at Dover they're $1."

She and her boyfriend, Jerry Bathory of Edgemere, like to play roulette at Delaware Park but said they might return to Perryville occasionally. "We like to switch it up," he said.

Georgia Nunley of Northeast is likely to be a regular customer. She usually plays at Delaware Park or at the local VFW hall, where she is in the ladies' auxiliary.

Monday, she left her house at 5:30 a.m., stopped at an ATM , drove to Perryville and waited in her car after arriving at 6:15 a.m. The 65-year-old carried her camera to take pictures of the big day.

"I've been waiting a long time for" slots, she said.

Nunley remembered playing the nickel machines in Southern Maryland with her father years ago. The state prohibited legalized gambling in 1968. According to Baltimore Sun articles at the time, players marked the end that July by paying a final visit to machines along the strip that stretched from Waldorf to the Potomac River bridge.

Two hours after he entered the Perryville casino, Lee, the first person in line, was down $45.25. That's about what he would have spent for golf — but he "would have gotten four hours out of golf," he said.

Lee said he was likely to return with his wife, because she was curious. But he didn't join the player loyalty rewards club, even though another gambler had won $5,000 within the first hour.

"I have some advanced math skills, and I know the probability of my winning," Lee said.