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Reviews in on table games

By Staff | Jul 23, 2010

Charles Town Races & Slots patrons line up in the pit area to try out new table games options, just added to the facility this month. Chronicle photo by Michael Theis

Table games are up and running at the Charles Town Races new Hollywood Casino, but some customers are complaining that there aren’t enough dealers to go around. Poker players have been particularly vocal about the issue, issuing comments on a variety of gambling themed internet message boards and blogs. Officials at the track have acknowledged that a slower-than-expected licensing procedure and a large public response to the opening of table games have put stresses on the new table games operation.

“It’s been very successful from a demand perspective,” said Al Britton, general manager of the racino in a telephone interview on July 12. “One of the things we were challenged with was getting the full amount of folks, dealers and supervisors especially . . . We would have liked to have more of those folks available for the opening of games.”

Employees involved in gambling operations, from dealers to pit bosses to security, are required to be licensed by West Virginia Lottery. By July 21 the West Virginia Lottery – which regulates slot machines, table games and retail lottery ticket sales – had awarded over 700 licenses. The Hollywood Casino also wasn’t the only facility in the state with employees renewing or obtaining licenses, as West Virginia Lottery also renews licenses annually for all casinos and race tracks at the start of the fiscal year in early July.

“It’s certainly not true that the Lottery is delaying everything,” said Nancy Bulla, spokersperson for West Virginia Lottery. “For their part, [Hollywood Casino] wanted to push for the July Fourth weekend. It just means that doing it sooner rather than later means they had to open gradually so they can give something to the public sooner than later.”

Big crowds,

long lines

Customers are giving the newly opened casino mixed reviews. John Sawyer, an administrative assistant from Herndon with eight years of casino poker experience has been to Hollywood Casino four times. Since table gaming first came for a vote in 2007, he’s been an active participant in discussions about the casino on an internet poker forum called Two Plus Two. In light of long lines at the poker room, he maintains a positive outlook for the casino. “I know the position they are in. I’ve worked retail and done store openings. I can see it through their eyes. There’s not some grand conspiracy to deny people poker tables,” said Sawyer in a phone interview. ” . . . [T]he manager of that poker room, honestly, is getting a lot of flack for things that aren’t in their control.”

Sawyer says track employees are doing a good job with customer service, taking time to speak with customers as much as they can. “As long as you keep people knowing what’s going on, they feel much better about what’s happening. If they are kept in the dark, they start making up stuff.”

Sawyer also suggested that the West Virginia Lottery issue temporary licenses for employees awaiting the results of their licensing background check, a practice which he says is common in other regulated gambling jurisdictions. West Virginia Lottery has issued some temporary licenses to management personnel awaiting the results of an extensive, 66-page financial background check and other applicants for whom financial reviews of tax histories are pending.

Sawyer also notes advertising for the casino is partly to blame for the demand falling short of expectations. “Maybe they made a couple of mistakes by claiming that everything would be up and running,” said Sawyer. Radio advertisements for the table games at Charles Town proudly announce 27 poker tables and 85 carnival game tables (roulette, pai-gow poker), numbers which he says are not consistently available. The ads themselves announce this, but in a rapidly pronounced disclaimer at the end of the commercial.

James Grove, a 39-year-old satellite technician from Summit Point and a poker player who makes occasional trips to Atlantic City, says he was initially opposed to the idea of table games at the Charles Town Races, fearful that an influx of gambling oriented tourism would clog local roads and drive up crime rates. “So far, I think I was wrong,” writes Grove in an email to the Chronicle. “Traffic seems to be okay, even with the extra people coming into town. And I have had a couple of very enjoyable nights at the Casino.”

Grove and his wife went to the casino on the second night after the premier of table games to get a feel for the poker operation. A week later, on a Friday, he went to play. Arriving at 2 p.m., he encountered a line of people about 60 deep, and was not seated until about 6 p.m. “I must say the tables and chairs are very nice, dealers made a couple of minor mistakes, but all in all kept the pace of play going nicely . . . The only negative thing I can say about it was that the $6 rake every half hour . . . that needs to be changed.”

Grove writes that he played for about five hours, and wound up walking out of the casino ahead $320. He reports it was “pretty easy, with the huge amount of bad players that were there. There is a lot of money to be made there right now for good card players.” He also anticipates visiting the casino once a week, after the kinks are worked out of the operation.

Loudoun County resident Scott Tomkins, a casino poker player for 10 years, gives the Hollywood Casino a conditional thumbs up. “Standing in line and waiting hours for a seat is never a fun thing. That said . . . I have been very impressed with the floor staff and the dealers, especially considering that for many of them this is new.” wrote Tomkins in an e-mail to the Chronicle. “Are the limits at the table games downstairs obscenely high? Yes. But there are still lines for people waiting to sit down. Until everything is open, I suggest those looking to play blackjack at a reasonable minimum be patient and wait a few weeks.”

Considering Charles Town’s proximity to the Washington Metro area, Tomkins sees a lot of potential for the casino, specifically the poker room. “I can see the cash games . . . and large tournaments coming to the area, bringing in people from all over,” writes Tomkins, adding “if management does them right.”

Down in the pit

Dee Mara, Director of Marketing for the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, has overseen the re-branding of the facility from the Charles Town Races and Slots to the current “Hollywood” nameplate.

Mara explains that it is the casino’s goal to provide all customers with “red carpet” service. It’s an extension of Penn National’s “Hollywood” branding of the casino. In fact, 11 of Penn National’s properties use the same branding, ensuring a continuity of experience across a large swath of PNG’s operations. “We’re looking for folks who can deliver that red carpet service every day,” says Mara. “Maintaining that is important; it’s the subject of many of our daily employee focus sessions.”

Walking through the massive slots floor last Saturday on the way to the main table game pit, Mara points out some of the new amenities offered at the casino. There’s Zen Noodle, a food-court style restaurant featuring Asian-themed cuisine. It’s a Penn National original concept, she says over the din of the slot machines. Then, as we round a corner, a massive serpentine plasma video board comes into view high above us. We have arrived at the main pit, 25 tables of black jack, roulette, craps and other carnival games neatly arranged in front of the valet entrance. To the rear is the video board, showing current movie trailers on a loop. The crowd is packed in here, clustered around spinning roulette wheels and blackjack tables, each manned by a focused dealer, themselves watched over by a squadron of pit bosses who carefully dote upon every game in rotation.

Down in the pit, intently observing a roulette table, Fredericksburg, Va., resident Dennis Toombs says he is here with his son and some friends on what he calls a “man’s night out.” It’s the tenth time he has come to slots, and now table games. “I enjoy it every time.” Today he is making just a day trip. When asked if he has spent time or money at other local businesses he says no. “We usually just drive straight here and back.” He has stayed overnight in the past, but reports he rarely ventures off the casino grounds when he does visit Charles Town.

Mara then leads the way to the poker room, hidden away in a dimly lit hallway beneath the track grandstand, almost separate from the rest of the casino operations. The poker area was once a horse wagering parlor, and old race trophies still grace the walls. Carpet covers the gaming area, but otherwise the room is outfitted in drab linoleum tile and fluorescent lighting. A tense atmosphere fills the room, as does a long line of frustrated poker players waiting to get a seat at a table. “Poker players are more intense than your average gambler,” says Mara as a pair of players descend a staircase discussing tips and strategy.

There is no red carpet for those waiting in the long, winding, poker line. One customer, a woman from Washington D.C., dressed in black, notices Mara walking with a reporter and begins to offer her opinions. “I don’t understand why it’s open when it’s so disorganized. Why did you open when you weren’t ready to go?” Another customer standing in line behind her, Geoffery Coehn, also from Washington, D.C., says simply “It’s terrible.” Mara apologizes to the customers as best she can.

Later, after leaving the poker room, Mara says that this opening has been challenging. With 12 years experience working in casino marketing, this is not the first casino Mara has opened. She also opened Greektown Casino in Detroit back in 2000. She says the opening of the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races has been more difficult because of a very large demand for table gaming in Northern Virginia and Mid-Maryland. When the Greektown opened, there were already three other casinos in Detroit, satiating the demand stresses that are currently overwhelming some areas of Hollywood Casino’s operations. “The Washington market, which we are trying to attract, is very large and very under served,” says Mara. “We all know there will be growing pains.”