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Massachusetts gaming regulators urge casinos to open more poker tables

Dealer Omar Abu-Eid adjusts a stack of chips before the first day of the World Series of Poker's main event in Las Vegas last July. Humans still reign in most versions of poker. Whew.
John Locher
Dealer Omar Abu-Eid adjusts a stack of chips before the first day of the World Series of Poker's main event in Las Vegas last July. Humans still reign in most versions of poker. Whew.

Gaming commissioners hearing from the public about access to poker games

It appears the casinos in Massachusetts are holding pat when it comes to poker despite prodding from regulators.

Massachusetts’ casinos took in a total of $93 million in gross gambling revenue in June, according to a report from the state’s Gaming Commission. A pretty good haul considering gambling capacity at the casinos is not back to pre-pandemic levels.

The gross take at MGM Springfield in June was $21.1 million from 1,527 slot machines, 48 table games, and 14 poker tables. When the casino opened in 2018 it had 2,500 slot machines, 93 table games, and 23 poker tables.

It’s poker that has been the focus recently of casino regulators, who say they’ve heard complaints from players—and it’s not the first time.

Before the pandemic forced the casinos to close in March 2020, MGM and Encore Boston Harbor had 95 poker tables combined that were available 24-7. When the casinos reopened during the summer of 2020 neither offered poker initially. The state’s third casino, Plainridge Park, is licensed only for slot machines.

Following public complaints to the Gaming Commission, MGM reopened its poker room in October 2021. It operates daily from 10 a.m.-3 a.m. Encore did not reintroduce poker until last January and also does not offer it daily around the clock as it once did.

With just 29 poker tables between the two casinos there is not enough access to the popular game, said Gaming Commissioner Brad Hill.

“I’m still concerned that when we look at it statewide, how many poker tables we actually have going…for the entire state, seems very very small to me,” he said. “I hope that we’re sending the message loud and clear to our licensees that, at least as one commissioner, I would ike to see those numbers continue to rise when possible. I think our constituents and the citizens of Massachusetts would like to be able to do a little bit more poker-playing at these facilities than they’re being allowed to now.”

Encore is getting ready to expand the hours for poker, said Burke Cain, assistant chief gaming agent with the MGC.

“I didn’t want to steal their thunder, but I think it’s forthcoming in a very short period of time. It’s going to be expanded to some weekend hours and little bit longer hours, I understand,” he said.

MGM did not respond to an inquiry from WAMC about its poker plans at the Springfield casino.

Given the continued complaints from the public, Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein suggested last week the casino operators should come prepared to discuss poker issues when they present their quarterly reports in August.

“I received, just over the weekend, another inquiry, somebody who found me via social media, a very polite message again inquiring about when poker would be expanding at Encore,” she said. “That’s just anecdotal, but we do receive many, many inquiries … about the need for expanded access.”

Although popular with players, poker is not very profitable for casinos. Unlike slot machines and table games where gamblers bet against the casino and face long odds of winning, in poker the casinos collect just a percentage of the pot in each poker hand as a fee for hosting the card game.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.