New poker room at Maryland Live generates crowds and buzz

August 28, 2013

John Hannigan didn’t wake up Wednesday to dreams of pocket aces. But he did have poker on the brain before daybreak.

Hannigan, a restaurant worker from Bowie, wanted so badly to become one of the first people to play in Maryland Live Casino’s shiny new card room that he showed up at 3 a.m. — nine hours ahead of its public opening.

“Everybody’s been talking about it,” he said at the front of the line, an hour before casino officials said the words he’d been waiting all morning to hear: “Shuffle up and deal.”

As it turned out, Hannigan missed the announcement. He stepped out of the split-level, 52-table room for a smoke just before noon and missed his first hand in the state-of-the-art room that has poker players around the region buzzing.

Maryland’s largest casino — at the Arundel Mills mall in Hanover — spent about $20 million to build, equip and staff the 24-hour poker room.

By noon, the line to get in was hundreds of people long. By 1 p.m., with 160 players seated, more than 1,000 people were waiting to get in on the action in the 520-player room.

“We’re makin’ history,” said Rick Baker, who made the drive from Alexandria and wound up at Hannigan’s table, where they played no-limit Texas hold’em with $1 and $2 blinds (mandatory bets) and a minimum buy-in of $100 ($300 maximum).

Baker, who owns a water-treatment company, said he had been playing poker “a few years.” Meaning? “Forty, maybe more,” he said. “I really enjoy the game.”

He was thrilled to be able to play less than an hour from home and said he probably wouldn’t return to other places he’s played, including Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va., and the Borgata in Atlantic City. “I see no reason to,” he said.

Many of the first players Wednesday said they were regulars — or semi-regulars — at other casinos in the region: Charles Town, Delaware Park and Hollywood Casino in Perryville, which began offering Maryland’s first casino poker games in March. But that appeared likely to change as poker players declared that they planned to log significant hours at Maryland Live.

The size of the room (one of the largest on the East Coast); the amenities (phone chargers built into the table legs, masseuses wandering the room and safety deposit boxes for high-stakes players); and the critical mass (the casino is between Baltimore and Washington) were just too appealing, players said.

“This is going to be my base,” said Jeremy McLaughlin, a professional poker player from Capitol Hill. “The action is going to be incredible. ”

See previous stories in an occasional series exploring the changing casino industry and gambling culture in Maryland.

McLaughlin won an online contest to play at the first table Wednesday. (A limited number of players participated in a controlled demonstration for state regulators Monday.)

The chosen 10 jumped the line and bought in for $200 or $300 each for the kick-off game: $1-$2 no-limit hold’em. Before the first hand, the players discussed whether to check it down, meaning no raises, no folds, no real action.

Mike Stein, a software engineer from Virginia, put the kibosh on that plan. “I’m going to play honestly; sorry, but I’m going to be that guy,” he said. There was a good reason to play the hand, Stein said. The casino already had slots and, as of April, live-action table games. “But we’ve all been waiting for poker,” he said. “And poker is different. It’s a strategy game.”

Luck plays a part, though: On the very first hand, with casino executives looking on and cameras recording the action, nine players saw the flop (the first three community cards): the 4, 5 and 6 of diamonds.

“Did you shuffle?” McLaughlin joked to the dealer. The table laughed.

Matt Portnoy, a scientist from North Potomac, bet $8 and Stein raised to $32. Amanda Pasko, who lives about a mile from Maryland Live, called the $32. The turn — the fourth community card — was the queen of clubs. Stein bet $65. Pasko called.

The river — the fifth and final community card — was the seven of hearts. Stein bet, Pasko folded, and Stein turned over the eight and nine of diamonds. He’d flopped a nine-high flush with a straight flush redraw. (If your eyes are glazing over, reader, just know that’s a good thing.) Soon Stein was dragging all the chips into his pile.

When other games began to open, Stein moved to a $2-$5 no-limit hold’em table, then to Maryland Live’s first-ever $5-$10 no-limit game, then to the first $10-$25 no-limit game, which had a minimum $1,000 buy-in.

“We think the room will appeal to everybody from the casual player to the really serious professional poker player,” said Joe Weinberg, managing partner for Maryland Live’s owner, Cordish Cos. “We built it to be a real destination facility that will draw players from the area, the East Coast and beyond.”

Even before it opened, the state’s most famous poker pro was lauding Maryland Live’s new 14,800-square-foot addition. “It has a feel that’s really elite amongst poker rooms in the U.S.,” said Greg Merson, the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event winner, who grew up 15 minutes away from the casino, in Laurel.

Poker is expected to generate more than $1 million a month in gross revenue for the casino— relatively small stakes for a property that’s raked in more than $50 million in gambling revenue in each of the past three months.

It represents the final addition to Maryland Live’s gambling menu since the state’s voters approved a major gambling-expansion referendum last November. But that doesn’t mean the property is complete. The casino’s owners “are looking at a hotel and convention space” to attach to the casino “with additional restaurants,” Weinberg said. Those projects are in the early planning stages.

For now, the focus is on the new poker room, which had all 52 tables in operation by early Wednesday evening.

“Attention players,” a hostess announced. “Brand new one-two on Table 24. Jason C., Christa S., Michael P., Stephen W. … Table 24.”

“Chips on 18,” a dealer shouted.

“Seat open on Table 20,” a player declared.

Outside the poker room, the line snaked across the casino floor, past slots, past the high-stakes room, past the craps pit, nearly to the buffet on the other side of the property.

The sight of it made Rob Norton, the casino’s president and general manager, smile.

“Everybody can get on the waitlist today,” Norton said. “I just don’t know if they’ll get a seat.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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