By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
I love gambling. Where others see dollars going up in smoke, I see opportunity. At Philadelphia Park Casino and Racetrack in Bensalem, Pa., I saw opportunity -- 2,300 blinking, ringing slot machines and electronic table games and a full race card -- and smoke. A distressing number of patrons sucked on cigarettes as they pulled levers, pushed buttons and muttered to the machines in front of them.
Time was, mid-Atlantic gamblers had to rally to Atlantic City for a gaming fix. But as the slot wildfire continues to spread -- Pennsylvania is among 37 slot-legal states, including Delaware and West Virginia -- casino owners in A.C. are tugging at their ties with perceptibly more anxiety.
Me, I'm a cards-and-craps guy -- I love the action of a live table -- and this Philly parlor is slots and ponies only (no live dealers, dice men or real cards). But it's also only about 150 miles from the District (compared with about 190 miles for A.C.), and I was curious to see how the region's newest slots-only casino stacked up.
Revenue for all Atlantic City casinos dropped 2.3 percent in July compared with a year ago and is down roughly 3.5 percent for the first seven months of 2007, said John Rynkiewicz, an industry consultant with Morowitz Gaming Advisors. Slots revenue in A.C. was down 5.1 percent in July compared with a year ago. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Park casino revenue is steadily rising, now hitting about $6 million from the slots every week, said Darlene Monzo, vice president of marketing for the casino.
There's "no doubt" the Pennsylvania slots parlors are affecting Atlantic City, Rynkiewicz said, but other factors are also in play, including a smoking ban in A.C. casinos that took effect April 15. (A disproportionate number of gamblers appear to enjoy smoking, prompting this post I spotted on an online gaming forum: "[N]o need to bring your smokes to Philly Park. Just sit anywhere and inhale.")
But Rynkiewicz said Atlantic City will thrive in the long run as the city adds more Vegas-esque fine dining, hotel towers, upscale retail and live entertainment. Pennsylvania could eventually compete in those areas, too: With a major budget shortfall, there is serious talk among some lawmakers of legislation that would legalize table games, and full-blown casinos would provide firmer footing for creating the destination gambling allure that brings people to Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
On an recent Sunday, Philadelphia Park, about 18 miles northeast of the city, drew a diverse crowd: Adjacent to the horse track, on a grassy picnic area complete with umbrella-topped tables, shelters and a small playground, people of all ages lounged about, studying racing forms, tending grills, swilling beer and crawling around in diapers. Hard-core racing fans were well-represented, too, particularly near the betting desks, where banks of TVs showed action from tracks across the country. (Philly Park also takes off-track wagers.)
One leather-necked guy clutched a short stack of betting tickets as he directed imperatives at a television. "C'mon, Harry, let's go! Don't blow this, you got it, Harry! C'mon, Harry! HARRY! HAAAARRRRYYY!! You IDIOT!!"
The track opened in 1975 and, some fans told me, saw a significant spike in business when the casino opened in December.
Exhibits A and B: Peggy Bergman and her 91-year-old mother, Grace, from Blue Bell, Pa., whom I met in the glass-enclosed grandstand before the fourth race of the day.
Peggy, a seasoned casino gambler, said that she prefers Atlantic City for the live card dealers and the diversity of hotels and restaurants but that she nonetheless comes to Philadelphia Park occasionally because it's closer to her home, and she and her mom "can have a really nice day -- play a few races, play the slots and hit the buffet."
I settled into the casino and threw $5 into a slot machine. That lasted about 55 seconds (does opportunity have an opposite?), so I ambled toward the electronic table games, which from afar resembled real blackjack sessions: Players on comfortable bar stools ringed semi-circular tables, whooping, groaning and making the spastic gyrations typical of people betting money they can't technically afford to lose.
The perception was fairly accurate except that, instead of live dealers, each table was manned by a giant video screen projecting a life-size, super-sharp image of a dealer with a casino scene background. From a cleverly synchronized -- and endlessly repeating -- video loop, the dealers call for bets, smile, wink and glance around while a computer deals electronic cards. You play by punching buttons (bet, hit, stick, double down, etc.).
All of the gamblers around me, despite their enthusiasm, agreed that e-tables are no match for the real thing. "People want the human interaction, to handle the cards, play with their chips," one woman said.
"Besides," the man next to her added, "you'll never beat the computer."
I managed to make $20 last about 40 minutes (not bad, considering the minimum bet was $5), but in the end I couldn't find the "stop losing" button.
I spent another hour wandering the floor, holding my breath against the tobacco fog and thinking that Atlantic City has a pretty good shot at surviving the Philly Park threat.
Then again, as I was leaving, a live band fired up -- a lounge version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" -- and a small crowd started to build around the bar. A.C. it ain't, but the new kid sure is building street cred.
· Philadelphia Park Casino and Racetrack (3001 Street Rd., Bensalem, Pa.) is open 24-7. The track hosts races Saturday through Tuesday with simulcasts of off-track races seven days a week. Take Interstate 95 north to Exit 37 (Street Road/Route 132 west) and turn left onto Street Road. The complex is about three miles down on the right. Info: 215-639-9000, http://www.philadelphiapark.com).