Every gambler knows that when your luck goes south, you walk away. And so I walked, out of Rocky Gap Casino Resort, into the dense woods of Maryland’s Allegany County and around the 243-acre Lake Habeeb. I stayed on the move for nearly two hours, trying to shake Mistress Misfortune at some point along the 4.5-mile trail.
Unlike a certain amateur gambler (me), the 200-room property is seemingly touched by a dozen rabbits’ feet. It sits on the grounds of the 3,400-acre Rocky Gap State Park, inside a painterly landscape of emerald-green mountains and a cool drink of a lake. It stockpiles quality amenities, including an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course, boat and bike rentals, and a full-service spa. And on May 22, in its biggest coup, it became the fourth casino to open in Maryland and the state’s first gambling venue hyphenated with a resort.
To accommodate the new attraction, Rocky Gap converted its old event space into a casino floor with about 550 slot machines and 10 table games, including blackjack, roulette and craps. It installed black mirrors to create the illusion of space (and block out any natural light, so you won’t be tempted to go outdoors) and decorative glass panels appropriate for a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie house. The room glows an eerie brothel-red.
From the check-in counter, I could hear the come-hither call of the slots and see bright pops of lights. Security officials guarded the portal to this other world, but they’re more poodle than pit bull. Present a photo ID, and they step aside.
Unlike Vegas and Atlantic City, which ensnare guests in their vast web of games, the western Maryland casino isn’t pushy or pervasive. It hangs back in its designated corner of the resort, waiting for you to come to it. There’s no pressure to play, but you know that you will.
“We want it to have small-town casino feel,” one dealer said, “and we hope to keep it this way.”
Rocky Gap quickly put me at ease. First, I could breathe through my nose — no cigarette stench, thanks to a ban on smoking. I also had no need to carry flares; the straightforward layout, a rectangle with a few side rooms, allows for easy navigation. A Little Munch eatery (start the day right with a scone, Starbucks and video poker), for example, leads to the oval of game tables, which segues into the U-shaped bar. I discovered a happy zone toward the back, at the free beverage station. Hello, Mello Yello. (Warning to gamblers expecting free drinks: By law, the casino must charge for alcohol, but you can load up on pop and coffee gratis.)
Maryland legislators passed the law expanding gambling in August, and Rocky Gap high-jumped at the opportunity. It built the 24-hour casino in five months and trained the dealers, hired locally, in three. Because of the rush job, Baby Rocky Gap is still in its first-steps-and-stumbling phase.
“I’ll give it a few weeks before I make my prognosis,” said an employee at Lakeside Restaurant, which was remarkably busy on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. “There are still some quirks.”
In addition to the higher volume of hungry mouths, this staff member said that she noticed a shift in diners’ dispositions — sourer moods, she explained, probably stemming from gambling losses. On the floor, however, I sensed hope and a spirit of camaraderie, plus a willingness to assist a sister gambler.
At the Mystical Unicorn slot machine, my neighbor to the left helped me set up my member players’ card, which contained $15 in free play. He reassured me that these two machines — with their spinning unicorns, mushrooms and a brooding man in a green hood — rained down money. He’d won $200 the night before.
On a few occasions, the figures would connect in a way that mystified me but made sense to the slot machine, which threw pennies my way. Yet no unicorn dared to swoop down and save me from my downward spiral. I cashed out with 43 cents.
“Did you do well?” I asked my comrade.
“Not tonight,” he said. “Good luck to you, sweetie.”
After the loss, I took a break (remember, the walk-away tenet) at Munch, where I regained my strength and solicited some advice.
A friendly security guard stepped up first. He steered me toward his lucky slot machines — Napoleon and Josephine, and Kronos — and encouraged me like a coach to get back in the game. (I later lost $8 on N&J and decided to quit that team.) Later, a dealer at the craps table shared some solid blackjack tips (his mother plays a lot, he said), such as when to hit (16), when to hold (17), when to split and double down (cards 3 through 6) and when to surrender and buy insurance (never and never). Best of all, a player named Kevin, who recently moved from the area to North Bethesda, adopted me as his gamblin’ sidekick.
During my first foray — and Kevin’s nth — at the blackjack table, the dealer without a name tag rooted for our group of players, which included a young couple from Northern Virginia and a middle-aged pair from Altoona, Pa. (“You are going to get so many people from Altoona coming down here,” said the male of the twosome.) The dealer shrugged apologetically when his cards toppled ours and grinned when we beat his hand. When he left to go on break, we all moaned.
I stuck by Kevin through two more dealers, but the Mello Yello was wearing off. I left at 2 a.m.; he stayed till daybreak, departing with several Benjamins in his pocket.
I resisted the casino for most of the next day, indulging in the nature-y side of the resort. But it knew my number, and I eventually answered.
I sought out the no-name dealer from the night before and stumbled into Kevin. I knew I was becoming a better player, because I was growing superstitious.
At the blackjack table, I lost the first round, paused to lick my wounds, then tossed down a chip. I asked for a hit and another. My cards added up to twenty-oh-my-stars-one.
I won. But, more importantly, I ended a losing streak that stretched from Atlantic City to Vegas but couldn’t survive in Rocky Gap.