The MGM National Harbor casino had been open all of two hours when Chad Power saw something that excited him much more than the towering atrium or the big-name restaurants: a guy who didn’t look particularly good at poker setting $25,000 worth of chips on the table.
This is what brings professionals such as Power to a new poker room: fresh marks. A new $1.4 billion casino opening in an affluent region will flush out players with more cash than experience. For awhile, anyway.
“That stuff usually lasts about a year,” Power said, far enough away from the table for the new guy not to hear. “Eventually, he’ll do his taxes and say ‘Oh my gosh, I blew $400,000 gambling.’ ”
Within an hour, he would get a text from someone in his network of poker contacts: The man with the $25,000 was indeed a known “whale,” a big spender with more money than skill.
Power, who nearly made it to the final table at the 2015 World Series of Poker, buys $500 in chips and sits down. He’s not here for a serious game, which might last a dozen hours or more. No, just a few hands in the unfamiliar black tie of opening night to get a taste of his new HQ.
“I have a very good feeling about this place,” Power said.
For the past three years, Power, 28, has been based at Maryland Live outside of Baltimore. He lived in a townhouse in Hanover, walking distance from the casino, along with the team of a half-dozen players, each of whom Power mentors and stakes in exchange for an even split of their winnings. Together, they are a poker factory, taking shifts of 10, 15, even 20 hours in the card room; they call it “grinding.” Casinos are open 24 hours, and one member of Team Power is almost always at a table.
But the prospect of a bigger, fancier and, most important, new casino opening an hour away presented an easy bet to Power. He began plans to move his poker house soon after MGM announced its opening date.
As the Dec. 8 debut neared, his first order of business was to find a new crash pad for himself and his team. He looked at houses all around National Harbor that fit the criteria needed for six pro gamblers: at least six bedrooms, a basement big enough for more mattresses (it’s common for their poker friends to flop after a long game) and a quick drive to MGM.
“The hardest thing has been the landlords who don’t want to rent to a professional poker player,” said Power, who typically makes between $400,000 and $800,000 a year and has begun investing in oil and gas ventures.
Waiting at a two-story colonial in Fort Washington was real estate agent Gabriela Nitescu. Coincidentally, she used to be a blackjack pit boss at Maryland Live.
“Really,” Power said. “I was banned from blackjack at Maryland Live for counting cards.”
“Ah,” Nitescu said, walking up to the front door. “I worked daytime. I probably didn’t see it.”
On crutches because of a basketball injury, Power hobbled from the cavernous basement to the balconied master suite that would be his lair.
Power got into poker watching ESPN as a Pittsburgh eighth-grader. His single mom couldn’t afford to let him play online, so he honed his skills on $5 high school games. He got good enough in college to drop out and play regularly at the local casino. By 2012, he was training and funding a couple of friends, and they moved to Atlantic City, living at the Borgata for a year before relocating to the newly opened Maryland Live in 2013.
“I’ve got nothing bad to say about Maryland Live,” Power said. “Some very good people there. But this is going to be much nicer, and it’s going to attract a lot of whales.”
The Fort Washington house would do. It was seven minutes closer than the next best. And the owner, who has been hoping for an MGM-related business boom, had no problem with Power’s income stream.
“Sounds like you’re doing what you love,” owner Cisa Riley said. They could move in before the holidays.
A week later, Power was among the first to walk through the doors for MGM’s grand opening, getting a VIP preview in the hours before the public poured in. Samantha Hartness, a former girlfriend and a onetime cocktail waitress at Maryland Live, accompanied him through the glittering new space. Between them, they were greeted by dozens of friends, customers and workers alike, as the casino world turned out to inspect a new venue.
“I love the lobby,” Hartness said, gazing up into the towering atrium.
Power shrugged. He was ambivalent about the sculptures, chandeliers and other luxury notes MGM has packed into its huge complex, which stretches five city blocks. “None of that is a big deal for me personally, but I know it attracts a lot of people willing to spend money on nice things.”
One clear upgrade: the food. Power rolled appreciatively by eateries opened by José Andrés and the Voltaggio brothers, an Asian fusion option. He took a proffered cheeseburger from a cocktail tray outside Shake Shack. “The question is, when do they close? You want options at 3 a.m. People who stay that late are usually losing.”
When they finally reached the poker room, a muffled enclave of three dozen tables set off from the bing, bling and blare of the slots floor, his eyes lit up. He settled into a chair and test-bounced for comfort.
“Nice lighting and no windows,” he said, looking around. “People are going to stay and play.”
Poker room manager Johnny Grooms, a Mississippi transplant with an Elvis air, came to introduce himself.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of me,” Power said, shaking his hand.
“I’ve heard of everybody,” Grooms answered.
Pros such as Power are welcomed by casinos. Not only do they gamble for countless hours, but they also attract players who want to test themselves against the best.
“Basically, if he can provide two or three people from his team for games at [the higher-stakes] level, it makes it that much easier for us to get those games started,” Grooms said.
The two of them went over the room rules, the schedule of the five poker cashiers, the ease of access to the 600 safe-deposit boxes. Power asked if it would be okay for him to occasionally play in the same games as his team members. Grooms said he would prefer that they don’t.
“I’ll be up front with you,” Grooms said. “If I know you are staking someone else at the table, my guys are going to watch that.”
“I’m perfectly fine with that,” Power said. “I’m an open book.”
Power asked about the possibility of putting a partition wall around the two high-stakes tables in the center of the room. Power said that he frequently arranges invitation games with players who demand privacy.
“When Michael Phelps plays, he can’t have his picture taken,” Power said. “Kevin Hart plays with us some.”
Grooms nodded. “We’ve been considering that.”
Power sat down for a few hands of low-stakes no-limit, greeting players he knew well. Nothing big would develop that night. At 10:30, hundreds of people who had been waiting for months to see the new casino would jam the floor.
“It’s going to be nutty for the first few days,” Power said, heading to the Tap Sports Bar for a burger with some friends. “Then we’ll get in here and get serious.”
By mid-December, the poker house was occupied but mostly still in boxes. A rack filled with athletic shoes was overflowing by the front door, just as it had at the old place. A casino-style poker table filled the dining room.
Two of the five televisions were unpacked, including the big 70-incher in the living room surrounded by three mismatched couches.
Upstairs, team members were setting up their own austere chambers. In the highly monetized environment of the poker house, each one bid on the room he wanted. Mike Rutkowski, 26, bagged the biggest for $630 a month.
Aaron Mendelsohn is paying $530 for a bedroom with a view of a U-Haul depot. The former union welder has been with Power since 2013 and sees the new casino as a chance to improve the 10 hours or more he spends sitting at the poker table each day.
“All that new blood, it’s going to be a highly profitable room,” he said. He planned to make his first trip later that night.
Power himself was just off his own first overnight at MGM. He had played for eight hours and made $8,000. With the sun going down, he should have been heading for bed. Instead, he was thinking of heading back for more time at the table.
“I should sleep,” he said. “But I just want to go play.”