Complaints About No Poker At Boston-Area Casino Up Ten Fold, Regulator Says

Casinos said to be waiting to see what happens with sports betting by end of the year
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Is poker being used as a bargaining chip for sports betting in the Bay State?

Poker rooms across the country have reopened since the pandemic started to wane amid widespread vaccinations. It’s not true of every poker room in the country, however, with arguably the most notable non-reopening belonging to the apparently popular poker room at Encore Boston Harbor.

The Massachusetts casino, which opened in 2019, still hasn’t reopened its 74-table poker room. The casino reopened in July 2020 after getting the go-ahead from government officials.

Poker is allowed, but the casino has chosen not to resume it, regulators said in a meeting Thursday. It was noted that complaints received about the lack of poker have increased ten fold in just the last two weeks.

Despite the many unhappy casino-goers who miss live poker, Encore said poker might never return to the property. As of July of last year, the room was full of slot machines, according to one visitor.

“This continues to be frustrating,” one local on Twitter said in response to the news that Encore might never reopen the room. “We legalized casinos here for players to legally gamble, not to give [two] companies monopoly power to maximize revenue per square foot. People want poker but we can’t have it.”

A smaller, roughly 20-table poker room at MGM Springfield also has not reopened.

“Based on current market conditions and the resulting need to prioritize space, Encore Boston Harbor will not be bringing back live poker at this time. If and when poker should return to Encore, it will likely be at a reduced capacity,” the casino said in a statement last week.

According to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the casino currently has about 1,850 slot machines and 184 gaming tables (none poker). There is 190,461 square feet of gaming space.

At its peak prior to COVID-19, according to the MGC, Encore had more than 2,800 slot machines.

Prior to the pandemic, the casino was raking in about $50 million per month from slots and table games. Revenue has returned to pre-pandemic levels, as Encore Boston Harbor reported $52.5 million in gross gaming revenue in June, per state figures.

COVID-19 concerns?

Poker is a casino offering that, unfortunately at this time, puts people in very tight proximity to each other. Some U.S. casinos have mitigated the risks by installing plastic dividers and reducing the number of seats at tables.

The nearby Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, which has a 35-table poker room, had that setup in the spring. It reopened its popular poker room in March, and as of May it was back to full nine-handed poker games. Tables with plastic dividers are still available, but not every table has them.

Though live poker and COVID-19 appear to be manageable now, even as infection rates for the Delta variant increase this summer, it’s still not the easiest lift for a casino to pull off. If demand is lower than before, albeit very vocal, it doesn’t make as much sense.

Sports betting’s role in the poker situation

An official with the Massachusetts commission said at Thursday’s hearing that both casinos are likely waiting to see what happens with legalization of sports betting before bringing poker back. A poker room and a sportsbook are similar amenities, with overlapping clientele. Both offerings generate far less gaming win than slots, but they are key components to bringing more people in the door for other spending. Placing a sportsbook and a poker room close to one another is generally a good plan.

“Both casinos have put on their websites that they will make the decision no later than Dec. 31,” the regulator said. “I think both of them are actually waiting to see what is happening with sports betting, with space and gaming kind of forging ahead. It’s kind of a wait-and-see for both properties I believe.”

The MGC released a report in mid-June highlighting the stall on sports betting authorization. Policymakers have yet to hash out a plan for either retail or online betting.

Regional competition

Though Boston is a huge market, people in New England aren’t without poker options. There are eight open rooms in New Hampshire, according to Poker Atlas. The largest has 30 tables. Connecticut is home to the popular poker room at Foxwoods Casino, along with the 23-table room at Mohegan Sun.

Also closed, however, is the poker room at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island, home to 22 tables.

Apparently poker players are having a pretty good time over at Foxwoods, according to a tweet from a Boston-based gambler. It looks like some players are still wearing masks.

Image: Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

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