COVID-19 knocked out Massachusetts’ casino gaming industry across the board. Poker players may have taken the hardest hit. Most casino games have recovered post-COVID, but not poker. A lack of poker tables is frustrating players in Massachusetts.
One solution would be online poker, but it isn’t legal in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be allowed until online casinos and sports betting are legalized. The latter may be close to happening, while the former is probably years away.
Looking at pre- and post-COVID-19 numbers, Massachusetts poker tables are reeling one year later. Poker players are getting tired of waiting for Massachusetts casinos to recover.
Fewer poker tables, shorter hours at Massachusetts casinos
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) has been aware of this issue for a while now, devoting time during its April and July meetings to the number of poker tables in MA casinos. Commission Chair Cathy Judy-Stein said this month, complaints from poker players haven’t stopped flooding in.
The state’s two resort casinos operated 95 combined poker tables 24 hours a day before the pandemic, according to the MGC. Seventy-four were at Encore Boston Harbor and 21 at MGM Springfield.
Encore and MGM reopened in February and October 2021, respectively. In April, they had 26 tables open; 12 at Encore and 14 at MGM. Halfway through July, that number has barely moved. There’s now 29 poker tables; 15 at Encore and 14 at MGM.
Both casinos also have significantly cut their poker hours of operation. MGM’s tables are open from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week. Encore’s poker hours are 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Encore is utilizing a wait list that starts filling an hour after games begin.
MGC Investigation and Enforcement Bureau Field Manager of Casino Gaming Operations Burke Caine said Encore plans to expand its hours into the weekend and extend its weekday hours. He did not say how much they will be extended.
Why poker hasn’t bounced back
MGC commissioners have expressed similar concerns to those of poker players.
Commissioner Brad Hall said bluntly in April, “Twenty-seven tables throughout the commonwealth? Just disappointed is all I can say at this point.”
This month, Hall said, “I’m still concerned that when we look at it statewide, how many poker tables we actually have going … for the entire state, seems very, very small to me.”
Encore Assistant Director of Public and Community Relations Bethany Gibbons blamed space for its lack of poker tables.
“With our current state of operations, we do not have the real estate on our gaming floor to bring back poker at its pre-Covid capacity,” Gibbons told PlayMA. “We will continue to monitor our business levels and demand and will continue to manage our operations in a way that maximizes our tax contribution to the Commonwealth.”
Dara Cohen, director of regional communications at MGM Resorts, said MGM Springfield doesn’t intend to return to pre-pandemic numbers.
“There’s just not as much demand,” Cohen told PlayMA. “Our guests are coming in, playing some poker, and then moving on to other games and other forms of entertainment. We still have a good mix of regulars who will play poker all day from table to table, but there’s no need right now to add more tables.”
Casinos also struggle with staffing
During the time when poker was not available, many dealers moved away, relocating to Texas or New Hampshire where games reopened earlier.
Massachusetts is not alone in struggling to find staff. Casinos and poker rooms around the country have struggled to find dealers, including at the World Series of Poker.
Post-pandemic, casinos with a diminished staff looking to get back on their feet turned to their money-makers: slots and more-profitable table games, such as blackjack. Heavily skill-based games such as poker, where pots get divvied up between large groups of players, leave less for the house.
MA casinos obligated to increase poker offerings
When casino companies apply to open a casino in Massachusetts, they provide a prospectus with the games they’ll offer. When Encore applied, its application included “an exclusive poker area with 25 dedicated poker tables covering all variations of the most popular poker games.” The MGM application enumerated “a 25-table poker room.”
The MGC’s top lawyer noted that, regarding licensee applications, the licensees “shall have an affirmative obligation to abide by every statement made in its application to the commission.” The MGC has the further authority to ensure that all licensees maintain their stated number of casino games.
How the commission will exercise its authority to end this “poker drought” is uncertain. What is known is that Massachusetts poker players are playing elsewhere. Neighboring states are cashing in while Massachusetts’s two casinos operate at 30% of their pre-pandemic capacity.