Delay In Live Poker’s Return Maybe Not As Bad For Casinos As Players

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Poker players itching to return to live tables received bad news last week when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board released guidelines that will keep poker rooms closed indefinitely whenever casinos reopen.

But how much of a setback will the continued quiet in the card rooms be for the casinos themselves? Probably not much, as the Texas hold’em cash games and tourneys are not big earners — especially considering the labor involved compared to the machines that dominate the gaming floor.

For the 10 Pennsylvania casinos with card rooms, live poker provides just 1.7% of their overall revenue and it has been on the decline.

Their combined revenue from their rake on poker games amounted to $53.9 million in 2019, down 9.1% from the peak of $59.1 million for live Pennsylvania poker in 2017.

That’s penny ante stuff, somewhat, for those 10 casinos that earned nearly $3.2 billion last year from combined slots, table games, and sports wagering. Of that, $318.6 million came from table games, with poker representing just over 6% of that share.

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Impact varies, depending on poker room size

The determination that poker will remain shut down indefinitely by COVID-19 concerns — due to the difficulty in maintaining social distance and the constant contact with cards and chips — will affect some casinos more than others.

For instance, the state’s two casinos in the resort category, Valley Forge Casino Resort and Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin, don’t even have poker rooms.

The 10 others have a combined 218 poker tables, but they range from a high of 48 at Parx Casino to as few as seven at Presque Isle Downs & Casino.

The revenue from them varies greatly also. Most of the tables are not even in use at the same time, while getting busiest on weekend evenings and during major promotions or tournaments.

In the case of Presque Isle, Mohegan Sun Pocono, Meadows Racetrack & Casino, and Mount Airy Casino Resort, all with fewer than 15 tables, less than 1% of their annual revenue comes from poker.

Rivers Pittsburgh, Hollywood Casino, and Philadelphia Harrah’s make between 1% and 2% of their revenue from poker rakes.

The three affected most are Parx, Rivers Philadelphia, and Wind Creek Bethlehem, which all collect at least 2% of their revenue from the card games.

Parx, in particular, is a major poker operator among Northeastern casinos, with 48 tables that claimed $1.4 million in revenue in February, the last full month of casino operation. That was nearly twice as much as its closest poker competitor in Pennsylvania, Wind Creek Bethlehem, with $765,521 in revenue from 26 tables.

States, operators taking different approaches

The state gaming board’s minimum standards put poker in a different category from all other games when Pennsylvania casinos reopen, which could occur for some or all in June, though nothing is yet decided.

While other table games and slot machines are to have special cleaning procedures and social distancing safeguards, the guidelines state: “Poker rooms are not authorized to operate due to players handling cards and chips. Poker room operations will be re-examined based upon changing [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health] guidance.”

Some other states are taking the same cautious approach: The Indiana Gaming Commission, for one, announced last week that poker rooms will remain closed when it allows casinos to reopen.

That is also the case with some individual operators. Wynn Resorts stated it will keep poker rooms closed upon reopening properties in Nevada and Massachusetts, even if regulators permit them.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board’s guidelines allow the state’s casinos to operate their poker rooms, but with a four-player limit, a potential disincentive for both operators and players. The Station Casinos indicated they won’t resume poker under such a limit, but The Venetian is going to give it a try.

Many Las Vegas casinos — Treasure Island and the Tropicana, Plaza, and Luxor among them — had already closed their poker rooms in recent years after determining the space could be put to more profitable other uses.

Poker is a mainstay elsewhere, however, including Florida properties such as the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa. Its poker waiting list grew to 100 players upon reopening Thursday, when it kept tables to six players, installed plexiglass to separate players from the felt and one another, had players and dealers wear masks, and restricted capacity to 23 of its 46 tables.

Some operators elsewhere have already gone too far, however. The Towers Casino & Card Room in Grass Valley, Calif., reopened last week with full nine-player games in which participants wore masks. State agents raided the facility and shut it down within 36 hours, saying it had no permission to resume operating.

Other California card rooms are awaiting a response from Gov. Gavin Newsom to their proposal to reopen using special procedures, though without maximum seating limits.

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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