Table games roll at Philly-area casinos

Wheels were spinning at Harrahs Chester Casino & Racetrack on opening day of table games at the three casinos in the Philadelphia area Sunday. This is just so much closer than Atlantic City, one gambler said.
Wheels were spinning at Harrahs Chester Casino & Racetrack on opening day of table games at the three casinos in the Philadelphia area Sunday. This is just so much closer than Atlantic City, one gambler said.
Posted: July 19, 2010

Before boarding a business flight to Miami about noon Sunday, John McKenna of Northeast Philadelphia indulged in a few spins of the roulette wheel at Parx Casino.

"It's more interactive. There's more of a human element," said McKenna, 36, referring to the newest attraction at Philadelphia's suburban casinos: dealer-staffed table games.

As of early Sunday, Parx in Bensalem, Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Delaware County, and Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem had joined the table-games locomotive - anticipated by many, including McKenna, to further erode Atlantic City's already flagging fortunes.

"This is just so much closer," said McKenna, who handles payroll for a local car dealership, as he placed another bet at the roulette table just after 8 a.m. Before Sunday, he said, he played video blackjack at Parx. He hasn't been to Atlantic City in two years.

Tony Volpe, 32, of Upper Darby was even more blunt. He likened the distance he now travels to get his poker fix to "running to the Wawa for a gallon of milk."

"On the Blue Route, I'm here in five minutes," he said while seated in the packed, largely male, poker room at Harrah's Chester at 11:30 a.m. for Texas Hold 'Em.

"There's absolutely no reason to go to Atlantic City to gamble anymore," Volpe, a concrete-truck driver, said. "When I drive down to A.C., I'm already $60 in the hole between the gas and tolls."

Sunday's rollout of blackjack, poker, craps, and other games at the Philadelphia area casinos completed a trio of staggered openings statewide.

Three Western Pennsylvania casinos were the first to offer table games on July 8.

Three Central Pennsylvania gambling halls - Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Mount Airy Resort Casino in the Poconos, and Hollywood Casino near Harrisburg - followed Tuesday.

A 10th casino - SugarHouse on the Philadelphia waterfront - is scheduled to open in late September with 40 table games and 1,602 slot machines.

By all indications, casino operators all over were experiencing a big boost in business with the new games.

The Sands in Bethlehem had all 89 tables that opened at 8 a.m. filled by 11:30 a.m., and its slots business was also up 19 percent from a normal Sunday, according to casino president Robert J. DeSalvio.

Harrah's Chester, about 36 miles south on I-95 from Parx, was up 40 percent in business for an early Sunday, according to Robert Guidice, vice president of table games.

By 2:30 p.m., the Chester casino reported 59 of 74 tables and all 25 poker tables in the World Series of Poker Room on the second level filled. Less than four hours later, it went up to 62 live table games fully seated and a full poker room.

Parx had all 57 of its blackjack, roulette, craps, three-card poker, and mini-baccarat tables occupied by midafternoon. A 30-table poker room is set to open in the fall next door in the old casino building.

On Sunday evening, Parx played host to actor Chris Noth, aka Mr. Big, Carrie Bradshaw's wealthy, on-and-off love interest in Sex and the City. Parx just installed slot machines themed after the show.

Women patrons screamed and flashed cameras when the tall, dark-haired actor, now seen in The Good Wife on CBS, strode to a craps table accompanied by two burly bodyguards.

"Let's roll, man," Noth said just before he threw out the first dice. He then played a few mock hands and was ushered back outside in 15 minutes.

For Parx, the arrival of table games is likely to help the casino maintain its front-runner status. Since opening in December 2006, the racetrack with slots has been the state's top-grossing casino among nine gambling halls.

Local businesses have benefited from their proximity to Parx on Street Road, a busy thoroughfare dotted with restaurants, diners, and discount shops.

Taylor Keirans, 19, a shift manager at Rita's Water Ice at 2822 Street Rd. in the Showcase Plaza, said the shop had its highest sales this year, up 20 percent from a year ago.

"Definitely, the casino helps bring people in," she said on Saturday night, the night before the table games' launch at Parx, which sits diagonally across from Rita's.

But not all are fans of the market-leading casino. "The job creation argument is a canard," said Paul Boni, an attorney for Casino-Free Philadelphia, a local activist group. Most gamblers live within a 25-mile radius of Parx, and gamble there four days a week, extracting more than $380 million from the local economy, Boni said.

"By preying on the local population," he said, "convenience casinos result in a net loss of jobs."

The two Philadelphia suburban casinos - Parx and Harrah's Chester - have already had that effect on Atlantic City's main industry.

Since slot machines debuted in Pennsylvania 31/2 years ago, the Shore town has been on a losing streak. For the first half of the year, the 11 Atlantic City casinos made $1.8 billion in revenue, down 8.4 percent from the same period a year ago. There are now 24,875 slot machines in Pennsylvania and 700 table games.

To help mitigate the blow, Harrah's Chester - owned by Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which owns four casinos in Atlantic City - is holding raffles all month for customers to win a weekend getaway to its sister casinos at the Shore.

The specter of competition was quantified during last week's hearing before the New Jersey Casino Control Commission involving Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.'s plan to emerge from bankruptcy.

Just how much do Atlantic City casinos stand to lose from table games in Pennsylvania?

"About $240 million a year in revenues. About one-third of the resort's [table game] revenues," said Deputy Attorney General James Fogarty of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

The city could lose such regulars as Antonio and Melissa Kouirinis of Jersey City, N.J., who were playing recently in the packed poker room at the Tropicana.

"I would consider it," Antonio Kouirinis, 38, said of checking out table games at either Parx or Harrah's Chester. "We love to travel and try different things.

"Competition could be good," he said while seated beside Melissa, 28, at a Texas Hold 'Em table. "It might force Atlantic City to do some things, like have more stuff for kids to do."

But Mays Landing resident Liz Cetrano was not as optimistic.

"I think the city is going to starve," said Cetrano, 46, a retired Atlantic City casino cook, during a recent stroll on the famed Boardwalk. "Gamblers aren't going to come here anymore.

"They are going to gamble in their own backyards." 


Got a question about casinos? The Inquirer's Suzette Parmley and the Daily News' Chuck Darrow will host a Philly.com chat Tuesday at 11 a.m.


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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