PITTSBURGH - Crowds gathered around roulette wheels and croupiers in prime casino space Thursday as table games debuted in Western Pennsylvania, seemingly without a hitch.
The first-day turnout at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County, and Presque Isle Downs & Casino near Erie was, casino operators and state regulators agreed, an auspicious beginning. Gambling halls in the Poconos, near Harrisburg, and in the Philadelphia area will introduce table games within the next 10 days.
For Pennsylvania's 31/2-year-old gaming industry - and the cash-strapped state that hopes poker, blackjack, and so forth will ease its financial troubles - the stakes could not be higher. Dennis Farrell, a gaming analyst with Wells Fargo Securities L.L.C., predicted Thursday that the 700 table games being added "could increase casino revenues by $350 million to $450 million statewide per annum in three years' time."
Last month, the state's nine casinos generated $98.2 million in tax revenue from slot-machine play, an 8.2 percent increase from a year ago, for an average of $3.27 million per day in tax collections, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
At 6 a.m. Thursday, 85 tables got into full swing here at Rivers Casino on the North Shore.
"Blackjack for breakfast, baby!" exclaimed James Grimm, 48, of Pitcairn, Allegheny County, who works for a wholesale beer distributor. He was among the first to take a seat at a $10-minimum blackjack table.
"I've been waiting years for them," Grimm said. "It's like Christmas for me. This is fantastic."
Within minutes of security officers' ushering in the first players, the casino's floor was filled, mostly with men cheering one another on at the large craps and roulette tables.
It was quite the contrast to the often-silent, mostly female players who congregate around slot machines.
Twenty-five miles to the south, Bonnie Wilson, 48, a homemaker from Grove City, Pa., played the first hand of mini-baccarat at the Meadows.
"I'm not a slots person, so I'm really glad," she said about the new table games. "I'm only an hour away now, versus having to go two hours to Wheeling [West Virginia]. I imagine they're going to see a lot more of me here."
Pennsylvania's roll of the dice is expected to further tip the gambling balance. Competition for gaming dollars is ever increasing within the state - which now has nine casinos operating - as well as from the venerable Atlantic City resorts and the new tables in Delaware and West Virginia.
Parx in Bensalem and Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Delaware County start table games July 18. SugarHouse Casino on the Philadelphia waterfront will open with 40 table games in late September.
Arnie Wexler, a certified compulsive-gambling counselor, cautioned that there was a downside to the games' rapid proliferation.
"Table games, such as blackjack and craps, are played mostly by action gamblers," said Wexler. "The faster the games, the more addictive they are."
Rivers CEO Greg Carlin, also CEO of SugarHouse Casino - Rivers' owner, Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm, is majority investor of SugarHouse - said table games would be "transformational" for the young Pittsburgh casino, "bringing approximately 450 new jobs and about $7 million in added tax revenue to [the city] and the commonwealth."
Local TV crews began setting up on Rivers' floor at 3:30 a.m.; the casino had been running frequent television ads to draw players to the new tables.
"It creates such a vibe and energy. I think now more people are going to come in. It's definitely a game-changer for us," said Rivers general manager Todd Moyer, who hails from Pottstown.
To distance itself from its chief competitor, the Meadows held an 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting to mark the occasion, even though it, too, opened to the public at 6 a.m. Former Pittsburgh Steelers Randy Grossman (a Temple alum), Robin Cole, J.T. Thomas, and Gerry Mullins from the Super Bowl championship teams joined in a mock craps game.
Table games have brought about 550 jobs to the Meadows. Though the new tables dominate the central part of the main casino floor, a state-of-the-art, 9,800-square-foot poker room with 26 tables was unveiled Thursday.
At 10 a.m., the excitement of hosting something new played out again about two hours north of Pittsburgh, at Presque Isle Downs & Casino near Erie, which opened with 48 table games.
The casino hired 500 people for the launch, half of them dealers, according to Presque Isle spokeswoman Jennifer See.
Just how much table-gaming revenue was generated at each of the three casinos was difficult to gauge, because those numbers won't be available for a while.
"Unlike slots, in which each machine communicates revenue figures to a Central Control Computer System and enables a daily calculation of taxes due, revenue from table games must be manually counted, with a monthly report submitted to the Department of Revenue," said Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the state gaming board.
Still, said Kevin O'Toole, the board's executive director, "we certainly expect that the excitement of the introduction of table games will result in heavy play in the first weeks and months at all casinos in the commonwealth."
Moyer, general manager at Rivers, said the casino had about 200 table-game players when it opened at 6 a.m. That went up to 500 to 600 people by noon.
"We do not have financials right now, but we can tell you we were thrilled by the morning turnout. In fact, we were pleased to have to open additional tables faster than we expected," he said.
By 6 a.m. at Meadows, 50 to 75 people had arrived for the tables, said spokesman David La Torre. By 9 a.m., he said, there were 150 to 200; by 3 p.m., all 20 poker tables and the other 42 tables were filled.
At Presque Isle, spokeswoman See said, "Business demands are much busier than a normal Thursday." By noon, she said, all 48 tables were filled.
As the Western Pennsylvania casinos celebrated, operators in Atlantic City were bracing for a bumpier road.
"We have to see how aggressive they are going to be with marketing, how many [table] games each casino will have, and what kind of limits they will have," said Mark Juliano, CEO of the three Trump casinos at the Shore.
In a recent analysis, Moody's Investors senior vice president Keith Foley provided a grim outlook for the nation's second-largest gambling market (second only to Las Vegas in revenue).
Unless some way is found to turn things around, Atlantic City is in danger of being surpassed, if not this year, then surely in 2011, he said.
"Waiting for recovery is not a strategy," he said.