To poker or not to poker in the Bay State By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports July 25, 2021 at 5:58 pm There is no poker in Massachusetts and people are wondering why. The casinos in Massachusetts reopened in July 2020 after being closed for four months due to the pandemic. They opened under limited conditions; occupancy was restricted to 25 percent of the maximum allowed by law. Poker, roulette, craps, and blackjack were not permitted. Social distancing was required with plexiglass shields between each playing station. Customers and employees were required to wear a mask. It was not until March 2021 that blackjack tables were expanded to four seats and crap tables were reintroduced. Finally, the state lifted all restrictions for Memorial Day weekend. The pre-pandemic suite of games was back, except poker. In March, when the state permitted blackjack, but tables were limited to four customers, it was not enough for poker to viable, so that game remained in limbo. With the return of craps in May, the media and some of the customers wondered about poker. There were a series of article about the decision by Encore not to reintroduce poker at this time. Then the Gaming Commission, admitting that they had had numerous inquiries on the subject, scheduled a discussion and called in the casinos for questioning. In most states, casinos need permission to operate a game, whether it be blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, or poker. But they do not need permission to take it off the floor. How many tables a casino operates is generally a business decision. Certainly, in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns, not all of the games that operated before the crisis returned. That includes slot machines as well as table games. It is rare indeed for a Gaming Commission to hold hearings on games not operated by a casino — with the implication that the Commission can require a specific game. Barbara Kraft, Encore Boston Harbor Massachusetts was a relatively late entry into casino gaming when the Expanded Gaming Act passed in 2011. It authorized three casinos and one slot parlor; each casino was to be located in one of three regions. Rolling out the casinos was a very lengthy process. The last casino to open, Wynn Encore at Boston Harbor, did not open until June 2019. MGM Springfield opened in August 2018 and the slot parlor Plainridge Park opened in June 2015. One license has yet to be granted. The reason for the long tortuous journey from the passage of the act to the opening of Encore can be found in the act itself. The act states in part: “a transparent and competitive bidding process, maximum long-term value to the Commonwealth, protection for host and surrounding communities, mitigation for social impacts and costs and ensuring the nation’s best and most rigorous public safety, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms.” Now that is a high bar, the best and most rigorous regulatory mechanism. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission takes its role seriously, but the commissioners are sometimes a bit confused. Commissioner Gayle Cameron wondered during a recent meeting, “What is our authority? What is their [the casinos’] obligation? And what is their [the casinos’] current thought process on not offering at this time? I think all of those are important to understand clearly and information will help us make good decisions.” Indeed, what is the Commission’s authority? Can they require poker? Someone dug up the MGM’s presentation when it was attempting to get the right to seek a license for Springfield. In that presentation, MGM said it expected to spread 100 table games and 25 poker games. In fact, MGM opened with 93 table games and 23 poker tables. By CaribDigita – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link When Massachusetts set out to create its gaming regulation, it chose to go it alone. The Bay State did not want to copy anyone. At the time, the two basic models of gaming control stemmed from Nevada and New Jersey. In the Nevada version, the state sets a minimum standard and each casino must then draft its own set of internal controls showing how it will meet the standard; that set of internal controls becomes the regulatory requirement for that casino. In the New Jersey version, the state explicitly describes how each casino must operate to meet the state requirements. In both cases, the state has two objectives: to protect the public and to guarantee a correct accounting of gaming revenue for tax purposes. Massachusetts set out to be the best and most rigorous. That is an open invitation to over-regulation and confusion. In the poker dilemma, the state may be overreaching. Poker is a gambling game that can be offered in a casino. Like the other casino games, it needs to make a profit. If it cannot make a profit, it is removed. The number and type of slot machines and table games are subject to the same analysis. When a slot machine is no longer popular enough to generate a profit, it is replaced. If 100 tables are too many for profitability, some of the games come off the floor. Why should poker be any different? If the Gaming Commission is in charge of poker, why not extend that authority to table games and slots? Massachusetts has done what it set out to do — to create jobs, capital investment, and tax revenues. The idea of casinos in the Bay State was born out of the Great Recession when the state desperately needed jobs and tax revenues. The casinos came too late for that recession, but they have generated over $3.7 billion in capital investment, 10,000 jobs, and over $650 million in taxes. That is success. The gaming commissioners would do well to step back and leave the operations of the casinos to the operators. Wynn and MGM should do the scheduling; it is their job to decide whether to poker or not to poker. It should not be a regulatory issue.