Poker Tables Help Boost West Virginia Casinos

Morgantown, W.Va. (AP) – They’ve been full-fledged casinos for just two weeks, but northern West Virginia racetracks say the gamble on table games is already paying off – with renewed interest in slot machines.

Slot play at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in Chester has surged 13.6 percent since the Northern Panhandle track opened 37 poker tables Oct. 19, track spokeswoman Tamara Cronin said Friday. That’s compared to the same period last year.

That may be encouraging news for investors in MTR Gaming Group, which is set to report quarterly financial results next week. For the past several quarters, MTR President and CEO Ted Arneault has complained of new Pennsylvania casinos chipping away at customers and revenue.

Pennsylvania parlors have also hurt Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center, where executives fought to persuade West Virginia legislators that blackjack, poker and other table games could help stem losses.

General Manager Bob Marshall said he can’t quantify the increase in slot play at Wheeling Island yet, „but there’s definitely been a little bit of a pop-up.“

The 20 poker tables, meanwhile, are full every day, mainly with players from the areas surrounding Pittsburgh and Columbus.

„We’re getting more from Ohio than we thought we’d get,“ Marshall said. „Before, it was easier for them to go to Argosy Casino, just below Cincinnati. … Now, it’s a little shorter to come to Wheeling.“

Neither Mountaineer nor Wheeling Island, owned by Delaware North Companies of Buffalo, N.Y., has begun advertising table games yet.

Marshall said he’ll wait until he has a full range of games, likely by Jan. 1.

Exposure so far has been limited to news coverage and word of mouth, but already, Cronin said, Mountaineer gamblers appear to be slightly younger than the traditional slot player and traveling farther.

A slight surge in slot play was expected with the debut of table games, but Cronin is confident the increase will be lasting.

„What’s indicative of that is the fact that this has happened without any marketing,“ she said. „Many people may not even be aware we have the poker tables yet.“‚

Clearly, though, word is spreading: Poker play at Mountaineer jumped 46 percent from the first to second week, Cronin said.

„From early indications, it reaffirms what we hoped and always maintained, which is that by adding another entertainment option, it’s going to increase the customer base and certainly bring in a whole new younger and perhaps more affluent customer,“ she said.

The racetracks have long fought to legalize table games, and lawmakers this year let the four host counties vote on the question.

Ohio County approved them first for Wheeling, while later elections cleared table games for Mountaineer in Hancock County and Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Kanawha County.

Tri-State, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Hartman & Tyner Inc., will unveil its games later this year.

Voters rejected table games in Jefferson County. Charles Town Races & Slots, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc. of Wyomissing, Pa., can request a new election in two years.