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MGM National Harbor's Poker Room Experiencing 'Incredibly High Volume' In First Month

100+ Wait Lists Common In Region's Newest Poker Room

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When the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino opened for business right outside Washington, D.C. in early December it added 39 tables to Maryland’s poker market, which already had 85 tables between three other Las Vegas-style poker rooms.

Thanks to about three weeks of MGM National Harbor’s poker room being open last month, poker revenue statewide in Maryland during December was $3.88 million, up from $3 million in December 2015. The poker room had $1.4 million in revenue, according to state figures.

The casino has attracted tens of thousands of guests since it opened. “When you step onto the floor you get a lot of the feel of Aria, with maybe a little bit of Bellagio thrown in,” MGM National Harbor Poker Room Manager Johnny Grooms said.

According to Grooms, his room targets an under-served poker market as far south as North Carolina. Wait lists have been as long as 150 players for a $1-$3 no-limit hold’em cash game, partly because the action has been so good.

Card Player had the chance to speak to Grooms about the region’s newest cardroom.

Brian Pempus: What are some of your first impressions about the poker room?

Johnny Grooms: There’s been lots of volume. We opened to a heavy crowd and in my best experience, every day it’s been like the opening weekend of a major tournament. We are either at capacity or near capacity most days, and we are regularly getting 100-150 name waiting lists for some games. It’s been incredibly high volume.

BP: How have you managed these super long wait lists?

JG: Well, the biggest thing is making sure we are in constant contact with the players who are waiting and then emphasizing to them that there are other offerings on the casino floor, whether it be our slots, tables, restaurants, etc. It’s about promoting the entire resort experience, not just poker. We try to steer players to other parts of that experience, and let them know that we’ll get them into their seat as quickly as possible. By and large, they’ve been receptive to it. We’ve had a lot of people come by and the first thing that they say when they step onto the casino floor is essentially, “Wow, you’ve stepped out of the D.C. area and into Las Vegas.”

BP: Your poker room is 39 tables. What went into the decision to make it that size?

JG: Well, realistically, without divulging too much, we had to balance the interests of multiple gaming departments [in the casino]. Obviously you have slots and tables, and they are more profitable than poker. We wanted to make sure we had as much gaming capacity as possible while being able to serve a large portion of poker guests. We also looked at the market, and estimated what our share would be, and designed our room and the space around it. We not only wanted to make sure we had an adequate number of tables; we wanted to make sure we had enough space between the tables. Our room is pretty spacious. We could probably fit five or six more tables in there, but it would become less comfortable and that’s not the experience we were looking for.

BP: Maryland’s poker market was flat in 2016. Can you talk about what kind of impact your room will have on poker in the state?

JG: I can tell you that the market is going to grow. We felt that there was an under-served population in Southern D.C. and Northern Virginia, and in the more expansive area down to North Carolina. Our competitors to the North have done a good job, but traffic patterns here dictate where and when people go do things. Our location is a very big strength for us. You’re going to have more casual players come play $4-$8 [limit hold’em] or $1-$3 [no-limit hold’em]. That’s what we’ve seen in the opening month. We do have a really good mix of players. Whenever you open a new room in an under-served market, you’re going to get the less experienced players coming in to play shorter sessions. But we also have our grinders, our professionals, who play longer hours. The action in the games is really good. It’s been a great mix, but obviously as you escalate in stakes the games become exponentially tougher. We try to spread that out a little bit by upping the buy-in range for the lower stakes games, making it a better mix. Our buy-in for $1-$3 is $100-$500 and for $2-$5 it’s $300-$1,000.

BP: What are the biggest games that you are running right now?

JG: We have a $10-$25 pot-limit Omaha and no-limit just about every day. We ran $25-$50 several times. We’re spreading a $10-$25 mixed game where they play some crazy stuff like pot-limit seven-card stud eight-or-better and Big O. That game goes pretty regularly. We wanted to create another area for players to play limit hold’em. We’ve been successful at attracting limit business. We’re still trying to cultivate that. We started a $10-$20 limit game, and we are looking to start a regular $20-$40 limit game. We have a $60-$120 limit game three nights a week. That game has probably been our most solid among the higher limit games.

BP: Do you feel like there’s been a resurgence in limit poker interest?

JG: I don’t know if you could call it a resurgence, but what I have found is that there are more players in this market who are willing to play limit hold’em for higher stakes. I don’t want to say as no-limit gets solved, because obviously it isn’t, but as those games tend to get tougher and it’s more difficult for players to maintain a bankroll playing big-bet games, I am thinking, and hopeful, more people will want to experience what limit is. The strategies are different and there’s a little bit more security long-term with playing limit. For me, the staple of having a good poker room requires you to have a diverse group of games, including pot-limit Omaha and limit hold’em. The problem is capacity. For every $10-$20 or $20-$40 limit game you spread you are crowding out a $1-$3 game and that’s where our greatest demand is. It’s a fine line to create and cultivate games while still serving guests who have demand for the smaller games.

BP: The D.C. area has one of the highest, if not the highest, median household incomes in the country. Did that play a role in determining what the max buy-ins should be?

JG: Absolutely. That was one of our determining factors. It’s no secret that I am in favor of uncapped no-limit games. In my experience, people have the opportunity to buy into a [small-stakes game] for $100 or $200 and win $2,000. This doesn’t exist in a lot of markets around the country with smaller buy-in caps. If you ask the guys who play 20, 30 or 40 hours of poker every week what the no. 1 factor is in determining where to play and which games to play in, the answer is always the action in the games. We felt strongly that making the game play deeper would help the action. We’ll reassess in three or four months and see where we are it, but things are really good now.