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Player's Advantage

Many changes ahead for Pa. casinos in 2017

| Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania gamblers can expect to get a taste of stadium gaming and double-deck blackjack in the coming year, while legal online gaming throughout the state appears as close to reality as it's ever been.

The 12 casinos in the country's No. 2 gambling state are planning restaurants, hotels, expanded entertainment options and new twists on gambling as part of the continuous quest to attract more customers.

Finding the best ways to draw more people is what “all of us casino operators are trying to figure out,” says Rod Centers, vice president and general manager of Meadows casino in Washington County.

“Not only is the gaming offering important, both from the table game and slot side, but the experience piece is becoming more of a dominant factor in people's decision process,” he says. “The entertainment, the food offerings, the beverage, the atmosphere and environment in the casino, the services they receive from our team members – all now are becoming much more of a decision maker than I believe they were several years ago.”

The state has a big stake in casinos' success. Casino employment surpassed 18,000 and gaming taxes alone totaled almost $1.4 billion in fiscal 2015-16, according to the Gaming Control Board. The state gets 54 percent of slot machine revenue, one of the highest tax rates in the country.

Sands Bethlehem hopes to break ground this year on a $90 million expansion that would make it the largest casino in the state. Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh plans to outline details of a proposed hotel in the first quarter of the year, General Manager Craig Clark says.

Rivers also plans to add an Asian restaurant in the space formerly occupied by a gift shop, Clark says.

On the gambling front, the state's biggest change since the addition of table games in 2010 could come from the Legislature, which is due to consider proposals to legalize and regulate Internet gambling during the session starting Jan. 3. Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland and chair of the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, has asked officials from all 12 casinos to be in Harrisburg that day to discuss potential changes. The state's current budget includes $100 million in revenue from online gaming, mostly from license application fees. The House twice approved proposals for online gambling and Daily Fantasy Sports in 2016, but the Senate did not take up the measures. Senate Republicans, who hold a majority, have said they will introduce a comprehensive gambling package in the 2017 session.

Kevin O'Toole, executive director of the Gaming Control Board, says his agency is ready to follow legislative directions for establishing online gambling. Ensuring the integrity of online games would be similar to how the board reviews and tests games at land-based casinos, he adds.

Centers says Meadows plans several additions to its gambling lineup. One is stadium gaming, a concept relatively new to the United States but already popular at Sands Bethlehem. Typical games include baccarat or roulette, which do not require individual playing decisions other than how much to bet and on what outcome. One dealer oversees the game, and multiple betting terminals – for example, 150 at the Sands – are connected to it.

“The game's efficient, and it's a lot of fun to the players,” Centers says.

He says Meadows also hopes to start dealing a double-deck blackjack game, which would keep all the state's player-friendly rules. The Meadows shoe games use six decks. The fewer decks used, the lower the house advantage. For a player who follows basic blackjack strategy, a double-deck game with Pennsylvania rules has a house edge of about 0.2 percent, according to WizardOfOdds.com.

Pinnacle Entertainment of Las Vegas took over operation of the Meadows in October, and Centers lists some of the changes on tap:

• Pinnacle's MyChoice players club will replace the current Advantage club, but the timing is not certain. Centers says the transition requires extensive data mining to ensure players are put in the proper benefit level. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we implement that right,” he says.

• The Heartland Poker Tour will come to the property, possibly in March.

• The casino recently completed work on a new layout for the slot area near the south garage and added $2 million worth of new machines. Throughout the year, Centers says, new slots will replace older, less popular machines. He expects jackpot payouts of $1,200 or more to total $120 million for 2016, marking the fourth consecutive year of increases.

At the Rivers, Clark says the casino received state permission to allow those under 21 to attend banquet-room events such as wedding receptions, using a special entrance to keep them off the gaming floor. “It really broadens the selection of people who would be able to use our facility for that purpose,” he says.

“Poker Night in America,” which features nationally known players in a high-stakes cash game, will return to Rivers to film segments.

Clark says Rivers, which had a massive re-carpeting project in 2016, will further update its slot machine lineup this year.

He notes that Rivers' parent company launched an online gaming platform in New Jersey in 2016 through the SugarHouse brand, so the casino would be ready “almost immediately” if Pennsylvania approves Internet gambling.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at PlayersAdv@outlook.com

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