BOSTON (State House News Service) — Gaming regulators are planning to get an update next week on the disappearance of poker from Massachusetts — whether the casinos have an obligation to offer the popular game, what authority the Gaming Commission has in that area and, possibly, why the casinos have chosen to fold on the game.
The state's two casinos — Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield — resumed mostly normal operations in late May without reintroducing poker and the Mass. Gaming Commission last week discussed the flood of complaints it has received about the game's absence. On Wednesday, Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she had asked the commission's legal and community affairs teams to pull together information on "legalities and the history of poker and other amenities under the [gaming license application] and then the legal authority that the commission has et cetera and report to us" at next Thursday's commission meeting.
"What is our authority? What is their obligation? And what is their current thought process on not offering at this time? I think all of those are really important to understand clearly and information will help us make good decisions," Commissioner Gayle Cameron said during Wednesday's agenda-setting meeting.
The casinos have both said they will make decisions about the future of poker by the end of the year. Encore Boston Harbor told the News Service last week that if it brings the game back, it will be at a reduced capacity.
Neither casino has explicitly said why they are no longer offering poker. When the commission imposed a limit of three (and then later four) players at any given table during the pandemic, the casinos said poker could not be profitable at that scale and did not request that the Gaming Commission allow them to reintroduce it.
Now that the commission has lifted any restriction that would limit the number of players at a table or the games a casino could offer, the casinos have said only that they are assessing the demand for the game and their ability to provide it.
Commissioner Enrique Zuniga said Wednesday that it's important that regulators hear from the casinos themselves. Judd-Stein said the licensees may be asked to discuss poker with the commission at next week's meeting if the legal and community affairs review progresses far enough by that time.
"What I think is of public interest, clearly, is eventually — whether we map it out or we actually [do it] at the next meeting — is to hear from licensees as to what again they are either thinking or projecting," Zuniga said. "Because it has been very ambiguous, I guess, up until now."
Zuniga said he understands that the casinos might be reluctant to publicly discuss their business practices and Judd-Stein added that some of the information might be legally protected. That could mean the Gaming Commission would go behind closed doors to discuss the matter with the casinos in an executive session.
"I think, ultimately, it would be a combination because of the public interest and also our obligations under the Open Meeting Law," Judd-Stein said. "So it might be a combination."
Joe Delaney, the commission's head of community affairs, said he has already started to review the MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor license applications, environmental reports and other documents that refer to the number of gaming positions and amenities that each casino planned to offer. He plans to combine his research with work being done by General Counsel Todd Grossman on Monday.
Whether or not the casinos are legally required to offer poker, both clearly expected it to be part of their business model when they sought a gaming license in Massachusetts.
"At the heart of MGM Springfield will be approximately 125,000 square feet of gaming excitement, which will feature approximately 100 table games, including a 25-table poker room and a high-limit area reserved for VIP customers," the state's first resort casino wrote in its application.
In another section of its application, MGM Springfield wrote that it had entered into a host community agreement with Springfield that "commits MGM Springfield to develop an approximately 850,000 square foot, 250 room hotel, mixed-use commercial and residential casino resort retail development, featuring 3,000 slot and video gaming machines, 75 table games, and a poker room."
Encore Boston Harbor's application similarly described a casino where gamblers could play poker.
"There will be an exclusive poker area with 25 dedicated poker tables covering all variations of the most popular poker games," the casino wrote.
By Colin A. Young, State House News Service