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Starting this month, gamblers in Pennsylvania are able to play blackjack, craps and poker without crossing the state line. Casinos up and down the East Coast are adding table games. Industry experts say the growing competition is another bad break for Atlantic City, as Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: For most of the 20th century, if you wanted to gamble in a casino, you had to go to Nevada. Then Atlantic City casinos opened in the 1970s. Now, it seems like every state wants to get into the game, even Delaware.
Mr. VINCE CAESAR: Yeah, I play at a lot of places, all around the country actually: Vegas, Atlantic City, St. Louis, but this works.
ROSE: Vince Caesar is talking about the new poker room at Delaware Park in Wilmington. From the day it opened last month, it was packed with players like Caesar and Joe Fallows, who no longer have to drive an hour or two to New Jersey to find a game.
Mr. JOE FALLOWS: Atlantic City's going to feel it. They're going to definitely feel it. There's so many regulars I see in here right now. And on a Friday and Saturday, they don't have enough tables.
ROSE: Delaware Park hasn't been shy about luring players from neighboring states. In fact, it's been touting its new table games with a flurry of ads and billboards.
Mr. ANDREW GENTILE (General Manager, Delaware Park): It's an extremely competitive marketplace right now. And everybody's got to get out there just to protect their own share.
ROSE: Andrew Gentile is Delaware Park's general manager. He says while poker isn't as profitable as slots, he hopes table games will bring in new business.
Mr. GENTILE: Slot players typically are female, 45 and older. The poker player is predominantly male and a lot of retirees, but you're also seeing a lot of that younger generation that has kind of grown up in the last 10 years watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN.
ROSE: But soon, those younger players will have even more choices. Casinos in Pennsylvania will start offering table games this month. Massachusetts is expected to legalize them, too.
Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says the motivation for state governments is pretty obvious.
Mr. ERNIE GOSS (Economist, Creighton University): It's a way of getting tax revenues at a very fast clip. So there's a real, real incentive on the side of the state, on the side of the city to approve casinos.
ROSE: But as states continue to legalize gambling, Goss says casinos find themselves fighting for a limited pool of customers.
Mr. GOSS: To some degree, you're going to cannibalize casinos in other states. The industry is going to get much, much, much more competitive, particularly in the northeastern portion of the U.S.
ROSE: For New Jersey, the timing couldn't be worse. The recession coupled with increased slots competition from Pennsylvania has already pushed revenues at all Atlantic City casinos down for two years in a row. Linda Kassekert heads the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
Ms. LINDA KASSEKERT (New Jersey Casino Control Commission): People are spending less. So while they may be coming to Atlantic City, and we know that they are coming because our room nights are up, they're being more careful about how they spend their money.
ROSE: Pretty much the lone bright spot for Atlantic City has been the Borgata. In a town with a bit of a reputation for seediness, the Borgata offers high-end shopping and restaurants. That's why senior VP Joe Lupo says he's not so worried about new competition from other states.
Mr. JOE LUPO (Senior Vice President, Borgata): It's the fine dining that we have at Borgata, it's the entertainment program, the spa. It's those other amenities that I think is what turned Las Vegas into the gambling mecca. And I think you're slowly seeing non-gaming revenue slowly increase here in Atlantic City.
ROSE: For Atlantic City to compete with more convenient options, other casinos in town will likely have to follow the upscale Las Vegas model. But the recession has made that tougher, too. A few years ago, investors were ready to bet $10 billion on casino projects. Now those construction cranes stand idle, while Atlantic City waits for its luck to turn.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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