Casinos must wait as board learns the games

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HARRISBURG -- So you know that a full house beats two pairs in poker and that jacks and aces add up to 21, a winner in blackjack.

So you think you're ready to take on the house when table games begin arriving by late summer at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, the Meadows Racetrack and Casino in North Strabane and the other seven casinos throughout Pennsylvania?

You might want to think again.

What do you know about baccarat, or pai gow tiles, or red dog, or fan-tan, or double attack blackjack, or flop poker, or two-card joker poker, or Caribbean stud poker or any of other 20 lesser-known gambling options permitted by Senate Bill 711, the recently enacted table games legislation?

"There will be an inclination for casinos to start with traditional table games, such as blackjack, craps and roulette, but eventually there could be a demand for games that aren't generally known," said Kevin O'Toole, executive director of the state Gaming Control Board.

"We expect there will be a continuous process of adding games, as they are requested by the casinos, based on demand from their customers. It will be an ongoing process," said Mr. O'Toole. He has nearly 30 years' experience in gaming regulation, working in New York and New Jersey before coming to Pennsylvania.

The various types of table games that one day could be available at the state's casinos, based on what gamblers want to play, are listed in the bill. (Go to the Web site,, insert SB711 in the box at the top, which will take you to the bill. Then click on 1586 under Printer's No. and scroll down to the definition of table games on pages 19-20.)

One reason it will take six to nine months to get the games up and running: The gaming board staff must itself learn about all the games and how they are played -- honestly, as well as how cheating can occur in each game -- before it can lay down the rules for casino officials about what is and isn't legal.

Then dealers and other casino workers can be trained in how each game is played. Security forces also will be beefed up, cameras added and gaming floors redesigned to accommodate the tables.

Even Mr. O'Toole, despite almost 30 years in the business, concedes he doesn't know the rules for every exotic table game on the market. Panguinque poker, anyone?

One game that most casinos are likely to want to add, he said, is the Big Six Wheel, which is similar to the Wheel of Fortune game on television. Casinos may or may not have their own Vanna White look-alikes.

Mr. O'Toole said it's like a carnival game, where a bettor spins the wheel and bets on the dollar value -- or color, or fruit, or something else -- at which it will stop. You can bet $1 that the wheel will land on one of a number of $2 spaces or on the single $40 space, or on others with values in between, Mr. O'Toole said.

Pai gow, another game that is well known in Asia but not so much in America, uses tiles with different numbers of dots that look something like dominoes, Mr. O'Toole said. The dealer has tiles and the players have tiles and they compete, but "it's pretty complicated," he added.

Better known is a card game called red dog, also known as acey-deucey, he said. The dealer deals out two cards, face up, from a 52-card deck. Players can bet on whether they think a third card will fall between the first two.

Gregory Fajt, of Mt. Lebanon, former chief of staff for Gov. Ed Rendell, is chairman of the seven-member gaming board. He said he understands that many gamblers are anxious to sit down at tables and try to beat the house. But getting the rules for these games will be a time-consuming process, and the board is not going to rush, he said.

"The challenge to oversee a managed expansion at Pennsylvania's casinos ... is now before us," he said, adding that the new regulatory work will be "a complex and thorough process."

The gaming board must be thorough because it doesn't want another state grand jury looking into how it does its business.

News reports in the fall revealed that a grand jury in Pittsburgh, assembled by state Attorney General Tom Corbett, was investigating procedures the board used to do background checks on applicants for casino licenses and whether some applicants -- such as the financially troubled developer of the Pittsburgh casino, Don Barden -- were properly vetted.

Mr. Fajt, a former state legislator, cautioned that developing the new rules for table games will take a lot of study and "isn't as simple as turning on a spigot."

He acknowledged that casinos -- and the state treasury -- are eager for new revenues to start pouring in, but "We won't sacrifice thoroughness for speed."

And yet speed is important to some degree to Mr. Rendell, who's counting on one-time table games fees paid by casinos to produce nearly $200 million for the current state budget, which ends June 30. Then ongoing taxes on table game revenue, amounting to about $100 million per year, will help succeeding state budgets.

There are now nine racetrack/casinos and stand-alone casinos, which will each pay a one-time fee of $16.5 million for a table games license. Each can have up to 250 table games. A 10th casino, SugarHouse in Philadelphia, is expected to be open later this year. The two smaller, resort hotel casinos in the state will pay a $7.5 million license fee and can have up to 50 tables.

The tax rate on the gross revenue from table games -- what remains after winners are paid -- is 16 percent, with 14 percent going to state coffers and 1 percent each to the host county and municipality.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.


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