For years, casinos in West Virginia and Delaware siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenue from Marylanders. Now Maryland is poised to win back increasing numbers of those gamblers - and their millions.
Next week, the state's largest casino will introduce blackjack, craps, roulette and other live-action games. Maryland Live will offer 24-hour play at 122 tables, more than Delaware's three racetrack casinos combined and more, too, than West Virginia's cash cow, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
The debut of those table games will mark the latest step in Maryland's dramatic expansion of commercial gambling. It will also mark an escalation of the casino wars - a battle for the hearts, minds and money of Maryland gamblers.
Maryland Live already has an opening salvo planned.
Motorists driving east on U.S. Route 340 from Hollywood Casino will soon see a new billboard announcing table games at the casino at Arundel Mills mall. The message to gamblers will be clear: You can stop leaving the Free State. And thousands are expected to heed that call.
"Maryland is getting what the other states already have, which is going to make it very difficult for casinos in West Virginia and Delaware," said Mark Nichols, an economics professor with the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno. "The only way they can keep those Maryland residents from staying in Maryland is offering incentives or differentiated products that somehow make it worthwhile to travel. But almost anything they try, Maryland can copy. I'm not sure there's much they can do."
Still, they are trying.
The casinos in Delaware and Charles Town added table games in 2010 to counter Maryland's legalization of slots. Facing pressure from a nascent Pennsylvania gambling industry as well, Delaware added sports betting in 2009, although it is limited to National Football League parlays.
Last year, Delaware lawmakers passed the Gaming Competitiveness Act, providing nearly $8 million in licensing-fee relief to the state's three racetrack casinos so they would have more money for promotion and capital improvements.
Dover Downs Hotel and Casino already features live harness racing, NASCAR races, a conference center and a spa. Delaware Park offers golf and runs regular poker tournaments.
Executives at Dover Downs and Delaware Park declined to discuss what they are going to do to appeal to Maryland gamblers. But Al Britton, the general manager at Hollywood Casino in West Virginia, said his casino is ready for its smackdown with Maryland Live.
The property has been expanded, with a hotel built and a steakhouse and other restaurants added. And it has been re-branded, with Charles Town Slots becoming Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Hollywood Charles Town serves complimentary alcohol to players and allows smoking in the casino. By contrast, Maryland Live and the state's other casinos are prohibited from comping cocktails and are nonsmoking facilities.
"We've been preparing for competition from Maryland for years now," Britton said last week. "Quite frankly, we thought we'd have competition in Maryland much sooner. We feel like we already have all the amenities we need."
Officials at Dover Downs have long been wary of Maryland casinos, particularly Maryland Live, which has been generating more than $1 million per day in slots revenue since it opened in June.
Ed Sutor, Dover Downs' president and chief executive, declined requests for an interview. Last year he called Maryland Live "the 800-pound gorilla in the room," according to a Delaware State News report.
"Fifty percent of our business comes from Maryland, and 45 percent of our business lives within 50 miles of Arundel Mills," Sutor said at Video Lottery Advisory Council meeting. "That is going to be a significant hit to us."
And that was before Maryland voters approved table games and 24-hour operations, in addition to a sixth casino, to be in Prince George's County.
Delaware state Rep. Darryl M. Scott, a Democrat whose district is home to Dover Downs, said the increased competition next door is terrifying.
Business at Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway and Casino is already down.
"We could be facing dire consequences if we don't do something to stabilize the industry," Scott said. "There may come a point where Dover Downs has to make a determination about its viability. The increased competition is a very significant threat to our jobs and to our state's revenues."