Isiah Bell was holding a queen and a king, but the dealer flashed an ace and a king and declared, “Sorry, dealer has blackjack.”
While a single hand of blackjack might not seem remarkable in a city filled with casinos, the game Bell was playing took place in a rather unusual setting — where gamblers share space with shoppers and diners.
“It’s more relaxing to play blackjack here than in the bigger parts of the casino,” Bell, a 21-year-old New Yorker, said of The Quarter, a mall-like retail, restaurant and nightclub complex attached to Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Blackjack at The Quarter is part of a recent trend by Atlantic City’s casinos to expand gambling into areas that previously had no slot machines or table games. No one is sure yet how long this new type of gambling will survive, but the possibilities are intriguing.
Golden Nugget Atlantic City has introduced poolside blackjack to create even more diversions for guests who are working on their summer tans or splashing around in the water. Tom Pohlman, Golden Nugget’s general manager, said blackjack has complemented the casino’s new pool and entertainment attraction, known as H2O.
“Our blackjack at the pool has been much more successful than we originally anticipated,” Pohlman said. “I believe the success has to do with the overwhelming response to the H2O pool concept in general, and the additional bodies have created a very promising atmosphere.”
Harrah’s Resort has added blackjack tables at The Pool, a sprawling, dome-covered complex that serves as a swimming hangout during the day and an entertainment hotspot at night.
Poolside blackjack or gambling in The Quarter would not be possible without the approval of some open-minded casino regulators. In recent months, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement has shown a willingness to authorize more gambling attractions to help Atlantic City gain an edge on competitors in surrounding states.
David Rebuck, division director, said regulators are receptive to the idea of putting new slot machines or table games into what had traditionally been nongambling areas as long as the casinos have the proper safeguards to prevent compulsive gamblers or children from being exposed.
“I think it was a pretty easy decision on our part,” Rebuck said. “We are open to any idea that any operator had that they believed would enable them to be more competitive, provide a better product for patrons and assist them in their financial performance as a resort.”
Don Marrandino, Eastern Division president of Caesars Entertainment Corp., the parent company of Harrah’s, characterized it in another way.
“Dave Rebuck has partnered with the industry to allow us to take chances that we couldn’t before,” Marrandino said.
The trend has started modestly. To date, only Tropicana, Golden Nugget and Harrah’s have taken the plunge. Rebuck said no other casinos have approached his agency about converting nongambling areas into new gambling havens.
“The casino operators know they can come to me anytime with their suggestions. But it’s really on them and their business plans. It’s their responsibility,” he said. “It’s not the state pushing it. It’s the reverse.”
Tropicana recently received regulatory approval to increase the number of slot machines in The Quarter to 31, adding most of them to the second floor, next to a row of nightclubs. Previously, Tropicana had eight slot machines and two electronic table games adjacent to some of the shops and restaurants on the first level of The Quarter.
Tony Rodio, Tropicana’s president and chief executive officer, noted the existing slot machines at The Quarter have been slightly outperforming their counterparts in other sections of the casino, which has encouraged Tropicana to expand. Depending on the results, Tropicana may expand again, increasing the number of slots to 50, he said.
“If we didn’t think it was a good idea, we wouldn’t expand,” Rodio said. “It has met with no resistance from customers. It gives people even more to do and is an added amenity.”
The Quarter’s electronic table games have not done as well as the slot machines, Rodio said. Last year, Tropicana considered adding live table games to The Quarter, but Rodio said the plan was nixed after it became apparent much more security and surveillance would have been needed to guard the gambling chips and cash.
For the time being, the two electronic table games will stay in The Quarter. Electronic games feature video images of cards and allow players to bet by pushing buttons. Bell was busy on a recent day playing electronic blackjack, a game that pitted him against a lifelike dealer — a video image of an attractive, dark-haired woman — who instructed him to “Please place your bets.”
“As soon as I come to Tropicana, I want to play here,” Bell said. “It’s more entertaining here than in the rest of the casino. It gives me peace of mind, more or less.”
Nearby, Frank Lukasik, 60, of Lindenhurst, N.Y., was playing one of The Quarter’s penny slot machines. Lukasik and his wife, Vincenza, 64, had visited The Quarter to eat at Cuba Libre but decided to try their luck at gambling.
“I came down here and saw the slots and told my wife, ‘Hey, look at this,’” Lukasik said. “I thought it was pretty cool. It’s something else to do here.”
Harrah’s became the first Atlantic City casino to introduce gambling into what had been a nongambling area. Harrah’s started out with just one poolside blackjack table in October as part of a promotional appearance by Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers pop band. Now, there are six blackjack tables at The Loft, the nightclub inside The Pool complex.
“They are popular,” Marrandino said. “It’s a fun way for people who come to the nightclub to incorporate gaming to their visit.”
Buoyed by the success of blackjack at The Loft, Caesars Entertainment may transform even more nongambling areas into mini-casinos, Marrandino said. However, he wasn’t ready to disclose whether it would be at Harrah’s or at the three other Atlantic City casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment — Bally’s, Caesars and Showboat.
“We have some interesting ideas that we’re contemplating,” he said.
The trend of mixing gambling with entertainment was popularized in Las Vegas. Atlantic City began dabbling with the same types of hybrid attractions in hopes of differentiating itself from rival casino markets in surrounding states.
Marrandino stressed that this kind of gambling alone is not the “silver bullet” that will end Atlantic City’s five-year revenue slump, but he characterized it as a promising new development that could generate some Las Vegas-style excitement.
“I think it adds to the customer experience in Las Vegas,” he said. “Here, it’s something that is an incremental revenue enhancement and an experience that we try to create.”
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