Massachusetts first legalized casinos all the way back in 2011. Poker in New England started to feel the effects of the new law in May 2018 with the opening of the MGM Springfield. However, it was the opening of Encore Boston Harbor this summer that really revolutionized New England poker. Encore took the New England poker cash scene by storm over the summer, and is now impacting New England tournament numbers as well. Speculation has run rampant over the past few years about how the new Massachusetts sites would impact existing poker rooms in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Some expected a poker room apocalypse. Others believed the impact would be minimal, as few players would hassle with Boston traffic or make the long haul to Springfield. As interested parties, we thought we would review recent changes in the New England poker scene.
A Time of Growth
When Encore Boston Harbor opened in June of 2019, some rooms in New England took a hit to their cash games. However, overall, New England has seen significant growth in the number of cash poker players every night of the week. October 2019 saw an average of 75-85 cash poker tables on weeknights across the 9 reporting rooms in New England. On Friday and Saturday nights that number balloons to 125 to 135 tables. In March of 2019, before the opening of Encore Boston Harbor, those numbers stood at 65 to 70 and 110 to 120 tables respectively. One clear effect of Encore has been an infusion of 100-200 extra cash poker players on average across New England. We have updated our New England Cash Poker Report to reflect these numbers.
In September Encore Boston Harbor started hosting tournaments. Currently, they field seven tournaments spread over four days each week (Thursday through Sunday). Buy-ins range from $160 (on Thursdays) to $360 (the single Saturday event). These tournaments have flourished. Most of these tournaments have seen between 60 and 120 entries, with one Saturday tournament hitting 177 entries. Encore tournaments hold six spots among the ten most highly attended tournaments in New England. (Note that Foxwoods does not report tournament numbers to Bravo poker and is thus excluded from the table below).
Biggest Tournaments in New England
But as with the cash poker scene, Encore’s success has not decimated the numbers of poker players in other rooms. The New Hampshire rooms, in particular, have maintained their popular niche tournaments. Some have even shown growth. For example, the Manchester Poker Room has long been king of Tuesday/Thursday nights, with their longstanding 50/50/50 format. Even with Encore’s new Thursday night competition, Manchester continues to draw 80 to 100 entries. This fall Manchester adopted a similar format (60/60/60) for their Saturday 2pm tournament. The results: a consistent appearance of 60 to 80 players each Saturday afternoon.
The smaller ongoing popular tournaments have also remained strong across New England, appealing to players looking for a lower price point. The River Casino in Nashua grinds out its long-term Sunday tournament. The creatively structured $5 Fin (buy-in minimum of $5) draws an average of 30-40 players each week. The Greyhound Casino & Tavern raised their buy-ins for their Friday and Saturday afternoon tournaments, losing players in each, but preserved the $50 level for Sunday and that tournament still sees six or more tables each week.
Physical Rehabilitation of Poker Rooms
In anticipation of Encore Boston Harbor’s arrival the Connecticut woodland casino behemoths, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, overhauled their poker rooms. With Foxwoods, in particular, the renovation was long overdue and very welcome. At Mohegan Sun, the renovation and move across the facility centralized the poker room and yoked it with other amenities. Neither casino is resting on its historical laurels in the New England poker scene in the face of new competition.
Foxwoods moved their cash room from a dark basement to the well-lit main casino level. The new room lies in the Rainmaker Casino adjacent to the smoke-free casino section. The now fully enclosed and high-ceilinged cash room boasts a substantial air quality improvement. Foxwoods’ poker room also upgraded to better lighting, more space between tables, very well-padded chairs, and new tables with cupholders and phone chargers at every seat. The tournament area remained alongside the sportsbook, and is just beyond the back doors of the new cash room.
Mohegan Sun’s physical makeover was not as imperative as Foxwood’s had been. Mohegan’s old room was homey, with nice decor and decent room between tables. However, the location was off the beaten path, tucked in the back corner of the Casino of the Wind. The new location is convenient to both the Indian Summer and Riverview garages. The high ceilings, rounded corners, pleasant decor, and well-spaced tables of the new room create quite a pleasant ambiance. The chairs are adjustable, well-padded, and comfortable. Mohegan Sun also put a small Johnny Rockets and a bar right in the poker room. There are also video poker, automatic baccarat, and roulette machines for those who need some entertainment during breaks. And their tradition of free, tasty milkshakes for players lives on!
The Greyhound Casino & Tavern
The former Seabrook Poker Room in New Hampshire, now The Greyhound Casino & Tavern, has a long tradition as an active New England poker room. In recent years the physical plant’s deterioration had reduced its appeal substantially. With a leaky roof, stained carpets, and large spaces walled off by plastic tarps, people attended Seabrook despite the ambiance, not because of it. In 2018 Seabrook was purchased and refurbished by a Nevada-based company, and has been completely transformed. While still awaiting its final upgrade, even the current transformation has been seismic. Whether sitting in the cash/gaming table area or tournament room, you wouldn’t believe you’re in the same building. Everything is updated: lighting, new paint and decor, better dining area, and even a friendly faux fireplace as you walk through the door.
Also of note here are Chasers and Boston Billiards Club and Casino who both opened their poker rooms in the past five years with cosy and aesthetically pleasing rooms. Neither room has been renovated because there has been no need.
Poker players have so many options for entertainment, food, and lodging at Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and Encore Boston Harbor. Positive customer experience is largely driven by the plethora of diverse opportunities. This is not to say these rooms also don’t take good care of their customers when they’re at the tables. Most do a very good job (see above Mohegan Sun milkshakes).
However, the smaller rooms in New Hampshire rise to the occasion with a different approach. Each room has a distinct character. If you’re in the mood for a freewheeling party, Manchester and their dedicated shot waitress is a great match. Want a more challenging and serious brand of poker? Hampton Falls fields a number of excellent players to test your skills. Chasers’ dedication to cash poker allows the room to cater their benefits and environment to cash players. The Lakes Region, without any major geographic competition, feels almost like a home game.
Many of these smaller rooms with tight-knit player communities offer episodic “bounty” tournaments with a large payout for knocking out a designated player. This player is either a staff member or a well-known player. Those tournaments not only draw big crowds but also create a fun atmosphere and recognize the community nature of regional poker.
Creativity in the Face of New Competition
Physical plant alterations to card rooms have been just one of the recent changes in the New England poker scene. Many rooms examined the landscape and adjusted their offerings to create a more attractive product. One of the key changes over the past two years has been the demise of the “bad beat” jackpot and the rise of high hand giveaways. Casinos know that immediate reinforcement is a very powerful motivator. Also, a number of happy winners are better for the room than one overjoyed winner. Almost every room in New England has now integrated high hand strategies into its offerings. Many rooms have nights where those giveaways are so attractive that they pull players away from local competition.
Today, Foxwoods and Encore Boston Harbor are definitely the dominant forces in New England for cash games other than No Limit Hold ‘Em. However, other rooms have carved out their own niches. Boston Billiards Club & Casino and Chasers both have nights where they reliably have multiple Omaha cash tables running. Boston Billiards has also restructured some of their tournaments recently and are gaining player appeal. Hampton Falls, already offering among the best tournament structures in the region, has added more re-entry opportunities, picking up players for their weeknight low buy-in tournaments.To steal from Mark Twain: Reports of the demise of smaller New England poker rooms are greatly exaggerated.Click To Tweet
To steal from Mark Twain: Reports of the demise of smaller New England poker rooms are greatly exaggerated. All of New England’s cornerstone rooms remain active, and show no immediate danger of closure. In fact, some, like the Greyhound Casino & Tavern, are experiencing a renaissance. The addition of MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor has vaulted the whole region into competition – with South Florida, Las Vegas, and Southern California – for the best region of the country for poker players. The diversity of options in New England for both cash and tournament play is staggering. Poker in New England is alive and well from the far New Hampshire north to the Connecticut coast.
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