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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

Contact Gary at and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

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Top 10 thoughts and observations from Atlantic City

2 Jul 2018

By Gary Trask
ATLANTIC CITY -- It was a whirlwind two days last week as we headed south to Atlantic City for the highly anticipated debuts of the Ocean Resort Casino and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino - Atlantic City.

Not only did we manage to cover both grand openings — which took place within hours of each other on Thursday — but we also made the time to visit and experience all seven of the other Atlantic City casino properties. The result? We came home with a notebook chock full of nuggets and observations, not just about the unveilings of these two impressive properties, but of the overall destination, as well.

So, as we have often done following excursions to Las Vegas, here we share some of the many thoughts that entered our sunburned head as we explored the iconic Atlantic City Boardwalk for 48 hours.

10. Tale of the tape
First off, let's set the scene. The two new properties both sit directly on the Boardwalk, and by our count, are about 600 steps away from each other. In between sits the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel, a casino-turned-hotel that reopened in July 2016 and is hoping to take advantage of the new resorts it is sandwiched between, with the introduction of more guest rooms and new food and entertainment offerings.

Ocean Resort Casino, previously the Revel Casino Hotel, is 6.4 million square feet. The casino floor checks in at 138,000 square feet and offers 16 restaurants/bars and 1,399 guest rooms. The Hard Rock property, the former Trump Taj Mahal, is smaller (around 4 million square feet), but has more guest rooms (2,010), a larger casino (167,321) and a few more dining options (19, including a world-famous Hard Rock Café).

From a pure aesthetic point of view, Ocean Resort Casino, the tallest structure in Atlantic City and the second-tallest in New Jersey at 710 feet and 60 stories high, prevails as it takes full advantage of its location. There are floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere, and you rarely forget that you are sitting on the Atlantic Ocean as you wander the enormous property.

The Hard Rock, which spent $500 million to renovate the property, has the typical "hip" Hard Rock vibe, but takes it to an even greater level. Rock 'n' roll memorabilia and catchy music are everywhere. On multiple occasions, Jim Allen, the chairman of Hard Rock International and CEO of Seminole Gaming, reminded everyone that Hard Rock is an "entertainment company" before it's a casino gaming company, and that's exactly what the resort represents — with a Howie Mandel Comedy Club, a flashy nightclub and an opening roster of summer musical acts that includes Third Eye Blind, Florida Georgia Line and Maroon 5, following performances by Pitbull and Carrie Underwood over the weekend.

9. Cat and mouse game?
Obviously, there is an inherent rivalry between the two new casinos, even though officials at both casinos had nothing but nice things to say about each other publicly.

"People say, 'Jim, are you upset that (Ocean Resort Casino) is opening?' No, I think it's the greatest thing," said Allen. "We love that there's 1,400 rooms right next door of world-class quality."

But if there were truth serum in the room, it would be interesting to hear what Hard Rock officials really think. It was the Hard Rock that first announced its grand opening date would be 28 June, back on 18 April with a three-city news conference. Ocean Resort Casino responded less than three weeks later to announce it would have its grand opening on the same day.

Then, on Wednesday night, both casinos opened their doors to the public unexpectedly. There was a lot of confusion on the boardwalk as people strolled by both venues and were surprised to see the doors unlocked and people inside. It's difficult to tell which property was open first. Ocean Resort Casino announced it on Twitter around 6:30 p.m., while no official word that we know of ever came from Hard Rock.

Then, of course, there was Thursday morning. The Hard Rock had a press conference at 9 a.m. and a guitar smashing ceremony set for 11 a.m. That seemed to leave plenty of time for people hoping to be at both openings to get over to Ocean Resort Casino for the 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting.

But a time crunch developed when the guitar smashing ceremony started about 25 minutes late (officials said they wanted to get everyone into the 7,000-seat Etess Arena before starting, but the place was half-empty when the proceedings did get underway), and then dragged on for over an hour. The actual "smashing" took place at 12:35 p.m., not leaving much time to scoot over to the ribbon-cutting on the steps of the Ocean Resort Casino. By the time we got there, things were already underway, and a crowd of about 300 people was gathered.

More than a few cynical observers wondered if the delayed start and lengthy smashing ceremony was intentional, but of course, we'll never get the real answer.

8. Service with a smile
There is one sure bet at Atlantic City's newest properties: There will be a heavy emphasis on customer service.

Many feel that one of the many reasons the Revel failed was its lack of attention to detail and dedication to the customer. So, it was not a surprise to hear Bruce Deifik, owner and chairman of Ocean Resort Casino, speak glowingly about his workforce, which is about 3,000 people strong. Employees at Ocean Resort Casino proudly display a name tag that also includes the number of the employee hired.

Not to be outdone, multiple Hard Rock employees we spoke to mentioned what a great company it is to work for, and Allen was repeatedly praised for his dedication to every employee at the resort, no matter their rank. Over 50,000 people applied for jobs at Hard Rock, and the resort eventually hired 3,900.

Both resorts suffered from some opening day jitters and minor issues, but every employee we encountered over the course of the day was polite and well trained.

7. The Boardwalk
As much as I love Las Vegas, there is something to be said for being able to incorporate an ocean setting into your gambling trip. It's one of the primary reasons why I am such a big fan of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Atlantic City certainly has the same appeal.

The Atlantic City Boardwalk has been around since the late 1800s, and you can see why this now four-mile-long, 60-foot-wide wooden walkway has always been the center of the city's attraction, especially during its peak periods. It inspired both the board game Monopoly and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, which is set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era.

There are dozens of great spots to shop, eat and drink up and down the Boardwalk, and the two new resorts have added to this list. Ocean Resort Casino features 90,000 square feet of "flexible outdoor event space," including six pools and an area off the lobby with fire pits and comfortable seating. Hard Rock opened a new Beach Bar, directly under the Observation Wheel at Steel Pier and next to the Land Shark Bar that is part of Resorts Casino Hotel next door. The new bar is very cool, as you can literally put your feet in the sand and belly up to the cabana bar, or take advantage of the lounge seating while taking in live music.

6. The poker situation
Fans of Rounders, prepare to be disappointed. The 48-table poker room at Taj Mahal that served as an inspiration for many scenes in the classic poker movie starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton did not make its way into the new Hard Rock, which does not have a poker room. Ocean Resort Casino does have a poker room, although it's much smaller (eight tables) than the 37 tables that were found at Revel.

There is no doubt that the place to go for live poker in Atlantic City remains the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, with 80 tables. The Borgata regularly hosts big events such as the World Poker Tour Borgata Poker Open and weekly $10,000 guaranteed tournaments.

And, don't forget, New Jersey offers regulated online casinos and poker. Thanks to the recent introduction of shared player liquidity, has the much more diverse and deeper menu of games. So, you can play some poker while sitting on the water at one of the aforementioned venues above.

5. The sportsbook situation
Thanks to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling back in May, sports betting has arrived in New Jersey. Atlantic City currently has two sportsbooks open, at The Borgata and the new Ocean Resort Casino.

The Borgata book opened on 14 June and is operated by MGM. While sports betting is offered, this room is really still just a racebook, and most of the TVs had horse racing on when we were there last week. The word is that a dedicated area will be given to the sportsbook business, and the hope is that it will be done by football season. For now, this is a very small room full of horse betting terminals and a small, 10-seat bar with one server and three TVs. It’s pretty much a place where you would go, place your bet and leave.

As for Ocean Resort Casino, William Hill US, which also opened the state's very first sportsbook at Monmouth Park on 14 June, is operating the venue — and it found a perfect location, directly in the middle of the new casino. There is a bar with multiple TVs and about 40 seats, but by the fall, there will be a 7,500-square-foot space dedicated for the sportsbook with huge-screen TVs and ample seating. This is much more along the lines of what you see and experience in Las Vegas, and we can't wait to get back and check it out. William Hill is the largest bookmaker in Europe and controls 55% of the sportsbooks in Nevada. They know what they're doing, and a first-rate product is fully expected.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of people that walked up here (Wednesday night) before we opened and were just staring at the odds board and getting excited about the opportunity to bet legally," William Hill US CEO Joe Asher said on Thursday, moments after the betting counters opened for business and attracted long lines. "We're excited to be a part of it."

Allen said at a press conference that while there is no sportsbook option at Hard Rock right now, it is indeed coming, and coming soon.

"As most of you know, we are involved with the world-famous Hard Rock Stadium (in Florida, home to NFL's Miami Dolphins), which will be host of the 2020 Super Bowl," Allen said. "There are some restrictions with our agreement there, so we want to make sure we are in compliance and in accordance with the relationship we have with the Dolphins and the NFL."

Elsewhere on the Boardwalk, Resorts Casino has signed deals with both DraftKings and SBTech to provide sportsbook solutions for its imminent entry into the sportsbook world and, once again, you have to assume it is doing everything in its power to be ready for football season.

As for mobile sports betting, that is also only a matter of time.

"We understand that the (sports betting) market is more favorable in the handheld device or smartphone," Allen added. "Nobody has had that technology approved by the DGE (Division of Gaming Enforcement), but we are in that process and expect an announcement within the next 30 to 60 days."

4. The Borgata
Aside from the two new and shiny resorts, our favorite property in AC was the Borgata. Besides the aforementioned poker room, there were plenty of other highlights at the casino, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this summer with some big name musical acts such as Barry Manilow, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Cher and Ringo Starr.

While not directly located on the water, the property offers a spacious casino at 161,000 square feet and a nice selection of both fine (I was told by more than a few people that Old Homestead Steak House is the best in the city) and casual dining.

There's also a very cool outdoor Beer Garden surrounding the outdoor pool with a variety of lawn games (corn hole, giant Jenga), fire pits, snacks and bites, and live music.

3. Happy Hours at Golden Nugget
You may remember we recently took one for the team and hunted down 10 can’t-miss Happy Hours in Las Vegas. Well, we didn't get to that many in AC, but we did discover two that are very much worth the time to plan for, and both can be found at Golden Nugget – Atlantic City.

Found in the Marina District, alongside the Borgata and Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, the Golden Nugget is very much like its sister properties in Downtown Las Vegas and Biloxi, both of which I have become a big fan of.

The AC property has two restaurants right next to each other on the top floor with super F&B specials. At Vic & Anthony's, the Happy Hour menu is available daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and all day on Thursdays. Some of the highlights include fresh oysters on the half shell for $1 apiece, jumbo shrimp for $2 apiece and $8 steak or tuna tartare. Domestic beers are $4, wines by the glass are $7 and specialty cocktails are $8.

Right next door, with huge windows overlooking the marina, Chart House has a similar Happy Hour menu, available Tuesday-Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. We went with the $8 Prime Rib Sliders with caramelized onions, Jack cheese and horseradish, but were also tempted by the Fish Tacos ($8), Ahi Nachos ($6) and wok-soaked Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($6). Cocktails ($7), wines by the glass ($6) and domestic beers ($3) were also very reasonably priced.

2. Indoor Topgolf a hit
Two years ago, I was blown away by Topgolf Las Vegas upon my first visit. And I have to admit I was skeptical when hearing about the new, indoor Topgolf Swing Suites. How could they possibly replicate the outdoor experience behind four walls, I thought?

Well, I'm here to say that I was wrong. The Topgolf Swing Suite that just opened at Ocean Resort Casino is outstanding. At 26,000 square feet on the second floor, with staggering views of the Atlantic Ocean, 11 hitting bays, a laser-technology virtual putting green and a bar with multiple TVs, this is truly a venue you could spend hours in. The cost to rent a bay is $90 per hour, and during that time a maximum of eight people can not only play Topgolf's menu of fun golf games that are geared toward golfers and non-golfers alike, but you can also play baseball and dodge ball.

By comparison, MGM Detroit opened a Swing Suite that had three bays and 7,000 square feet, before adding another 1,000 square feet and an additional bay due to demand.

"This is a next-level opening for our indoor division," said Peter Kratsios, director of sales and business development for Topgolf Swing Suite. "We have a new, hungry ownership group (at Ocean Resort Casino), a property that's spectacular and positioned nicely in Atlantic City, which is on the up and up. All the ingredients are here."

One ingredient that isn't currently there is a sportsbook window inside the Topgolf suite. But I'm willing to bet you our first hourly session inside one of the bays that there will be one come football season. It's a natural fit and an opportunity both Topgolf and William Hill will pounce on.

1. AC a sure bet?
Optimism abounded throughout the grand opening festivities of both resorts, and for good reason. These two casinos could very easily be dropped onto the Las Vegas Strip and would not only fit right in, but rival to be just as jaw-dropping and popular as your Bellagios, Wynns and Venetians of the world.

CEO after CEO and politician after politician spoke glowingly about what these new resorts will do for the entire city and to help spark a rebirth for the area.

One comment, in particular, by Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam at the Hard Rock ceremony stuck out to me.

"There’s a new energy in this town that we can basically thank Hard Rock Atlantic City for,” he said. “Things like this don’t just happen by chance. It happens with people who have vision, who have guts, and took a chance and bet on Atlantic City. Let me tell you, Atlantic City is a sure bet."

Now, having been a long-time gambler, I know full well there is no such thing as a "sure bet." And I fully realize that Gilliam was caught up in a glorious moment for his city and was just using a figure of speech.

Even still, this is no "sure bet" for Atlantic City. Despite the world-class qualities of the two new resorts, I have my doubts that they can actually pick up and carry Atlantic City back to where it was during its glory days. The competition in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and soon Massachusetts is deep and it's real. Some of the other properties on the Boardwalk are severely outdated and while they may get an initial bump, in the end, my guess is their casino and restaurant business will suffer. And, yes, it's an absolute bonus to be able to visit a gambling destination set on the shoreline, but as a lifelong New Englander, I know full well that the optimal weather season here is short. So there will be only so many months that Atlantic City will be able to use the weather as a drawing card.

While the hope here is sincere that Atlantic City does indeed experience the revitalization that everyone was talking about last week, I'm certainly not willing to call that happening as more than likely, never mind a "sure bet."
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