Parx, Pennsylvania's most profitable casino, unveiled its 24-table poker room Wednesday in the building next door that once housed the old PhillyPark casino.
Within a half-hour of the 10 a.m. opening, six tables were filled on the third-floor level of what is now called Parx East. An hour later, all 24 tables for Texas Hold 'Em, 7-Card Stud, and Omaha were filled.
Player Dave Raddi, 35, of Warminster, said he had waited two years for poker to arrive at Parx.
"It's two hours with no traffic to Atlantic City," said Raddi, who owns a small business in South Jersey. "This is 15 minutes away."
Wednesday's launch is part of a multimillion-dollar expansion for the Bensalem casino, and it represents yet another threat to Atlantic City gambling halls such as the Borgata and Trump Taj Mahal, where poker tournaments are a staple.
Table games such as blackjack, craps, and roulette arrived at Pennsylvania's casinos in July and have already had an effect on Atlantic City. Revenue from table games at the Shore casinos was down 9.3 percent for the first nine months of 2010, and the new Parx poker room will likely mean a further decline.
Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Delaware County opened its World Series of Poker Room in mid-July with 25 tables, currently the most in the state. It plans to add 10 tables later this month, according to spokeswoman Monica Bersani.
But that will soon be outdone by Parx. Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc., which owns the casino, said plans called for expanding the Parx East poker room to 61 tables by early 2011, creating the largest in Pennsylvania.
"Basically, it's an entire section of the floor for poker players, with their own food service, bar, and restrooms. . . . It's been very well-received," Green said.
Chuck Aquino of Edgewater Park, a regular at the Taj Mahal for poker, arrived at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday to be among the first seated in the state-of-the-art room, outfitted with bright carpeting, flat-screen TVs throughout, and a fancy Circle Bar.
"It just makes sense," Aquino said: It takes only 15 minutes for him to get to Parx, vs. 1 hour, 15 minutes to get to Atlantic City.
"Plus, I'm not paying $10 in tolls and $10 in parking," said the 37-year-old loan processor, decked out in an Eagles sweatshirt and cap.
Parx's new poker room will further hurt Atlantic City, he said: "Absolutely, I can't see how it wouldn't. It's the same thing."
Friday night's ribbon-cutting for Parx East will feature actor Kevin Dillon, who stars on HBO's Entourage. Two hundred dealers were hired for the new poker room, on top of the 400 dealers and other staff brought on for the summer ramp-up to table games.
"We knew the demand was there," Green said. "Poker players are a fairly well-known community of people. They speak with each other over the Internet and on online community sites . . . so [the new poker room] has been anticipated."
Parx East is only getting started, Green said. The ground floor, which also houses racing and pari-mutuel operations, is being renovated to accommodate 50 more live table games, including craps, blackjack, and roulette. An Asian gaming pit for baccarat, pai gow, and sic bow is set for a pre-Christmas opening.
On Tuesday, the Gaming Control Board reported slot-machine gross revenue at the state's 10 casinos increased 11.5 percent in October over the same month a year ago. Parx, which took in $30.9 million, led the pack.
Gross table-games revenue for September, the most recent period for which data are available, totaled $36.9 million in only the second full month of operation, the board said. Parx was again the leader, taking in $6.5 million.
That does not bode well for Atlantic City, where table games, especially poker and blackjack, accounted for about a third of the $3.9 billion in revenue last year. Poker is one of the biggest draws at the larger casinos.
The U.S. Poker Championship started Monday at Trump Taj Mahal and continues until Nov. 22; the National Deaf Poker Tournament takes place this weekend.
Market leader Borgata offers four annual poker-tournament series, each lasting three to four weeks, starting with the Borgata Winter Poker Open in January. It also has two daily tournaments; a Sundays-only stud-poker tournament, guaranteeing a $5,000 prize pool, will begin this week.
What the Borgata stands to lose was evident Monday night, when its cavernous 85-table poker room (the Shore's largest) was packed for the same games Parx East offers.
Russ DiRico, 30, who goes to the Borgata at least once a week for poker, said hard-core players liked to try new places. He said he planned to check out Parx East.
"For me, it's all about profitability," said the disc jockey from Mount Laurel. "I'd like to be successful, and if I think the game is beatable [winnable], then I'll go."
And one other thing: "Proximity means a lot," he said.