he newfound attention to details is part of an open play to pull customers from Atlantic City, and tribal casinos farther north, and it has advocacy groups objecting about the racial implications.
Following the lead of high-end casinos in Las Vegas, operators such as Dover Downs and Delaware Park are hiring directors of Asian-American player development, expanding dining areas and menus, and considering foreign-language advertising in newspapers and on billboards. "It is a demographic that does not tend to play slot machines," explained Andrew Gentile, chief operating officer for Delaware Park, in Wilmington.
But they do like to play baccarat and Pai Gow, a version of poker based on an ancient Chinese tile game, said Ed Sutor, president and CEO of Dover Downs Inc. Asian-American gamblers in the region typically have had to travel to Atlantic City or to tribal casinos in Connecticut to play their favorite games, often arriving on buses from major metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York and Washington.
Now, casino operators in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will compete for many of those players, especially from the Baltimore-Washington area, likely spelling more bad news for Atlantic City's ailing casinos but possibly bolstering the growing gaming industry in surrounding states.
"There's no secret that if you go to Las Vegas and you go to some of the upscale hotels ... you will find that those hotels cater to the Asian market," said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of the gaming industry.
After the MGM Grand opened in Las Vegas in 1993, officials reworked an entrance based on the company's trademark lion after learning some Asian gamblers considered the open mouth of a lion to be bad luck, Sutor noted. He also said some casino elevators don't have buttons for the fourth floor because four is considered an unlucky number in some Asian cultures.
John Finamore, head of regional operations for Penn National Gaming, which is adding table games at its casinos in Charles Town, W.Va., and near Hershey, Pa., said there are roughly half a million Asians in the Baltimore-Washington market who can now gamble closer to home. The company has hired an Asian consultant to help with its marketing plans and is adding a noodle bar and expanded Asian food offerings at Charles Town.
Tim Fong, a psychiatry professor and co-director of the gambling studies program at the University of California-Los Angeles, said gambling has long been popular in many Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. "It's just in the culture," he said, adding that the gambling tradition among Asians is tied to themes such as predestination and fate.
Not everyone is excited about more gambling opportunities for the Asian community in the mid-Atlantic region. "The fundamental thing is that these businesses are predatory," said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia advocacy group that has been fighting plans to build a casino near the city's Chinatown neighborhood. "We're concerned that it will have a harmful effect on the Asian-American community and all the communities in Philadelphia."
Fong, the UCLA professor, said not all Asian people like to gamble, and that he does not believe that the casino industry is preying on the Asian population. At the same time, he noted that studies have shown the rate of gambling addiction among Asian-Americans to be higher than in the general population, which he said may be partly attributed to the lack of services targeting problem gamblers within the community.
Fong pointed to the Asian outreach initiative started by the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling in 2006 as a model that officials in the mid-Atlantic might want to consider as their states plunge into table games. "It's an unmet need," he said.