Poker players living in the Mid-Atlantic states haven't had many options if they wanted to sling some chips. Home games don't run 24/7, underground clubs are by nature secretive and hard to locate, and in both those cases you have to worry about whether the game was crooked or if cops (or robbers) might saunter through the door. And unless you were up for a seven-hour jaunt to Niagara Falls or Atlantic City, playing in a true casino card room was out of the question.
That is, until October 19th rolled around. With Pennsylvania recently approving the construction of slots-only casinos across the state, West Virginia decided their casinos needed to offer customers a reason to keep coming across the border. With surprising speed, the West Virginia Legislature approved a motion to allow local referendums on introducing table games to existing casinos, and on June 30th Hancock County voters approved their referendum on the matter. And so, less than four months later, Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort opened their poker room to the public.
For the poker-starved masses Mountaineer's huge room will seem like — with apologies to the late John Denver — almost heaven. Mountaineer spent $1.2 million renovating their grandstand area and turning it into a 9,900-square-foot card room. That's plenty of space to comfortably host 37 poker tables, with seven of those tables split off for a separate high-stakes section. There's a bar just a few feet beyond the rail where you can get a drink and a bite to eat, and there are plasma TVs throughout the room showing sports and updated seating and game lists.
The smallest game at Mountaineer is $2/4 limit, and the biggest (at least during my visits) was $10-25 no-limit. The most popular game by far was $1/2 no-limit, but for those who enjoy games other than hold'em there were stud and Omaha games running, and even a $3/6 Omaha-8 table. And there are plans to introduce tournaments and sit-'n'-goes to the roster in the coming months.
I visited Mountaineer three times during its first month of operations, and while you can usually get a seat quickly on a weekday afternoon, things get much more crowded in the evening. Show up on a Saturday night and you're probably going to have a bit of a wait before you land a seat, and chances are future crowds will only grow larger. Neither Mountaineer nor Wheeling Downs (the other West Virginia poker room that opened in October) was allowed to advertise until the West Virginia Lottery gave their approval to open for business, but articles in a few local newspapers and word-of-mouth was enough to draw a big crowd. Now, both casinos are actively promoting their new rooms, and Mountaineer has enjoyed such a great return from poker that they're already planning to add four more tables.
As you might expect from a poker room in a state that just legalized the game, there were some issues early on. The dealers struggled a bit when the room first opened, but after just a month in the box the improvement has been striking. The floorpersons and other staff are very friendly and helpful and handle problems quickly and professionally. Empty seats sometimes took a long time to fill, but that may be due in part to the massive crowds that have packed the room.
The biggest improvement to Mountaineer's poker room was a recent change in the smoking policy. There was no smoking at the tables, of course, but when the room first opened you could smoke just outside the rail, and there were scores of people puffing away just over your shoulder, making the atmosphere more than a bit noxious. That's now been changed—smokers have to walk a good ways over to the racing simulcast area, which has made a vast improvement to the air quality.
The bathroom facilities near the tables are a bit limited, but that's improved as well, as players are now steered to additional facilities that are also located near the simulcast area. (Here's a tip: walk out of the poker room, hang a sharp left, and walk up the steps. There you'll find a small slots parlor, a restaurant…and a bathroom.) And while alcoholic drinks aren't free while you're playing, soft drinks and coffee are. (And here's another tip: order the cappuccino. It's pretty doggone good.).
If you aren't within driving distance of Mountaineer (of if you'd just like to stay for a few days and take it all in) the resort has a 359-room hotel, 3,200 slots, an 18-hole golf course, and live thoroughbred racing. And if you enjoy table games but poker isn't quite your style, all you need to do is wait until the first of the year, when Mountaineer will begin offering blackjack, roulette, craps and other games.
Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort
Chester, West Virginia 26034