Gambling Around DC: Place Your Bets

This region is home to more casinos than ever. Here’s a guide to the area’s best—and advice on how to win.

By: Kim Eisler

The movie version of a casino can be intimidating: Men wearing tuxedos. Women in evening dresses. Slick croupiers. Mob bosses named Bugsy.

The modern American casino is nothing like that. Although casinos—most now owned by corporations, not mobsters—still compete for and nurture their biggest players, known as “whales,” most casino-goers are casually dressed men and women who aren’t looking to bet or win a fortune but are just out to have a pleasant evening.

Until the late ’70s, you had to travel to Nevada to visit a casino. In 1978, the Resorts Casino Hotel opened in Atlantic City, becoming the first hotel casino on the East Coast. For nearly two decades, Las Vegas and Atlantic City maintained a monopoly on the business.

In 1983, a small Indian tribe won a federal court battle that would lead to the opening of Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut in 1992. The early success of Foxwoods led a succession of state governments to legalize casino gambling. Largely because of the lobbying power of Atlantic City casino owners, Mid-Atlantic states were slow to approve competing casinos. In the past few years, however, in a desire to raise state revenues, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have allowed them to open. Virginia and the District of Columbia have not yet legalized casino gaming.

In this guide, you’ll find a rundown of six of the best casinos in the region. First, some advice on visiting a casino—and strategies for winning.

Stay on an Even Keel

Many people feel a shot of adrenaline when they walk into a casino and see pulsating lights and hear the pinging of slot machines. Because it’s a bad idea to start risking money while your head is spinning, the best thing to do when you arrive is to wait until that rush subsides—walk around and watch others before you start playing. Seeing others lose money will also remind you that more losing than winning goes on.

Get Carded

The best casinos award you generous food credits and “comps” for your play. When you arrive, it’s a good idea to sign up for a player’s card, which tracks your play when you insert it into a slot machine. The amount of time you spend playing—and the amount you wager—may generate offers for free future slot play, and you can earn credits toward meals or items in the gift shop. In an Atlantic City casino, you might get offered a free room. A player’s card can also make you eligible for prizes and giveaways throughout the day.

Use Valet Parking

While other regional casinos provide free parking, casinos in Atlantic City charge $5 to $10 for self-parking. (Often you can have that refunded once you’re inside and officials see you’re playing.) It’s a quirk of most casinos that the charge for valet parking is usually the same as for self-parking. Always use the valet if you can. One reason: In recent months, major casinos have recorded incidents in their parking facilities. At the Trump Taj Mahal last year, a couple was shot during a robbery in the garage.

Stick to Penny Slots

Many people allot $100 or $200 for a trip to a casino, then head to the slot machines and play until the money is gone. Modern slots are programmed to typically give a person $100 worth of play per hour. Most casinos seem to keep 9 to 12 cents of every dollar. The rest goes back to players, with a few lucky ones winning the lion’s share in jackpots. The casino loses nothing when you win—all the winnings are generated by other slot players.

To stretch out your slot-machine experience, find the lowest-denomination machine you can, usually a penny machine. The machine will allow you to play different lines, so on a penny machine you aren’t really playing just a penny—you could be playing $3 or $6 a spin, thus giving the machine the flexibility to award you a lot of “wins.” The problem is that if you put in 300 pennies and the machine gives you a 250-penny “win,” you’ve actually lost 50 cents. If you’re willing to risk losing $500 to $1,000, try the nickel machines.

Slot machines, by the way, no longer involve pulling handles or dispensing coins. They’re paper-in, paper-out. They take only bills, and they pay out with vouchers you can either cash out or use in another machine.

How to Win Big

To have a chance at winning lots of money on slots, you have to play the maximum lines and coins on a machine. Otherwise you won’t qualify for the big jackpot usually advertised in lights on the machine.

The way to win big is to hit bonus screens. A message might pop up declaring you a winner and moving you to a bonus screen. Some can get complicated—you might have to catch as many fish as you can or gather up dresses—but they can be a lot of fun. Your chair may shake when a bonus round approaches.

Some slot machines borrow themes from movies—such as The Hangover, Ghostbusters, or The Lord of the Rings. Others are based on celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Elvis, or Michael Jackson. Many slot machines play off TV game shows. The world’s most popular slot is Wheel of Fortune, and its latest incarnation comes with a giant communal screen that several players share. When one wins, all win.

Don’t Be Intimidated

While experienced gamblers often head to table games such as craps, roulette, blackjack, baccarat, sic bo, and pai gow—which involve more control and less luck than slots—dealers are usually very helpful in giving advice to new players. (After all, if you win, you’ll probably give them a nice tip.) While you might think everyone else at a table knows what’s going on, usually half the people are learning or just as confused as you are.

For anyone who doesn’t want to look or sound like a rookie, a great book on basic table-game strategy is Lyle Stuart’s Winning at Casino Gambling. Blackjack players might try Edward Thorp’s classic, Beat the Dealer.

Drinking and Gambling Don’t Mix

Gambling and alcohol aren’t a good combination. And if you have to drive home on a winding road from a place like Charles Town, West Virginia, it can be a real danger. Casinos may ply you with cheap booze in an effort to separate you from your money. Drink at your peril.

Tips on Tipping

Even if drinks are free, it’s customary to tip waitresses with either a gaming chip or a dollar. Almost all the service people in casinos work for tips. For games such as craps, roulette, and blackjack, the customary way of tipping the dealer is to make a bet for him or her. Slot players will encounter fewer tipping opportunities unless they hit a jackpot that has to be paid by hand. When in doubt, tip.

What’s That Smell?

It’s a myth that casinos pump extra oxygen into the air to keep you playing. But it’s true that scents are put into the air ducts to erase the smell of booze, tobacco, and three-day-old T-shirts. Borgata in Atlantic City uses a blend of jasmine, lily, basil, moss, and other scents that’s supposed to evoke a “seductive” feel. At the Revel, which is promoting itself as an Atlantic City beach resort, management rejected the idea of an artificial ocean scent, feeling that the real thing would suffice.

When It’s Time to Go Home

It’s easy to say but hard to do: If winning is your objective, try to quit while you’re ahead. Driving home with winnings is a singularly satisfying experience. My advice: Buy something tangible with your profits, even if it’s a pair of socks, to remember your winning day.

Kim Eisler (kimeisler@me.com), former national editor of The Washingtonian, is the author of four books, including “Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World’s Most Profitable Casino.” 

This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.