Roulette wheels can spin once again in Massachusetts casinos, but only with COVID-19 safety precautions that outlaw the typical rowdy atmosphere of players and spectators around the table.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved the reintroduction of roulette to MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor at a meeting Thursday that also saw regulators approve a variety of mostly minor changes to the rules of the games offered at Massachusetts casinos.
When the commission allowed casinos to reopen in July, regulators did not allow poker, craps and roulette on the gaming floors. Loretta Lillios, interim director of the commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, said Thursday that the state's two full-scale casinos requested that the games be allowed now that they have been open for about three months without significant issues.
"We have worked with them to identify health and safety measures that could be implemented with roulette and in doing so we tried to hew closely to the measures that the commission already approved for the blackjack-style games," Lillios said. "One of our obligations with a request like this is that we consult with the Department of Public Health ... and the department raised no objections to the reintroduction of the game and it communicated that it is comfortable doing so in conjunction with the minimum safety measures outlined here."
Another factor that the DPH took into consideration, Lillios said, was that Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey casinos are offering roulette, meaning that most Massachusetts roulette players have the option of gambling in another state within easy driving distance.
The commission approved a series of safety guidelines the casinos must follow if they plan to offer roulette. Instead of the usual nine players seated and others standing around the table, the game will be capped at a maximum of three players, all of whom must be seated and separated by plexiglass. No spectators will be allowed to stand around the table.
Only 16 roulette tables will be allowed at Encore and MGM is allowed up to seven tables. Neither casino will be allowed to increase its current maximum occupancy in conjunction with the addition of roulette.
The other significant change roulette players will notice is a new prohibition on wagers placed once the ball is in motion. IEB Assistant Director Bruce Band said roulette is a very verbal game and there was a concern that the plexiglass barriers could make it more difficult for a dealer to recognize verbal bets once the ball is in motion, so the decision was made to simply eliminate those wagers. Band said MGM and Encore are supportive of the change.
Commissioners said they were now comfortable with the reintroduction of roulette -- the commission denied a request in August to reintroduce both roulette and craps -- because of the small number of compliance issues in the months since the casinos reopened, the safety measures put in place, and because Lillios said the return of roulette would result in Encore hiring back 60 employees it had laid off and MGM hiring back an undetermined number.
"I think we now have a history of watching our licensees and patron compliance," Commissioner Eileen O'Brien said. "The numbers are not static, they are trending in the opposite direction of what we would like to see. But on balance I think if you look at the integrity of the games, the protections in place, the lack of increase to occupancy, the additional rehires that would occur as a result, I think it is an appropriate time now to discuss this and vote on it as a commission."
The commission on Thursday also approved a raft of changes to the rules of the games as posted on the commission's website. Most of the changes deal with terminology or address situations like when a dealer forgets to "burn" a card at the start of a hand rather than significantly altering how any game is played.
"These changes are being made for continuity throughout all the games' rules to reduce errors by dealers who deal multiple games. Other changes include the modernization of all the technology used in gaming, as well as social distancing protocols needed during times of a pandemic," Burke Cain, assistant chief of the Gaming Commission's Gaming Agents Division, said.
The commission approved changes related to blackjack that are meant to clear up some of the confusion that led in 2019 to a lawsuit being filed alleging that Encore Boston Harbor was duping customers by paying out at less favorable odds for blackjack wins.
All references to the "6 to 5 variation" of blackjack will be removed from the commission's rules, which the commission said would "remove the confusion between the game of blackjack using the option to pay blackjack at odds of 6 to 5."
The commission's old rules used "6-to-5" in two different ways: one to refer to a variation of blackjack that uses different dealing procedures than the standard game, and the other related to standard blackjack and included options for the gaming licensee to pay out those wins at 3-to-2 odds or 6-to-5 odds. The first type of reference was removed Thursday, leaving casinos the option of paying out at 6-to-5 odds as long as it is clearly printed on the table.
A Reading attorney filed a class action complaint against Encore last year claiming that the new Everett casino "brazenly stolen and will continue to steal" from customers by ignoring "established rules of the game of Blackjack to increase its statistical advantage and lower the lawful payouts owed to its customers." The commission ruled at the time that the Everett casino was not violating any Gaming Commission rules or regulations.
Carrie Torrisi, the Gaming Commission's associate general counsel, said Thursday that there were two lawsuits filed over the blackjack issue -- one in Superior Court was dismissed and one in District Court was dismissed in part, though part remains active in the court system.
"One of the main issued raised in the decision that was issued on the motion to dismiss was that there was confusion as to what the term 6-to-5 meant when 6-to-5 was referring to a 6-to-5 game variation versus when it was referring to 6-to-5 payout odds," she said. "The changes ... address these concerns and clarify the meaning of 6-to-5 by eliminating the 6-to-5 variation from the game of blackjack and we think that that addresses the issues."