Horseshoe Casino, Reviewed: Bets and Bars, Without the Free Drinks

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As that little skirmish on the first weekend indicated, a fighting stance belies the glitz of the Horseshoe Casino’s coming-out party.

The highway-side billboards for the Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills advertise “Over $10 billion in payouts and counting,” a reminder that the two-year-old gaming complex was there first, and could be easily accessed on the way home.

At a time when Atlantic City casinos are folding and Horseshoe corporate parent Caeser’s has fewer chips to bet, the appeal of a competitor outside the gates is more necessary evil than welcome opportunity for brand synergy.

As such, the Horseshoe’s farriers have taken great pains to make sure wipe from the memory banks and any thought of the neighbor to the south. In fact, from the moment visitors walk safely under cover from the massive parking garage into the casino itself, a neverending stream of bright lights and loud noises wipe away all thoughts of the outside world. The bar doesn’t even close, so there’s no reason to leave.

That first moment entering the casino doesn’t seem designed to appeal to the old school riverboat gambler. Rather it reminds one of  the flashy websites with dozens of casino games. The flash of fluorescent lights seems to be seeking the same disorienting burst of energy that makes children light up when they walk into Chuck-E-Cheese, or wherever the kids go to get silly with their parents’ money these days. At the Horseshoe entrance, however, there is a security guard checking IDs, and the lights shimmering above strive for a bit more elegance.

 

Elegant lights shine from above.
Striving for elegance at the Horseshoe Casino

The entrance spits patrons forth into a maze of slot machines and tables that form the main event for most casino-goers. After taking a couple of laps around the first floor, it became immediately clear that all of the shining, buzzing machines were the main attraction. The gambling takes up most of the center, with the exception of the 24-hour bar.

Meanwhile, the restaurants serve as the flanks, not seeking to distract from the main event. A mall may be an apt comparison in terms of layout. But instead of keeping the food options in a court, the Horseshoe spread rings the outside with the eats, and other superfluous matters.

Cable TV is well-represented. A room for people who wear sunglasses inside is advertised as a World Series of Poker circuit room. In other corners, the restaurants owned by Food Network stars like Diners, Drive-Ins, Dives and terrible New York Times restaurant review subject Guy Fieri (Guy Fieri’s Baltimore Kitchen and Bar), as well as Bayou bro John Besh and Mexican master Aaron Sanchez (Johnny Sanchez) fill up the space. Rounding out the dining options, Jack Binion’s Steakhouse caters to the old school smoke-filled poker table set, while Ruby 8 Noodle and Sushi Bar provides Asian fare right next to the Asian room. Fieri talked last week about his appreciation of Baltimore food, but this high-end chain restaurant strategy is clearly designed to appeal to visitors who will instantly recognize the names. Besides, a restaurant with local character may distract from the gambling.

The Asian room
The Asian room

If gamblers can make it all the way in the back of the first floor without being distracted, there’s a more food court-like affordability with burgers, pizza and beer for under $10. There’s even local beers from Heavy Seas.  But for hungry penny-pinchers, the gauntlet to the back is pretty stiff. There are plenty opportunities to win (or lose) money,and they’ve designed the room and placed the machines to make doing so very compelling. Take a slot machine called Tiki Torch. Squeezing into the seat that offers only inches between the machine and chair, players find a large screen that’s only inches from their face. By the time the money disappears into the machine, most peripheral vision is gone. Money also disappears quickly, and is magically transformed into credits. Likewise, the sign above informs of an opportunity to earn eight free spins instead of any jackpot winnings, and those who eventually decide to muster the willpower necessary to get up must then navigate another labyrinth of slots offering free turns and only before finding their way to clear air.

It all seems like a video arcade, until one looks around and sees that the clientele is mostly people roughly between the ages of 40 and 60. Don’t tell Horseshoe that the older generation isn’t susceptible to video games.

Don't go anywhere.
Don’t go anywhere.

At some casinos, the slots represent an opportunity to score at least one real thing in the form of a free drink. But, perhaps reflecting the rough times in the casino business, no scantily clad waitress came to offer. There was, however, a button on the machine that offered an opportunity to order a drink while sitting down. At least leaving the machine would not be necessary.

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So, it was time to jump into the fires of the Tiki Torch. The game’s rules were pretty indecipherable, but there were plenty of shiny buttons to push. Kings and jacks were involved, so it seemed close enough to cards that a pattern would eventually emerge. Plus, bottom-dollar spins were only two cents. Who doesn’t have two cents?

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The pattern never became clear, but the bell did finally ring. Just when luck seemed to be dipping, a turn earned the vaunted eight free spins. An alarm bell rang. With the screen so close, I thought for a minute that the building’s fire alarm was going off before the screen retook control. The much-ballyhooed turns are so special that one doesn’t even have to press a button to make them go. Seven turns passed before my increasingly dazed eyes, but there were no wins. Then, on the eighth turn, the spin provided credit that amounted to $1. Not much, but enough to make a player feel like staying put. The pattern repeated itself once that dollar was gone. Eventually, the desire to bet bigger overcame the desire for free spins, and the credits quickly sank my credits to zero. After considering sacrificing some more dollars for Tiki credits, a cheer from a far away table forced me to look away. In the brief moment of distraction, I was able to get up. More flashing lights greeted. To ensure I didn’t sit down at another machine, I went outside to the smoking section for some fresh air. But the usual reporter’s goldmine of people standing around with nothing to do but puff was not to be found. Instead, there were more machines. Looking out from the second floor balcony, the Maryland Live! billboard was viewable off in the distance.

 

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Back inside, the magnetism of the maze of machines again took hold, advertising bridesmaids, golden goddesses and pirates. Taking the escalator to the second floor yielded little different, except there appeared to be more tables offering various forms of poker, roulette and, since this is a classy place with classy lights, craps. There, money doesn’t turn into credits, but chips. At least you can hold them, for a little while anyway. At one table, a player sat down and casually passed five 20s to the dealer. Showing himself to be one of the sought after customers caught in the casino wars, he compared the Horseshoe to Maryland Live!. The atmosphere at Horseshoe is better, he offered, the music isn’t as loud.

 

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I took another lap, observing that the clientele wasn’t that different from the people playing slots. They all seemed to know what they were doing, with plenty of dark glasses to go around. A few curious onlookers gathered around the roulette wheel to watch the real spins, but mostly the crowd seemed purposeful in their wagering.

These folks seemed pretty content, so I returned to the same table. A different dealer was already in place who seemed just as polite as the first, so it felt like a new opportunity. Feeling like the stakes were bending in my favor, I decided on a more aggressive approach. After asking to hit on 17, the dealer paused and asked whether I really wanted to. This caused me to think for a moment, and soon realized that my pause meant the hand was already lost. I didn’t hit, and he reached for my chips.

 

“Better luck next time,” he said.

 

Having lost, the soulful sounds coming from the center of the hall sounded a lot better than the people cheering at the other tables. Turns out, they were coming from that 24/7 bar everyone keeps talking about. Along with the restaurants, the 14Forty bar (which is named for the number of minutes in a day) redeems the Horseshoe from sacrificing everything to the gambling, and not just because it’s open for 24 hours.

 

The celebrity names on the eateries will undoubtedly help the Horseshoe’s marketing efforts, but 14Forty stood out as the main attraction that will bring people in for things other than gambling. Positioned along the outside so as not to intrude, Guy Fieri is the wing man on this date, to help you feel like you’ve got a familiar face if you get rejected. 14Forty, on the other hand, is the girl you want to talk to in the middle of the room. In a casino that doesn’t have Celine Dion or ladies with boas, the 14Forty stands as the lone venture that seems designed to bring people in for something other than placing a bet.

The bar is only bolstered in this position by the fact that it is both good fun, and offers a spectacle in itself. Even if you’re losing money or don’t want to sit at the slots for hours, spending a little time with some live music and beers makes the place feel like a legitimate nightlife spot. Drinks are served on the first floor, while the stage is elevated high over the bottles, and visible from both levels. On Sunday night, local band Bosley was entertaining the crowd with a complete horn section and backup singers. On both floors, the music managed to beat out gambling for a fleeting hold on several patrons’ attention. They were preceded by The Voice’s Ddendyl, and were set to be followed by a DJ who would perform until midnight. On most nights, the DJ sets run until 4 a.m.

 

Bosley performs above 14Forty
Bosley performs above 14Forty

 

After spending a while listening and an even longer period navigating the slots in search of the escalator, the alarm once again sounded. A visit to the casino wouldn’t be complete without a spin of the roulette wheel. Luck was not there either, though the subtle football theme did make it feel better to complain about results that I had little control over. This version of roulette being a machine, there wasn’t even a dealer to ensure better luck next time.

 

If I had been a winner, the walk out might have been more triumphant. But then again, I thought, at least I didn’t have the obvious look of a winner with something to lose that makes for an easy target. With a big parking garage overhead and interaction with the outside world limited, there was at least the feeling of safe passage. Even late at night, it’s easy to see how the casino feels removed enough from the rest of the city to make a 2:30 a.m. trip seem like a good idea.

 

Once returned to the paler light of the sun, the crowds heading east indicated the O’s were about to throw the first pitch, and the Jeter-farewell/division championship fervor. Camden Yards is one stadium beyond the closest sports spot to the casino, and the carryover was easy to spot by the mix of orange birds and pinstripes playing poker. In that sense, Horseshoe is well-positioned. If you’re on your way into town for a downtown event, it’s there to pass some time, and doesn’t involve difficult parking. If you’re leaving town and have money to burn or just want one more bar stop, it’s on your way out. But with the somewhat isolated roadside location, it wouldn’t beat out a neighborhood festival or corner dive bar for this urban dweller. To return, there would have to be a little less going on. Perhaps in winter, the bright lights will beckon as a contrast to the gray sky.



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