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    Plainridge casino now slotted for disappointment

    Plainridge Park Casino has had a hard time since its initial grand opening drawing visitors away from the larger Twin River Casino in Rhode Island.
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Plainridge Park Casino has had a hard time since its initial grand opening drawing visitors away from the larger Twin River Casino in Rhode Island.

    PLAINVILLE — The band capped off a cover of a hit 1970s rock tune with a stylish guitar flourish, but nobody clapped, not one of the nine people glued to video poker screens at the bar, nor any of two dozen others arrayed in ones and twos at the nearby slot machines.

    “Anyone for blackjack?” a woman’s voice called out, while the smiling likeness of a comely dealer looked out from the giant high-resolution screen of a gambling machine, in search of customers. But on this recent Thursday night at Plainridge Park Casino, none approached.

    It was a far cry from the opening in June, when more than 10,000 people paraded through the state’s first casino, and Plainridge’s video blackjack dealers had all the customers they could handle.

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    Those now-lonely virtual dealers epitomize an apparent miscalculation made by the planners of Plainridge, who figured a smallish slots parlor would be enough to lure Massachusetts customers away from a larger casino with more offerings just over the border in Rhode Island. Massachusetts residents interviewed recently at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., said they found Plainridge too small, too focused on slot machines, or too stingy.

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    “Not enough variety,” in the slot machines at Plainridge, said Joseph Gagnon, a retiree from Uxbridge who along with his wife gambles at Twin River about once a week. “We tried Plainridge. We didn’t like it. Too small.”

    Eladio Sanchez of Taunton concurred. At Twin River, he said, “you can get up and walk around. At Plainridge, there’s no place to go.”

    Gambling marketing consultants hired before the gala opening predicted as much as almost $300 million in Plainridge’s first year. Even under a “worst case” scenario, Plainridge would take in upward of $210 million a year, they said. Last month, the Massachusetts state budget office cut back that figure to $160 million, as Rhode Island’s counterpart increased its estimates of casino revenue by $35 million in that state.

    Plainridge owners declined to comment for this story. They have previously said the holiday season is historically a slow period for all casinos and said they expect business to pick up in the late winter. The owners have also acknowledged that they have moved out some of their video blackjack machines because gamblers aren’t using them.

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    But outside observers say Plainridge, limited by Massachusetts law to 1,250 slot machines and no table games, might have fallen behind the curve in gambling tastes between the time it was conceived four years ago and its opening in June.

    “A slots parlor — that just doesn’t cut it anymore,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and gambling specialist. “Plainridge is going after 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, 80-year-olds. It’s a nice little crowd to go after, but it’s certainly limited.”

    Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
    A billboard advertised for the Twin River Casino a half mile from the Plainridge Casino in Plainville, Mass.

    Back in 2011, lawmakers mapping out the state’s entrance into legalized gambling considered a slots parlor a relatively inexpensive and fast way to generate tens of millions of dollars in new taxes, while awaiting the much bigger payoff of resort casinos that would take much more time and money to build.

    At the time, more than half of Twin River’s patrons came from Massachusetts, and state officials figured that Plainridge would become a “last line of defense” to keep gamblers at home, said Clyde W. Barrow, a University of Texas professor who has studied the New England casino market.

    But Twin River saw it coming and evolved from a gritty slot parlor at an aging horse track into a modern complex that includes 4,000 slot machines, table games, a steakhouse, and a 3,000-seat arena, all surrounded by acres of parking. Last month, it introduced poker tables, considered the current hottest draw for younger adults.

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    “Plainridge got outflanked by Twin River,” Barrow said.

    ‘At this point, it is unclear if there is any one reason as to why revenue is currently lower than expected.’

    On that recent Thursday evening at Plainridge, only a couple hundred people spread out across the cavernous casino, which has a fire-department-imposed capacity of 3,750. Hundreds of slot machines blinked and blustered and beckoned, but mostly to no avail. The looping, prerecorded entreaties of the video blackjack dealers blathered on, mostly unheeded.

    In the food court, three people sat amid scores of empty tables and chairs. Servers at the two restaurants stood with arms crossed. Cocktail waitresses walked the carpeted aisles asking, “Beverages?”

    The band struck up another tune, still stuck in the 1970s.

    “It’s a little dead here,” Carl Smith of Stoughton said as he arrived at Plainridge. “A bit too quiet.”

    Smith said he enjoys staying at casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere for a few days to gamble and go to shows.

    “But there just ain’t much here,” he said.

    Slot machines at one time were so lucrative that Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun were in a constant state of expansion, adding about 6,250 machines to their existing stock of about 8,500 in one 10-year period, the equivalent of five Plainridges.

    But the heyday of the slot machine might be over. Since 2009, slot revenue at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun has plummeted by about $500 million, which casino specialists attribute in part to a growing preference for other forms of gambling, including with daily fantasy sports companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel.

    Plainridge’s performance has caught the attention of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who pushed in 2011 for a slot parlor along with the three resort casinos favored by former Governor Deval Patrick. It is “something the House is watching closely,” a spokesman said.

    The state Gaming Commission released a statement that it “will continue to closely monitor and evaluate the performance” of Plainridge. “At this point, it is unclear if there is any one reason as to why revenue is currently lower than expected.”

    John E. Taylor Jr., chairman of Twin River Management, thinks he has the answer.

    “Plainridge is a nice place, but we have a lot more to offer,” he said.

    Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.