Legal sports gambling has made March Madness a marquee event for Atlantic City casinos. Even though watching the national college basketball championship tournament in AC was fun before 2018, the seaside resort has a different vibe now.
While the experience (admittedly) pales in comparison to being in Las Vegas for the year’s most-gambled sporting event, The World’s Playground is not some benchwarmer. Atlantic City knows how to host a party. And, by the looks of the place this past weekend, people are more than happy to crash it.
Italian sub with extra hot peppers and red vinegar, please
Not everyone can (or wants to) be in Atlantic City for March Madness. Luckily, those folks know an Atlantic City casino writer at PlayNJ who is willing to trade stories for White House Subs.
Yours truly lives about 15 minutes away from AC, so I spent the better part of the tournament’s opening weekend in and out of the casinos. I even stayed overnight at Caesars Atlantic City (on my own dime) on Wednesday and Thursday. Listen, it’s a tough life but somebody’s got to do it.
I won’t bore you, dear reader, with every detail or force you to sleepwalk through a chronological recap of my time in AC. I’m going to focus on a few highlights while mixing in some useful information for anyone planning a future trip.
No shortage of NCAA action at Borgata, BetMGM Sportsbook
As promised, I’m not going to beat around the bush. The busiest places in town were exactly where you might expect.
The BetMGM Sportsbook at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa was packed all weekend. I stopped in to talk to the book’s director, Tom Gable, on Thursday afternoon. Fifteen-seed Princeton was in the process of pulling off an upset of second-seed Arizona. Although the game could not be legally bet on in NJ, the room was so loud, Gable and I had to step out to talk.
As the largest casino in AC, Borgata had plenty of space to accommodate hoops fans. Besides the BetMGM Sportsbook, the NCAA games were also on upstairs in the Conference Center. Similar to previous years, the casino sets up temporary betting windows there. It’s a way more laid-back viewing experience than downstairs in the sportsbook.
Free advice: Go to Borgata first if you plan to visit different casinos. Parking is always $5 at Borgata. Ask for a receipt. AC casinos have a reciprocity agreement where a parking receipt from one casino can be used for same-day free parking at another.
Everybody thinks they can beat the books
Back on the Boardwalk, Caesars Sportsbook inside the Wild West West Casino was standing room only. It’s the city’s largest sportsbook. I recall a former Caesars executive telling me in 2019 the goal in building that book was to “design a category killer.”
Seeing as how it’s probably the closest thing AC has to a Las Vegas-style sportsbook, I’d say he succeeded.
On Thursday morning, I came down from my hotel room and hit the Caesars book. The day’s first games weren’t scheduled to start for another 30 minutes or so. Even then, the book was buzzing with anticipation.
Right out of the gate, I met some of my trip’s most interesting characters. A group of guys from “outside Philly” told me they had a “system.” (Yeah, I tried not to chuckle, too. If I had a dollar for everyone who had a surefire method to beat the house, I wouldn’t need to live on a writer’s salary anymore.)
For almost 20 minutes, these guys explained how they had pooled their money, were going to hedge overs and unders for the day’s games and, therefore, would, at worst, break even.
I’m not much of a gambling man myself (again, writer’s salary) but I know enough to say these guys are either newbies or very charitable. Either way, I’m willing to bet their “system” didn’t pan out the way they had hoped.
Big Lenny won’t remember me, but he’ll be hard to forget
The other big sportsbooks in Atlantic City are on the Boardwalk as well.
Caesars Sportsbook in Tropicana Atlantic City is one of my favorite spots in the city to watch a game. Since getting a seat in the book is tough (and costly) during a game, I usually hang back in 10 North Lounge.
From there, you can see all the TVs, play a little video poker or Blackjack and get a (reasonably priced) drink.
I stopped by Trop late Thursday evening to finish my day-long sportsbook tour. At 10 p.m., the place looked like a war zone. Weary and tired faces, crumpled tickets, empty bottles and cups everywhere, and the occasional random obscenity. In other words, it was a perfect snapshot of March Madness in AC.
I ran into a crew from West New York here. The boys had been “grinding” since noon. And, trust me when I tell you, they looked like it. Lenny G. was the only one in the group smiling. He pulled out his phone and showed me why. “Big Lenny” (he was like 5-foot-6) cleared over $50,000 for the day, hitting big on Furman’s upset of Virginia earlier in the day.
Big Lenny and I celebrated like old pals. We took a couple of shots (on his dime… thanks, dude) in honor of his friends’ empty wallets.
Letting out my secret… shhh, it’s Golden Nugget AC
I almost hesitate to promote my favorite sportsbook in Atlantic City. I’m selfish and don’t want to share my space. But, my go-to spot is The Sportsbook at Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
A lot of people are going to scoff at that choice, and that’s OK by me. I won my first-ever legal sports bet at GNAC. The place has sentimental value.
But, truthfully, it’s the best value in the entire city. Parking at Golden Nugget is always free. Domestic beer buckets are cheaper here than anywhere else (often by a few bucks, which adds up over time). And, most importantly, the staff at The Sportsbook is top-notch.
My Thursday afternoon stop and my Saturday evening trip were what I needed: relaxed, cheap, hassle-free, enjoyable.
Free advice: Fellas, Golden Nugget has two of AC’s most-romantic restaurants in Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse and Chart House. Spend the day with boys in The Sportsbook and wine ‘n dine your better half at night.
Checking in on the Big Boys of NJ sports betting
The big-brand Atlantic City sportsbooks often feel overlooked. I can’t really explain why other than that the mobile apps are known to limit serious gamblers and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
FanDuel Sportsbook at Bally’s Atlantic City and DraftKings Sportsbook at Resorts Casino Hotel are both excellent sports-viewing spaces. Neither is so large that you feel overwhelmed or so small that you feel cramped.
I spoke with Marty Salway, the manager of DK Sportsbook at Resorts, shortly after Thursday’s mid-afternoon slate. The book was busy for most of the day and cleared out around dinner time.
Salway says one of the things he’s trying to do is incorporate a new food program for the sportsbook. My gut tells me that’s a good idea. Resorts boasts some of AC’s best eats (Capriccio, Mukashi Sushi Bar and Dougherty’s Steakhouse are phenomenal, in my opinion) but I hate leaving the book during a game. A guy’s gotta eat.
Which brings me to FanDuel at Bally’s. They declined my request to take some pics inside the book during the games but I won’t take it personally. (Disclaimer: Bally’s PR folks are amazing and sometimes these things happen.) I’m going to give a shoutout to the menu at the book because it deserves it. I’m also a big fan of the self-serve beer taps (Caesars has them, too).
Man enough to admit I was wrong about Ocean
One of my trip’s highlights was The Gallery Bar, Book & Games at Ocean Casino Resort.
Full disclosure: I was bummed beyond belief when Ocean decided to redo its existing sportsbook last year. Before legal sports betting in NJ, when I imagined what a sportsbook might look like inside an Atlantic City casino, the old book in Ocean was EXACTLY what I pictured.
The late Bruce Deifik, the former owner of Ocean, was so proud of the casino’s sportsbook. When the new owners took over, they were less than thrilled with it. Ocean was not making much money in its Vegas-style sportsbook, so a complete redesign was ordered.
My first impression of The Gallery last summer was disappointing. I just couldn’t imagine enjoying myself on game day in the new space.
I was wrong.
When I stopped by Ocean on Thursday, I only planned to stay for a few minutes. I wound up staying for nearly two hours. The energy in The Gallery is unmatched anywhere in AC. Seriously.
It’s not for everyone. I can understand someone not wanting to sit on a bar chair for an entire game or not wanting to shell out hundreds of dollars for a seat in the Balcony Bar overlooking The Gallery. But, I may have to start including Ocean in my gameday itinerary more often.
Free advice: There’s only one restaurant in AC I recommend to anyone and everyone who asks about “can’t miss” places to eat: Amada. I love several AC restaurants but I dream about Amada. The ambiance, the service, the food, the wine, the location, and the price point. Amada is aces.
My relationship with Hard Rock is complicated
There are two more sportsbooks to talk about and they need some recognition.
Let’s start with the Hard Rock Sportsbook. I have a sort of “love/hate” relationship with Hard Rock’s sportsbook.
I love it because it’s secluded, which means I don’t have to fight for a seat. It’s also the only smoker-friendly sportsbook in town (which may be a turn-off for most). I enjoy a cigarette and a few bourbons while betting on sports to calm my nerves, so I occasionally end up here by default.
I hate the fact that the sportsbook almost feels like an afterthought to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Begrudgingly, I understand why. Sports betting isn’t exactly a money-maker for casinos, so the ROI is a net negative to the bean counters upstairs. Still, it feels like AC’s most lively casino should have a better sportsbook.
The irony, of course, is that Joe Lupo used to be the property president here. For those who don’t know about Lupo’s time as sportsbook director at the Stardust, go read Chad Millman‘s book “The Odds: One Season, Three Gamblers and the Death of Their Las Vegas.”
Gary the Gambler is my new favorite data nerd
The other low-key book is Caesars Sportsbook at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. This is another head-scratcher for me. Harrah’s is a party casino but its sportsbook lacks the same pizzazz.
When I stopped by Harrah’s on Thursday afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised at how busy the book was. No seats were open and there were a bunch of people standing behind the book trying to get a glimpse of the action.
One of those people was Gary Newburgh. When I first started chatting with Gary, he was a bit standoffish, like he didn’t want to be bothered. Hey, I get it. Talking to strangers while gambling is not really my thing either. But Gary eventually opened up and told me about how much effort he put into betting on the NCAA tourney.
Then he showed me.
Gary had a 5-inch binder, stuffed to the brim with notes about all 68 men’s teams. Red and blue ink jumped off the lined sheets of paper, each containing thousands of words.
Only betting outright winners and lines, Gary told me his winning percentage in the past two tourneys was exactly 54.8%. I believed him.
Free advice: Avoid using the parking garage at Harrah’s. It’s a nightmare to get out of. Park at Golden Nugget for free and either take a Jitney over or walk the nature path alongside the bay.
Don’t forget to tip housekeeping on the way out
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I want to end this self-indulgent story with a couple of words about my hotel stay.
This was my second time staying in the newly renovated rooms in the Centurion Tower at Caesars. I can’t say enough positive things about the upgrades to this hotel.
Caesars AC is iconic but it was getting a bit dated. The multi-million-dollar makeover in both the Centurion and Ocean towers are precisely what this place needed.
The entire property is undergoing renovations at the moment, including the lobby, front desk and lower level of the casino floor. Caesars is also finishing construction on a new live-entertainment venue, which will house Spiegelworld’s “Hook,” opening this summer.
My only gripe with Caesars is the lack of food options. I enjoy a Gordon Ramsay meal as much as the next person, but I’m not a fan of paying almost $30 for a sandwich and fries. I need late-night options. Why? Because I’m from Jersey, AKA the diner capital of the world, which means I’m conditioned to eat whenever the heck I feel like it. AC desperately needs a casino to cater to that fact of Jersey life.