Even though Playground is only a short drive from the Mercier bridge, it is very far removed from anything you can find on the island of Montreal. Between the poker hall, electronic gaming device room (they don’t call them slot machines) and restaurant, it would be easy to spend a lot of time there. I’m talking days and days.
There isn’t much to see on the drive there – mostly trees and a few small businesses – which probably helps the place seem larger than life. The neon sign out front is blindingly bright, however, it did let me know that I had found what I was looking for. The next thing that catches your eye is the new expansion rising high above anything in sight. From the road, it seems still and quiet. Up close, it is a loud and busy place. The sounds of heavy machinery and metal on metal carry across the parking lot and make you wonder how workers who appear to be the size of insects could make so much noise. But all that is quickly forgotten once you get inside.
Stepping in to the poker room and seeing the first dozen tables is like seeing the tip of an iceberg; there’s a lot more to it than what you can actually see. Staff of many kinds – cocktail waitresses, security guards, busboys and custodians – buzz around the room at a hurried pace while the dealers narrate the action. Words like “raise, all in” and “chips!” punctuate the rustling of poker chips and give a misleading appearance of order to a game that involves so much randomness. There are plenty more staff sitting behind computer monitors and shiny marble countertops. Not knowing where to begin, I walk up to the first counter and ask for help.
Throughout the service economy, customers are called different things – clients, visitors, guests – but not here. Playground only has players, as the ‘Player Services’ agent explains while taking the photo for my membership player’s card.
The player’s card functions as a Playground passport, I’m told. Whether it’s to register for a poker tournament and order a free drink, play at a cash game table and order a free meal or play an electronic gaming device and order more free drinks, the player’s card is a necessity.
The player services agent, Jody, spits out lots of numbers as he leads me on a tour of the gaming floor, most of which go over my head; “at least two tournaments every day, over $130,000 given away every month in cash game promotions, over $1,000,000 in jackpots paid out in the last three months.” At least until we pass the cashier, the “cage” as he calls it, and get to the tournament hall, when I get a better perspective. This place is huge! The hall is the size of an airplane hangar and filled with poker tables. No wonder they’re able to run such big promotions and events. At the far end, the lights from electronic gaming devices twinkle and flash in the distance.
I quickly learn that there are 75 poker tables and over 350 electronic gaming devices spread across the 128,000 square foot space. Jody has not stopped talking about promotions and events, with some poker jargon mixed in, and I’m having trouble keeping track.
We finally get to the electronic gaming space, and the sounds of the machines become the new soundtrack to my tour, as Jody guides me along the periphery pointing out the seemingly endless banks of machines.
As we walk back through the tournament hall, Jody gives me a little Playground history lesson. It opened eight years ago as one small room with 20 poker tables. After a few successful years, they expanded and added the tournament hall to host major poker events. These events have only grown over time, giving Playground an international reputation in the poker world. In 2018, they broke ground on another expansion to create the electronic gaming space and eventually add a full-service hotel. I ask how many floors and rooms they’re going to have, but Jody either doesn’t know or won’t tell me, simply saying that all will be revealed in time. The myriad of staff we pass along the way seem friendly and observant, each giving me and Jody a polite smile but not jumping into our conversation.
As we return to the counter where my tour started, there’s a line up of people waiting to sign up so Jody wishes me luck and darts behind the counter. I take a few minutes to consider my options and eventually decide to buy in to the evening tournament. With some time to spare before it starts, I head over to the Rail restaurant and order something to eat from their daily menu. While waiting, I pull out my phone to try to find an answer to my only remaining question: Why didn’t my poker buddies tell me about this place sooner?