Poker room review: MGM National Harbor, in the shadow of the Capitol

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: May 13, 2023 05:40 PDT

Washington, D.C. – a tough act to follow

If you've never been to Washington, D.C., you owe yourself a trip – the nation's capital has a natural, organic buzz that puts Las Vegas to shame. Go look at the Lincoln Memorial – heck, go stand right where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his " I have a dream" speech. And while you're at it, go check out the MLK Memorial. Walk down Constitution Avenue, and see the buildings that comprise the original heart of the federal government. Catch a show at the Kennedy Center. Do not – do not – miss the Smithsonian (it's free, thanks to the American taxpayer), and schedule a full day for the Air and Space Museum. The C&O Canal, Arlington Cemetery – the list is endless. Wander neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Adams-Morgan (with its legendary speakeasy, Madam's Organ).

Yeah, I'm biased. I grew up in what George Clinton backhandedly called, " the Vanilla Suburbs," but I knew D.C. like the back of my hand. And I still get a little shiver, coming up the George Washington Parkway from Reagan National Airport, enjoying the view of the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial along the Tidal Basin, and Georgetown University rising on the hill further up the Potomac.

So when MGM launched the first D.C.-area casino in late 2016, at National Harbor, across the Anacostia River, in Maryland, I had both high hopes, and high expectations. Could there be a casino and poker room that deserved to be in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol (occupants of said building notwithstanding)?

The answer is a resounding "Yes."

MGM National Harbor delivers

National Harbor's 45-table poker room is everything you'd want as an adjunct to a D.C. visit - big, bright, and smoothly run. Also, with the highly-educated and well-paid government workers, National Harbor can support some healthy games. At 11:00am on a random Wednesday, it has 11 $1/3 NLH games, 2 $2/5 games (with a third about to start), and most of a $5/10 game ready to kick loose. On busy times and during weekends, they sometimes get a $10/25 game going. On a previous visit, I spotted the legendary Anthony Gregg (a D.C.-area native) in a $500/$1k limit mixed game. We visited briefly, but I turned down his gracious invitation to pull up a chair.

National Harbor is also home court for poker power couple, Caitlyn Cobb and Justin "Hello Kitty" Arnwine. If you see Justin, say hi – he's one of the coolest people in poker.

The room is on its own floor above the main casino, so accessing it is extra easy. You park (for free, ahem, Las Vegas), hop in the elevator, and select "L2," which might as well say, "Go straight to poker, do not pass the pit, and no cigarette smoke en route." When you step out, you're 50' from the poker sign-in desk.

National Harbor's poker was first opened by Johnny Grooms, an O.G. in the poker room management world – the staff, dealers, and protocols reflect that professionalism. I'll have more to say about that in a moment.

The vibe of the room reflects the D.C. buzz. The player demographic is as diverse and dialed-in as the region, and the conversation reflects it. I sat, fascinated, as two fellow players in a $2/5 game – one a State Department employee, the other at Defense – discussed the war in Ukraine. But on a "Sunday morning roundtable talk show" level. That's not, ah, the normal level of discourse one gets along with "Check," and "Raise."

Dealing with a problem

Unfortunately, my last trip to MGM National Harbor was marred by an ugly incident. An old childhood friend wanted to play casino poker, only having played it once or twice before. So I met him there, and we had a great time in a $1/3 game for a couple of hours. Somewhere along the way, I'd earned the enmity of a guy at the other end of the table. I did stack him once, but there was not so much as a peep of "celebration" – I just don't trade in that nonsense.

Anyway, when my friend and I got up to leave, this guy made a homophobic comment about our being together. I would never go toe-to-toe with somebody over such a thing – though I might in aid of a third party. Instead I caught a floorman on the way out, and told him what had happened.

"Give me a table and seat number."

I did, and asked him what they do.

"We put a note in his record – because essentially all the players have loyalty cards, we know who they are. If somebody turns out to be a repeat offender, we just give them a time-out, or worse. I don't want any of that stuff in here."

This seemed like a perfect way to handle it. They had no primary proof of the clown's behavior, but if there are two or three unrelated incidents, then there's a pattern, and they can act on it.

It wasn't MGM's fault that this guy acted up, but I was impressed with how they handled it.

From the daily business of running the room, to dealing with potholes in the road, MGM National Harbor lives up to its role as the nation's capital's poker room.

MGM National Harbor by the numbers

  • Access – MGM is right off the Capital Beltway (I-495) in the National Harbor complex, so there are ample attractions for non-pokering family members nearby. Including a massive outdoor outlet mall a 15-minute walk from the casino.
  • Smoking – because the poker room is on its own floor, there is no smoke. There's a quasi-outdoor smoking lounge on the same floor.
  • Casino chaos coefficient: Non-existant.
  • Minimum age: 21
  • Restrooms: very convenient, and on the same floor
  • Table management: Bravo. No online waitlist, but the app seems to correctly reflect game status.
  • No-limit hold'em buy-in caps: $1/3 – $100-$500; $2/5 – $300-$1000; $5/10 – $600 - $2500
  • Rake: 10% to $5 plus $2 promotion ($1 at @$20, $1 @ $50).
  • Straddle: 2x under the gun only. Except, and I'm not making this up, in $5/10 games and higher, where it's a Mississippi straddle. Which is an abomination, but I digress.
  • Cards: Kem bridge size.
  • Tables have USB chargers. A huge percentage of them didn't work. I'm sure that USB chargers is not top-of-mind for any poker room. But it's a great service to offer, and having the plugs, but them not work, is worse than no plugs at all.
  • WiFi works great.
  • Chairs are 5-caster, and extremely comfortable.
  • Hero-spotting coefficient: for sure. Washington is a power town, with major league sports in MLB, NFL, NLH, and NBA. Household faces from media, sports, politics, and business could easily show up in your game. Plus there are going to be people sitting next to you who are major movers and shakers – you just don't know who they are. I mean, what if Audrey Tomason is a poker player?
  • Cocktail service, and there's a snack bar immediately adjacent to the poker room. However, you can't bring food back to the table, and they enforce that. There are dozens of restaurants downstairs in the shopping area, including a Vietnamese noodle place that's open 24/7.