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The Electronic Table Game Considered as a Slot Device

Article Author
David Paster
Publish Date
October 31, 2007
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David Paster

Sophomore year of college was challenging. It was a period marked with intense feelings of alienation, self-loathing and emotional regression. Oh, wait, that’s now. Sophomore year was awesome! None of my friends had made anything of themselves yet; there was not a single life-sucking lawyer, super-specialized plastic surgeon or other manifestation of a respectable professional amongst us. And, yes, the young woman I dated (or at least who had a restraining order against me) during this end of adolescence did become a psychologist specializing in teenage girl dysmorphia.

One of the contributing factors that allowed sophomore year to rock was that I was the sole tenant of a dorm room. Freshman year, I shared a cinder block, neon-painted cube (like something out of pre-lithium Axl Rose’s bad dreams), less lush than a cell at Guantanamo Bay, with a fellow who “danced like nobody was watching” to Bel Biv DeVoe even when everybody was. In my campaign to score the lack of a roommate, freshman year ended with me plainly informing the Dean of Students that, “I simply don’t like people.” As indicated, my Vincent Gigante-esque performance reaped the sought reward.

Being alone can be swell. Slot machines, including wacky multi-line devices, Video Poker and even old-time stepper reels, are traditionally devices enjoyed in a solitary way. The multi-player electronic table game, however, can be played head-to-head, but is often a communal endeavor like a traditional table game.

Sweat Hog Vinnie Barberino Says, “I’m so confused!”
What is this new-fangled contraption? Is the electronic table game more of a slot machine or a table game? Is it meant to be played alone like a slot machine in the corner of Copper Mine at the Gold Spike or in cahoots with others reveling — (or is it revealing?) — gaming enthusiasts who play Blackjack at the Palms on a Saturday night?

As with The Kink’s “Lola” and Lou Reed’s “Candy,” there are some identity issues at play. According to some purists like Vic Taucer of Casino Creations, the presenter of seminars such as “Dealer as Entertainer,” and Ted Gottlieb of Win Cards, a table games education advocate, having a live dealer is an integral part of the table gaming experience. The (hopefully) personable relationship formed between a friendly and competent dealer and a player is the driving force creating the allure of the live table game experience.

Others argue that the challenge of the game itself is what attracts players to the table. After all, Blackjack has been a staple in casinos for over a century. Like golf, it is an easy game to learn and a difficult one to master. Traditional slot devices offering video Blackjack, like Bally’s GameMaker or IGT’s GameKing, have existed for over a quarter of a century. While some games allow for player-friendly doubling down and even surrender, the lack of paying 3:2 odds for a natural Blackjack (adding 2.3 percent to the casino edge) and other limitations, like each deal being independent (similar to a continuous shuffle scenario), have hindered the development of this game to anything more than a niche.

Blackjack Blitz, developed by DigiDeal and distributed by PDS Gaming, arrived on the gaming scene nearly two decades ago and found its niche in Indian casinos that were not compacted to offer “live” table games and traditional slot houses that did not tender the green baize experience. Properties like Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in North Carolina presented dozens of these machine, and B.B. Cody’s, a limited stakes parlor with less than 100 devices in Deadwood, S.D., currently boasts one unit. Some larger casinos, such as the Rio and Bally’s in Las Vegas, had a token machine to provide a low-stakes “table game” experience to their respective customers.

Other table games of skill and chance, such as Craps and Roulette, have been interpreted into multi-position electronic (video) devices (e.g., Innovative Gaming Corporation of America is Hot Shot Dice™), as well as electro-mechanical devices (e.g., a physical Roulette wheel sporting a mechanical ball release, with wager input from players via electronic key pad). Again, these games have been most popular at gaming facilities where, due to regulations or even cost restrictions, live table games are not feasible.

The labor intensive, relatively low-margin, house-banked game of table Poker is also baring witness to the electronic revolution. The Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Mich., (about 70 miles from downtown Chicago) has opened the world’s largest completely electronic Poker room. The room features 15 PokerTek Poker ProÆ 10-seat tables and four of the newer PokerPro Heads Up™ tables. A game like Heads Up Poker is simply not economically practical to deal in most traditional live-dealer Poker rooms. Because Poker is player-banked and often allowed within Class II gaming scenarios (e.g., at Indian Gaming properties), an electronic facsimile of Poker does not necessarily benefit from the skirting of the spirit of the law that electronic facsimile games like Blackjack, Craps, Roulette and carnival games do; that is, a live version of Poker is permissible and does not need to be substituted.

With the advent of numerous “carnival” table games (e.g., Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker) and side bets (e.g., Galaxy Gaming’s Lucky Ladies, Shuffle Master’s Royal Match 21) in the realm of Poker, interpretations of these proprietary and leased games are giving a chance to companies like DigiDeal and ShuffleMaster to offer another means of play to gamers through electronic facsimiles. Shuffle Master’s Table Master and Vegas Star products and DigiDeal’s fully electronic games are in competition with devices produced by Aruze Corporation, Novomatic Group Companies, IGT, PokerTek Inc. and TableMAX Holdings.

It should also be noted that there are some human-dealer/electronic-input hybrid table games, such as Rapid Roulette by ShuffleMaster and Digital 21 by DigiDeal, that also have a niche on the gaming floor. While some of the delaying mechanics of the game (e.g., mucking chips in Roulette, shuffling in Blackjack, having tray counts and fills) are eliminated and thus more decisions per hour are allowed, there is, however, a lack of authenticity to the game when the croupier/dealer becomes more of a cog in the “machine” versus an active facilitator or ringmaster of the game. While the hybrid live/electronic table games are communal, the experience is resilient of pushing a button to have another live human pull a handle on the slot machine. The intimacy of reaching over another living, breathing human being to place a Columns or Straight Up bet in Roulette or touching playing cards with pitch Blackjack is lost with the mechanization of the wagering process.

Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention the renaissance of “communal” slot machines, such as IGT’s Wheel of FortuneÆ Special Edition™ Super Spin™ or WMS MONOPOLY Big Event™, that may contribute to player acceptance in the U.S. market of communal electronic table gaming. The communal trend should also continue with interactive bonusing and tournament play as an integral component of innovative (central) server-based downloadable gaming systems, such as the IGT sb™ product, which has already proven itself at the always technologically innovative Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino and other locales.

Got a New Position
A gaming position is roughly equivalent to the number of players able to play a game at one time. A traditional slot machine meant for individual play is considered one gaming position; a Blackjack table with six betting circles is considered to have six gaming positions. Certain states, such as Illinois, limit the number of gaming positions per licensed casino establishment. Other jurisdictions, such as the limited-stakes gaming of Colorado, determine allowable gaming space by utilizing a capacity ratio involving gaming positions and device footprints.

The crux of the matter is: How does a host gaming environment view the electronic table game? Is a game like the historic Blackjack Blitz or ShuffleMaster’s contemporary Table Master™ Let it Ride one device or five devices? According to ShuffleMaster’s 2006 annual report: "In October 2006, we (ShuffleMaster) signed a multi-terminal video lottery machine agreement with the Delaware State Lottery System. Under the terms of the agreement, the initial placement consists of 54 units, or 270 seats, of our Table Master electronic table game platform. The Table Master units will feature a diverse mix of Blackjack and Poker-based proprietary table game content, including Royal Match 21 Blackjack, Three Card Poker, Let It Ride Bonus with 3 Card Bonus and Dragon Bonus Baccarat. The Vegas Star multi-terminal gaming machines feature animated virtual dealers, touch screen player betting and a selection of public domain table games including Roulette, Baccarat and Sic-Bo. The Vegas Star has a modular design, which makes it easy to add additional play stations as terminal demand increases. Originally designed for the Australian and Asian markets, where its market shares exceed 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, Vegas Star has rapidly become an integral part of casinos within its two primary markets. Each Vegas Star configuration can accommodate up to 16 player stations and will eventually offer all of our proprietary game content."

By noting Table Master’s 54 units or 270 seats (i.e., positions) and Vegas Star’s “player stations” (i.e., positions), ShuffleMaster has indicated, as a gaming supplier, how it interprets its own device. But when these games are introduced to casinos in host markets, are they to be measured by units/devices or seats/positions/player stations?

‘Cause I’m the Tax Man
Never minding the intricacies of how these devices will be regulated in markets ranging from Indian casinos (with revenue sharing agreements) to limited-stakes (Colorado, South Dakota) and limited-loss (Missouri) facilities, limited-capacity “riverboats” (Illinois), independent slot parlors (Pennsylvania), racinos, and good ol’ fashioned non-restricted Class III gaming venues, what does the tax man taketh?

While multi-property casino corporations like Harrah’s Entertainment or MGM MIRAGE-Mandalay may argue one day that a Table Master electronic table game facsimile of Blackjack is a singular device just like a Double Diamond stepper reel or Deuces Wild Video Poker machine, the next day, the conglomerate may argue that it is a traditional table game. It all depends on the jurisdiction.

If table games such as Roulette and Craps are not allowed via compact, as is the case for Indian Gaming in “you betcha” Minnesota, it is a moot point. However, if table games are allowed by regulation and a casino chooses to offer the facsimile, as in Deadwood, S.D., what elements, for taxation purposes, comprise the device? Obviously, whichever interpretation of the device results in the lowest taxes (one position versus five positions, slot versus table game tax structure, etc.) will be what the proprietor of the venue with the device will claim.

Labor: Not Just for Teamsters Anymore
Ironically, companies like ShuffleMaster produce fully electronic table games, hybrid electronic/live table games with electronic wagering input and a live dealer like Rapid Roulette, and also sell and lease proprietary traditional table “carnival games,” including Let It Ride and Three Card Poker, as well as live game components such as the Ace and King shuffler products. Further, they are part of a triumvirate creating the Table iD™ system currently in development with IGT and Progressive Gaming International (PGIC) that allows for live (card-based) table game tracking. According to ShuffleMaster’s 2006 annual report: "[W]e will provide automatic card shufflers, card reading intelligent shoes, card and chip sorters, and verifiers. IGT will provide back-end table gaming management systems, including player tracking, patron loyalty and rewards, as well as bonusing applications. PGIC will provide RFID bet recognition, automated gaming chip tracking and payoff recognition. Each company will cooperatively interface its respective products into a combined product offering known as Table iD (formerly known as the Intelligent Table System™). Additionally, the arrangement also provides a framework for the cooperative development of new technologies and products that build on automated table management and real-time monitoring of player activity."

It seems ShuffleMaster is covering all the bases under the assumption that one channel of game provision will not fully substitute for another.

Analogous with the disdain of grocery clerks towards automatic check-out at the super market, dealers may fear electronic table games or even the hybrid electronic/live game, but the experience of having a live dealer to offer advice or even consolation does not seem to be headed for extinction.

On the other hand, while electronic table games are a pricey capital investment, there are some definite managerial and marginal benefits. Like the workhorse slot machine, the facsimile does not need to take breaks, is of consistently even (if boring) temperament, does not require benefits, and offers tracking of game play, including, but not exclusive to, decisions per hour, wager amount, and even (if programmed) skill level … to be associated with re-investment schema. Lastly, sometimes personalities clash. With advancement in true customer relationship marketing, there is little reason why, based on the known player’s preferences via the insertion of a loyalty card, the electronic “dealer” could not emulate a level of intimacy (e.g., a young Madonna, the singer-like character, for the New Jersey crowd or a matter-of-fact cowboy for the Deadwood gang). As mentioned earlier, some purists believe that the dealer not only is a mechanical operator of the game, but also an integral “touch point” element of the gaming experience.

Player Migration (or Florida Has Gaming, Oi!)
Will casinos lose table play to electronic table games? Can a facsimile handle upper-tier play? Just as it seems that no matter how convenient they are, some individuals will never use an ATM machine instead of going to the bank and withdrawing funds from a teller and some old-schoolers will never pay bills online, instead choosing to send a check via snail mail, a certain segment of the gaming population may never take to playing against a cruel, heartless machine (as opposed to a cruel, heartless live dealer).

In contrast, for some players — especially the low-stakes one — electronic table games may offer an attractive, non-intimidating and reasonable wager-per-decision environment. What the true significance of player migration is and will be has not yet been determined. What is known is that there are certain costs and benefits associated with offering table games in live, hybrid and electronic facsimile forms and migrating players to each variation.

Here’s to Future Days
Unlike ‘80s pop sensation the Thompson Twins, who have no future days, electronic gaming devices are destined to maintain a presence on contemporary and future gaming floors. Would “Rebel Without a Clue” Jim Stark conclude, “You, you say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again! …You’re tearing me apart!”?

The question is: As non-traditional table gaming experiences become increasingly advanced and prevalent, how will these partial complements to traditional table games be considered in terms of regulation, taxation, labor considerations, player acceptance and the myriad other factors in host casino markets?

David Paster is a faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi College of Business and owns and operates Yarborough Planning LLC, an independent consulting firm. He has 10 years of hospitality and gaming experience. Paster can be reached at (702) 813-5062 or davidpaster1@yahoo.com.

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