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Big Game Hunting

Table games will grow incrementally, not in huge movements

Big Game Hunting

On the final night of February in 1983, something happened that will never happen again.

Seventy-seven percent of the televisions turned on in the United States were tuned in to the same program, the last episode of M*A*S*H. By comparison, last season’s Super Bowl, the marquee event of our marquee sport, with marquee players and marquee teams (not to mention a cuticle-chewing conclusion), managed to attract only half the available viewers. Indeed, no television show in the past 32 years—not the Cheers finale, not the Seinfeld finale, not the Nancy/Tonya finale—has drawn more than 58 percent.

Put it this way: Unless space aliens invade this planet and one of them marries Miley Cyrus live on Oprah, the record set by M*A*S*H will remain forever unbroken.

It’s just that TV audiences are so much more fragmented now than they used to be. And content producers more often than not target specific segments, rather than the juicy part, of the Bell Curve.

Well, as goes television, so go table games.

Players, like viewers, no longer want what everybody else wants. When Caribbean Stud Poker was ascending to its zenith in the early 1990s, there was nothing else out there. Then Let it Ride came along and made it a two-horse race, but there was still plenty of room on the track for them to both run free.

And boy, did they run. How good were the good old days? Of the four proprietary table games—that’s games, not side bets—to ever exceed 1,000 placements, three of them were born in the ’80s or ’90s. (By the way, Let it Ride and Caribbean Stud Poker games are not current members of the thousand club; they fell out years ago.)

(Proprietary Table Games that Exceeded 1,000 Placements)
Game                          Debut
Caribbean Stud Poker        1988
Let it Ride                         1993
Three Card Poker              1996
Ultimate Texas Hold ’em   2005

Don’t look for any additions anytime soon. EZ Baccarat, with 750 installs, is the only existing game with a legitimate shot to reach 1,000. Even so, EZ would still need a lot of time and a lot of tailwind to get there. It’s not going to be, well, easy. As Tiger Woods learned in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus, getting all the way to your goal is exponentially more difficult than getting most of the way.

The era, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, of big games is over. The success of new titles in the future will be measured in hundreds of installations, not thousands.

Now, don’t misconstrue the message: Growth in this segment is here to stay. The aggregate number of proprietary tables will no doubt continue to increase; rather, the composition of tables will be different. Literally. Different. It will be comprised of many different games from many different inventors.

Niche being the new normal, maybe it’s time to lower our expectations. And by lower, let’s try cutting them in half—and then in half again—so 250 installs becomes the new benchmark for immortality. With our sites sufficiently southward, which among the current crop of table games appears to have the best chance to slip into the crosshairs? Let’s take a look.

Fortune Asia Poker: 10 to 1. This is a simplified derivative of 13-card or Chinese poker. Players and the dealer each get seven cards to make three poker hands: a four-card hand; a two-card hand; and a one-card hand. Players win when two or more of their hands beat the dealer’s corresponding hand. But what helps the game also hurts it: the strong cultural association with Chinese players. It may be too targeted. In order to reach 250 placements (it has 35 now), Fortune Asia Poker will have to break through, as pai gow poker and baccarat have, and reach a broader demographic of gamblers.

High Card Flush: 5 to 1. High Card is the poker derivative with a one-track mind. Flushes are all that matter. Players and the dealer each get seven cards to make the longest string of suited cards. Ties are broken by the highest card in the flush. It also has a betting structure that lets players risk more if they have an especially strong hand. High Card Flush has 65 placements and is played in North America and Europe.

Free Bet Blackjack: 1 to 5. This should be fait accompli for Free Bet. The game has sprinted from zero to 125 placements in less than three years—Nissan GTR acceleration in the table games world—and couldn’t find the brake pedal if it had three right feet. Free Bet is a blackjack derivative that lets players split and double down without risking any more money. It is currently played in the U.S., Canada, Australia, England and the Philippines.

Field (Heads Up Hold ‘em, DJ Wild Stud Poker, Double Draw Poker and Criss Cross Poker): 9 to 1. These are the four, for the moment at least, that seem to have the most upside. All are traditional poker-style games: Heads Up and DJ Wild are player-versus-dealer, while Criss Cross and Double Draw are player-versus-paytable (a la Mississippi Stud or Let it Ride).

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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