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The progression of progressive table game jackpots

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About 80 percent of all U.S. casinos now have some form of licensed progressive table game jackpots, and the number of casinos featuring progressive table game jackpots is growing daily. They represent one of the very few growth trends in gaming today because they serve fundamental player needs while they increase our drops, improve our holds, bolster our wins and drive more profits to the bottom line.

Table-game behemoth Shuffle Master, which distributes and licenses progressive jackpot packages for Casino War, Pai Gow, Texas Hold ‘em Bonus, Caribbean Stud and Three Card Poker, among others, has capitalized on its widespread and extensive sales and service force, tried-and-true betting systems, patented game designs and cutting-edge technologies—which all work—to roll over almost all of their competition.

Notice the word “almost.” The only other major player in the progressive table game space is DEQ, a rapidly growing Canadian company which has been moving at lightning speed to bring an entirely different progressive betting system—and concept—to the casino floor. And the company just happens to have a couple of pretty slick patented games of its own.

Both companies recognize that progressive table game jackpots are one of the few guaranteed growth sectors left in table games, and many casino operators are now taking hard looks at revitalizing their floors with their innovative concepts.

As we move forward, we’ll examine the fundamental differences—and similarities—that SMI and DEQ’s progressive packages have to offer. But first, let’s take a step back and look at the history of progressive table game jackpots.


The History

In the early 1980s, some guys patented the first reasonable poker derivative and called it Caribbean Stud Poker. The owners flogged it near and far (there weren’t many places to peddle a game in those days) and it had some moderate success in Nevada, but it didn’t really change the world.

Then, the inventors came up with this crazy idea to put some coin slots on the top of the table and have people make a side wager on a progressive jackpot. After all the bets were made, the dealer would push a button and all of the coins would fall down into a bucket underneath the table. (Yes, a bucket! A plastic bucket. The noise had to be heard to be believed.)

While the metal coins were diving into the bucket, they tripped a switch which relayed the info to a cheesy LED monitor on top of the table, and the meter would spin round and round as it progressed. Then, as payouts came out of the rack, the dealer would push a button or two and the meter would progress.

It worked. Players started hitting progressive table game jackpots for the first time, and they loved it. The casinos loved it too, because the games were swamped. And then it took off. Within a couple of years, there were about 175 games in Nevada and over 1,100 worldwide, and the inventors got rich.

And then the casinos killed it. How? They got greedy. Instead of taking 25 cents a hand, some boss said, “Hey, I’ve got a good idea—let’s take more.” (I’m guessing he was an accountant.) So they did. And before long, everyone was taking 50 cents out of every dollar.

But you couldn’t do that without ruining the pay table, so they did that too. Station Casinos in Las Vegas was the first, and when they started paying $100 for four-of-a-kind instead of $500, there was a revolt. Some still claim that it was competition from other games, but the reality is that the CFOs and casino managers across the land murdered the game.

The next progressive that came along, back in the 1990s, was a contraption invented by Don Laughlin (of Laughlin fame). With his game, the dealer would hit a console on the side of the table every time a player made a bet, and then they’d add it up that night and post the new bet the next day. I know it’s hard to believe, but that one didn’t work so hot.

In the meantime, Mikohn Gaming, which had purchased Caribbean Stud for an ungodly amount of money, developed the “bet a buck on the red button” concept, along with some dealer keypads and such, and the progressive table game jackpot that most of us know today was born. And it did OK.

From that point until the mid-2000s, after the original Caribbean Stud patents ran their course, there were no other live-time progressives. Then, SMI bought Mikohn and got aggressive with progressives and started putting them on other licensed games, and the revolution started.

Then, about four years ago, DEQ finally licensed the Progressive Bet Manager, which allowed players to bet and collect wagers via credits on a device which was built into the table. A year later, they started linking progressive meters from different games. SMI took notice, and was hot on their trail. The rest, as they’re fond of saying, is history. But in reality, the rest is right now—and speaking of which, here is where progressive table game jackpots stand today.

Betting Technologies

SMI progressive bettors just place a regular dollar chip on a lighted circle, the dealer scoops up the chips and it’s game on. The genius of the system lies in the simplicity of making the single-chip wager, and most players seem to embrace the tactile sensation of getting to handle chips and bet them in a normal fashion—as evidenced by 800-plus installs, and growing.

The majority of the payouts are paid by the dealer—after keying the payout on a game console embedded in the rack—and play continues without requiring notification or approval from a floor supervisor. Larger payouts (each casino sets its own protocols) do require a second set of eyes and verification, but if handled properly, these payouts create celebratory moments for all of the guests on the games.

Most novelty jackpot punters have grown accustomed to SMI progressive jackpot systems, and they are quite comfortable with the functions of the game. However, the “bet a buck on the puck” system does have a couple of drawbacks.

The players can only wager a single dollar on each round—but the good news is that a lot of players bet that buck; in some joints they average over $3 a round. The players tend to pick up their chips and leave on a whim (see more about that below), and some casinos instruct their dealers to pay all but the biggest payouts out of the rack without keying in the winners (to speed up the game)—which can skew up your game analytics. Otherwise, it’s clean, it’s simple, it’s common and it’s very easy to understand. And it’s also easy to understand why the SMI product is the No. 1 table progressive product on the market today.

The G3 product by DEQ comes with the “Progressive Bet Manager,” which players use to bet credits. It requires a bit of instruction and getting used to (about 30 seconds seems to do the trick). Not all players are comfortable using an electronic betting device on a table game—especially those from “the Greatest Generation”—and in some casinos where the G3 has been installed (over 500 installs to date and growing), it’s taken a week or three for some players to fully embrace it. But once they have, they never look back.

The biggest upside to the G3 is that it exclusively allows the players to make multiple-credit wagers (which they do) and to also bet on either their hand or the dealer’s hand as well (ditto). In fact, average wagers made by players utilizing the G3 hover between $1.50 and $1.70, and the extra bets on those extra-profitable side wagers add up fast.

Dealers key in payouts directly from their consoles (with nothing coming out of the rack) and bosses typically assist with all but the most minimal jackpots. This was designed to create “forced engagement” among the floor supervisors, dealers and guests (so that all three celebrate together), but the rules of engagement can be altered to suit the culture and operating philosophy of each participating casino.

Irrespective of your business rules or jackpot betting system, it’s critical that your staff actively participates in making your progressive games more fun. If someone chooses not to buy inito the fun factor, it’s probably a good idea to free up their future by telling them to take their talents elsewhere; aka the “Full LeBron.” As an added benefit to us all, one of the (very few) wonderful things about today’s economy is that when you have to dip into the labor pool you’ll find that it’s deep, it’s talented, it’s energetic, it’s warm and it’s grateful.

The strongest benefit casinos get from the G3 credit gadget—by far—is that that once the players have purchased credits, they stay on the games much longer than they normally would. It works like this: The players run out of chips but still have credits. So they buy more chips. Now they run out of credits, so they buy more credits with their chips. Out of chips again? See above. And the cycle tends to continue until the players either hit a significant jackpot or catch a nice run or bad losing streak.

A major Las Vegas Strip casino installed G3s on all of their novelty games—with linked progressives—about a year ago and found that instead of their games typically closing—on average—a bit before 1:30 a.m., that they now stay open until after 4:15 a.m. It adds up. In fact, based on novelty game average wins on the Las Vegas Strip, it’s safe to say that this casino easily earned an additional standard game theo well in excess of $500,000—not including what the house made off of the side wagers—just by putting in the G3s. 


Progressive Meters and Displays

Monitor displays, which include graphics, animations, pay tables and rolling jackpot prizes, are included with both the DEQ and SMI products. The DEQ displays tend to be a bit more nimble in that they are individually addressable and can be programmed to feature live television events—complete with audio—while still showing ever-changing jackpots, but both can be used to not only flash the dream of easy riches but to also send a wide array of marketing messages to your guests.

Some of the better ideas to recently come along include featuring property-wide gross jackpots paid (a reasonably busy casino with eight linked games can easily claim to pay out over $100,000 a week to lucky winners—because they do), aggregate single-table payouts (which will again look huge), “lucky tables” at which someone has hit a big jackpot, “lucky dealer” photos (of the dealers who dumped big jackpots), time-sensitive messages, photos of jackpot winners, and my favorite, short bad-beat stories about players who were dealt monster hands but didn’t win the jackpots because they were too cheap to bet a measly dollar. 

We’re all guilty of having delighted in someone else’s misfortune; the Germans call it “schadenfreude,” and in casinos, other people’s bad news travels fast. Most of us have heard the story about the guy who was playing on the quarter Megabucks and took a break, only to come back and find that his wife had hit the big one. With a single quarter bet. And we all reveled in the guy’s pain. And felt it. But not as much as his wife did when he slugged her in front of a couple dozen people and was hauled off to jail (man, I miss the old Horseshoe!).

But you get the point. Anything we can do to stimulate fun conversations and inspire our players to “not miss out” is a good thing. If we do it right. And we can do it right with the nifty displays that both SMI and DEQ include in their package deals.

One last thing: a lot of operators find that the fancy displays are either too big or block the supervisor’s view or surveillance angles, and they want something a little bit less obtrusive. In that case, SMI has a cute T-Bar meter, which is basically a horizontal animated LED device stuck to the table with a pole. All it shows is the rolling progressive jackpot amount, but for whatever reasons, the T-bar is especially popular in Las Vegas casinos. 


Linked Progressives

DEQ has had the ability to link progressive table game jackpots on virtually every poker derivative novelty game ever since the G3 hit the market a few years ago. It’s interesting to note that in some casinos which initially utilized the G3 on only a single game or single brand, the casinos found player resistance and the G3 didn’t work out so well, but once the novelty games were linked with a common jumbo jackpot, G3 credit betting jumped through the roof. The moral of that story? Link your progressives.

While SMI has had progressive link technologies for a while, they’re just now starting to get the ball rolling, and it’s rolling fast. Get this: They recently connected over 40 Caribbean Stud tables at the Sands and Venetian in Macau, which are miles apart. And now, they can also hook all of their games together on the same casino floor.

What does all this mean? It means that we’re going to see some fierce competition between SMI and DEQ as they try to link up as many games as fast as they can. And casino operators—as well as players—are going to be the beneficiaries.

Both companies’ systems are scalable and can (theoretically at least) link an infinite number of games.

There’s no question that we’ll soon see massive wide-area progressive table game jackpots springing up across the country (although just thinking about the logistics involved with stopping side bets in dozens of casinos while a jackpot—based on cards—is being verified somewhere else makes my head hurt). It will be interesting to see which company makes it to the wide-area mega-market first. Knowing the guys running these companies, I wouldn’t bet against either one of them.


The Costs

Both systems cost about the same. The G3 is a trifle cheaper, but they can both be had from $700 to $800 a month per device, which includes the equipment, displays, software, licenses, installations and support. Both SMI and DEQ proclaim that if the systems don’t easily pay for themselves that they are free (at least for the first look, anyway). At somewhere around a dollar per hour per table, the differences in costs aren’t worth quibbling about.


Both companies claim—correctly, I might add—that their systems, based on the progressive jackpot bets alone, will pay for themselves with just a few days’ easily measured revenue every month. Results may vary based upon game mix, marketing, etc., but they can and will pay for themselves in spades. It’s a given. As an added benefit, nothing has to come out of your capital budgets to get them on your floor.


The Holy Grail—Blackjack

Table game managers have been clamoring for a practical blackjack progressive jackpot game for at least a decade. A lot of ideas have come down the pike, but most of the games that the inventors tried to flog our way have either completely bastardized the essence and natural order of the game or been so complicated that no one could understand them. In short, they weren’t blackjack.

Now there are two simple products out there that could fit the bill for you. They’re both uncomplicated, they both “go with the flow” of the game, they’re both quite different and guess who’s got ‘em? Lucky guess! SMI and DEQ.

SMI’s offering is called “Hit and Run Progressive,” and it works like this: You bet an extra dollar (or other fixed amount). If the dealer hits a natural, you get paid 4 for 1. If the dealer draws five cards, you get paid 7 for 1. Six cards gets you 25, seven gets you 100 and eight cards or more hits the jackpot. You can adjust the fixed payout schedule to about any house edge you want, and that’s about it.

The new DEQ game, which has already launched in California at three casinos and is awaiting gaming approvals in Canada, Las Vegas and a lot of joints, is called “Bad Beat Blackjack.” (Damn, I wish I’d have thought of that. Wait a minute, I did! Full disclosure: I helped develop the game.)

The premise of Bad Beat Blackjack is also very clear. If you lose with a 20, you win. And the pay schedule goes up depending on the number of cards it took for the dealer to get a 21. Have a 20 and lose with a natural and get 10 for 1; three cards, it’s 25 for 1. Four, it’s 50 for 1, five is 100 for 1, six pays 1,000 for 1, and seven or more brings home the progressive bacon.

In the short trials so far, many players are making the bet (or betting multiple credits with the G3 Bet Manager) to “hedge” their primary wagers. And it works (on the tables at the casino which has had the game for four months, there has been an increase of both drop and gross win of 11 percent). There is also a “Magic Card” feature, which is found on all G3 Progressive wagers in which the players can “win without winning,” simply by receiving a randomly chosen “Magic Card” as one of their first two cards; it typically pays 20 for 1.

As an added—and huge—benefit, the frequency of the “Magic Card” has nothing to do with the posted pay table, and the software can be modified on the fly to seamlessly and secretly modify the house advantage at will, based on real-time demand or promotional needs.

Both of these games have the potential to alter the progressive table game landscape forever. And I’m certain that one of these days one of these will be the game that brings scores of casinos together with the promise of offering the mother of all table game progressives.

Right now, I make it 6/5 pick ‘em. Any takers?

Max Rubin is one of eight living members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame and the award-winning author of Comp City: A Guide to Free Gambling Vacations. With nearly 40 years in the gaming industry as a casino veteran, he has designed and developed several table games as well as innovative table game tournament concepts.  

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