Chasing the Handle

The almost mythic quest by casinos, manufacturers and game makers to go automate table games

Handle: a gambling term used to signify the total amount of wagers taken on a given event.

When Roger Snow of Shuffle Master Inc. talks about the casino handle-finding it, subduing it, mastering it-he does so as if this is an epic battle: a veritable Lord of the Rings of the gaming industry, complete with a precious but elusive quarry, and generations of dogged pursuers who risk all for their ultimate goal-in this case, the capture of accurate table game information.

“That’s the quest, and it’s a noble one,” says Snow, sounding like Frodo on the road to Mordor. “Fortunes will be made and fortunes will be lost in this quest.”

The end of this particular odyssey may be years in the making, and once-promising solutions like MindPlay have already fallen along the wayside. But the race to fully automate table games continues unabated, and small wonder. The prize-for casinos, and for technology manufacturers-could be incalculable.

“The (company) that cracks this code is going to make a lot of money,” says Snow, vice president for entertainment products at Shuffle Master. “But they have to figure out the best way to give casinos the information they want in a format the players will accept. They have to provide the casinos with more value than they have to pay. That’s a difficult challenge that no one should underestimate.”

And how. Back in 2004, the ballyhooed MindPlay system-which used optical scanning and bar-coded chips and cards to track player activity-was still being tested at Caesars Palace and the Hilton in Las Vegas.

Concealed cameras and image-recognition software recognized and counted all wagers; a special shuffling shoe recorded the cards dealt; each player’s statistics were logged through a player’s club card. The system could also track players without cards.

At $20,000 per table, it was no small investment, but the casinos expected to make back their investments in six months, and anticipated handsome returns (including an average 25 percent cut in comp budgeting).

At the time, a Caesars executive raved to USA Today, “With the information we get, we know how many hands are being played (and) the value and size of someone’s bet as they play. Because we can monitor a dealer, we can keep the level of activity up, and… better manage our comps, so we’re not overly compensating some players.”

Bally CEO Richard Hadrill confidently predicted an “explosion” of the technology across the United States and Macau.

“(The casinos) are going to love it,” he said. “The players are going to love it.”

In the long run, neither of those forward-looking statements turned out to be true, for a couple of reasons. First, some of the MindPlay apparatus-including the black camera console-was visible on the table, making experienced players wary (the old if-you-can-see-it-don’t-trust-it rule).

Second, card counters felt they would be undone by the system. Websites soon abounded with warnings from blackjack players to “stay away from MindPlay.” In October 2004, a group of players even sued, claiming the system allowed the house to reshuffle to its own advantage.

Third was the opposition from pit bosses themselves, who can be as resistant to change as the players.

Fourth, says an industry observer, “MindPlay didn’t deliver. So it didn’t stick.” The innovative system with the Uri Geller-type name lasted a few years, and was finally phased out last fall.

But the idea and the goal persist. MindPlay and other early-edition table game technologies like Mikohn’s SafeJack and TableLink, as well as GPI’s poker chips embedded with radio-frequency identifiers, paved the way for later-generation solutions.

I’ll have the same goal, says Bally Product Manager Richard McGowan: “to turn a table game into a slot machine,” at least in terms of grabbing and accurately assessing player data.

It’s been a problem for operators since day one. The manual method of rating players is notoriously imprecise. Harried managers must rove the floor, using pens and clipboards to keep track of multiple tables and players of many skill levels. The inefficient system jacks up the overhead cost of table games, over-comps some players by as much as 45 percent, and under-rewards others who are just as loyal.

“In the long run, there are only so many players who qualify for the gourmet comps (versus) the coffee shop, but everyone is bogged down with ratings,” says McGowan. “This is also about productivity and efficiency on the floor, and allowing the supervisor to watch more tables and not get overloaded with paperwork. For the casino, (increased automation) means a paperless environment, important efficiencies and labor savings.”

Bally’s TableView was developed in 2002 to address and answer these problems. Installed for the first time in 2003 at a Boyd property, the Treasure Chest in Kenner, Louisiana, it is now at 38 properties in the United States and around the world. McGowan predicts “exponential growth” for the product, and one step more toward the abolition of manual rating, which can make supervisors feel like pencil-wielding clerks.

With TableView, “Instead of manuals, now they’re (tracking the action) through a touch-screen data-entry system,” says McGowan. “As they key it in, it’s going right into the host casino’s management system, making a two-step process a one-step process.”

The technology also enables operators to assess game occupancy according to time of day or day of the week, which in turns helps them assign staff with greater selectivity. Importantly from an end-user perspective, designers of TableView kept the casino supervisor in mind. They wanted to minimize the resistance that seems to accompany any new-fangling of an entrenched process.

The price tag? “From soup to nuts, with installation and training, it’s an initial investment of $7,500 per table,” says McGowan.

Data Warehouse
Another contribution to the streamlining of data management is CasinoCAD, with data visualization and report writing analysis by Casino Data Imaging.

“With this software system, the casino loads the data and we grab it from a data warehouse whenever they need an analysis,” says CDI’s George Levine.

Recently installed at the Four Winds Casino Resort in Michigan and Lumiere Place in St. Louis, the software program provides color-coded graphic mapping of the casino floor so operators can see at a glance where the action is (and where it’s not).

“That’s the fun part-the mapping,” says Levine. “You can say, ‘How are my Red, White & Blue machines doing in Section B?’ and get the answers immediately within our program. You can take snapshots of any map, do an analysis and email it to the general manager and say, ‘These are the high and low areas.'”

CasinoCAD has historically been used for slot machine analysis. Now, CDI is creating similar applications for table games.

“It was initially developed from a slot analyst/casino management perspective-what they were doing manually (reports and graphical representations) has been automated by CasinoCAD,” Levine says. “Many of our clients asked if we could develop a similar application for table games (point-and-click reporting, data visualization analysis, easy maintenance). Now, we’ve started development of table-related systems built on a new development platform.”

He promises the same “stunning visual presentation, dynamic user interface, easy-to-use format, versatile import/export features (including Excel), and full-featured graphing capabilities,” along with in-depth analysis of every conceivable kind of data, from wins by area and type to bank comparisons, from lease reports with bottom-line analysis to loser lists.

As ever, says Levine, “The bottom line is to maximize profitability while reducing man-hours.”

Intelligent Tracking
The blockbuster news in table game automation may have been the announcement in the summer of 2005 that a triumvirate of mighty manufacturers-International Game Technology, Shuffle Master and Progressive Gaming-had joined forces to develop a comprehensive table-game management structure called the Intelligent Tracking System, or ITS.

Under the terms of the alliance, which pretty much ensures seamless interfacing and fewer industry patent wars, Shuffle Master serves up the automatic card shufflers, card-reading shoes, and card and chip sorters and verifiers; IGT provides back-end table gaming management systems (player tracking, patron loyalty and rewards, as well as bonusing applications); and Progressive brings the RFID bet recognition, automated gaming chip tracking and payoff recognition.

While the fully integrated ITS system is not in place at any property to date, it will arguably be the system to beat in years to come.

Until that happy day, manufacturers continue to test the marketplace with inventive formats, games and analytic tools, and keep an ear to the ground to gauge the reception.

Last year, IGT-one arm of the ITS trinity-bought DigiDeal, a Spokane-based company whose primary technology is an electronic table game platform. Among its products: a blackjack-style game with a live dealer that can be played with virtual cards or chips. Director of Table Games Marketing Tim Richards says such hybrids retain a “traditional feel” but allow the dealer to act as more of an entertainer or facilitator. Such games have broad appeal in niche markets-particularly in jurisdictions that prohibit live tables, like Vietnam and Cambodia.

“We have about 400 tables out so far-some in the U.S., but the majority of placements so far are in Asia and South America, which are just as big a marketplace… We’re also providing a niche in the racinos and slots-only markets (in the United States). Many of the Native American casinos are looking for this type of product to service their lower-end retail tables to make them more profitable.”

Despite the demand for DigiDeal-style games, Richards does not believe the live table will ever be obsolete.

“This product is a faster, cleaner game, and you don’t have to worry about dealer mistakes. It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to create more compelling automated games. But the higher-end player does like a live game.”

IGT plans to introduce its new games slowly. “They have to be adopted by players, they will have to gravitate to them, the dealers will have to accept them and management will have to know how to market them. With electronic games, we would do a fairly slow launch. We want to make sure it’s a good experience from the start.”

Meanwhile, Shuffle Master is openly courting the player in search of a fully automated game. Its TableMaster, with 1,000 seats around the country, simulates a multi-player table game but with a big-screen video dealer and completely automated play. In 2006, the Delaware Lottery named Table Master its multi-terminal video lottery machine of choice; it was the first multi-player electronic table game approved for use in Pennsylvania.

“Originally, we thought the market opportunity for TableMaster was places that aren’t allowed to have table games-Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island,” says Roger Snow. Now he’s willing to bet the greater industry will grab on to a prototype first designed for small markets, because of the greater capacity to gather and use information.

“One reason that slots are so popular is that they have the information. The (machine) knows your habits and markets to you and gives you what you want as a player. With table games (so far), it’s been like rubbing sticks together, because all they have is stick

“Once a player starts betting electronically,” he says, “you know every wager on every game. You know the most popular and least popular hours. You know when the game is full and when it’s empty, the average bet. That’s the benefit. There’s no disputing it. You know the hidden habits of gamblers. You have the handle.”

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