Choosing Sides

As wagers-within-games, side bets serve two seemingly rival masters: the player experience and the house edge.

Over the past five years, the merging of technology and gambling appetites have spiked the popularity of side bets. Patrons can make a different bet in the wake of a dead hand or enjoy a low-priced wagering stab combining skill, luck and imagination.

Blackjack hands can become poker. Dealers and players can unite for one card and then resume normal roles. The game grows.

Technology is the path to prop-bet utopia, a thrill played out on gaming floors and mobile phones. It’s an instant decision available either on a game or with the tap of an app.

 

Wild Times

Blackjack remains the prime innovation target, blending the operator’s goal to hike profitability above 1 percent with a player’s wish for more bets.

New options have evolved, from the pragmatic function of insurance to the flashy 21+3 format with the player’s first two cards and the dealer’s up card forming a poker hand. Some payouts, for rarities like suited trips, pay 100-to-1. Sure, it’s luck, but not all wagers have to be handicapped.

Multiple bets have caught on throughout the industry.

Poker and baccarat continually offer new options, and while craps and roulette are eyed for future wild-card action, they already exist as a side-wager symphony. Bets extending beyond the norm are the core of the games themselves.

Craps, already sporting whirlwind wagering, presumably could not find room for more. Then prop bets arrived for tall, small and all numbers that must be rolled prior to a seven. Payouts range from roughly 35-to-1 to 175-to-1. The concept of perpetual action is unmistakable.

Groups of numbers, a universe of numbers and a regular craps game occur simultaneously. That image could summarize the side-bet world.

Even slots, not viewed in the classic side-bet context, took in-game bonuses to stratospheric heights with relatively recent innovations like Dragon Link. What’s more euphoric than a wild-card-like hold-and-spin bonus? It’s a victory dance, right in the middle of the game.

 

Side-Bet Storm

Roger Snow, senior vice president of tables and utility products for Scientific Games, has created more than 50 games and side bets over the years, with perhaps 15 still in the market. He’s well known for Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Dragon Bonus Baccarat, Crazy 4 Poker and Four Card Poker, among other games.

Snow likes the ascension and attention given the side-bet world. “You’ve got a couple of trends going on in the market,” he says. “First, you’re seeing more and more games with multiple side bets. You’ll see Buster Blackjack and Lucky Lucky, for example. In baccarat, we have an array of side bets called 5 Treasures, which, as the name suggests, has five different wagers. If this keeps up, pretty soon every game is going to look like the middle of a craps layout.”

Snow sees the continuing emergence of proprietary side bets on proprietary games.

“This is a trend that nobody is picking up on. Take Three Card Poker, for instance. Ten years ago, we launched Six-Card Bonus, a side bet that combined the dealer’s cards and the player’s cards to make a poker hand. Players loved it, and now it’s on 75 percent of the Three Card Poker tables out there,” he says.

Professional gambler-turned-inventor Geoff Hall just came up with a side bet for Ultimate Texas Hold’em—and other games—called Diamondz, says Snow. “It just launched in the Caribbean and will be coming next to Las Vegas. You’re going to see all the top poker-style games with new side bets, something that will keep them fresh and interesting.”

Side-bet mania resembles the wacky, crazy, nearly limitless world of NFL prop wagering. The same types of players gravitate to both areas.

“Like sports bettors, table-game players love action,” Snow explains. “And these side bets are just that: action. Instead of just trying to get closer to 21 than the dealer, now you can bet that you’ll start with two suited cards, or that your first two cards and the dealer’s upcard will make a poker hand, or that his upcard will be in between the value of your first two cards. It’s endless action.”

The term “cover,” in fact, has significant meaning beyond an NFL wager against the spread. One of Snow’s newest innovations is Coverall, a side bet for proprietary games that lets players back-bet on every hand at the table.

“So if you’re playing Crazy 4 Poker, you can make the Coverall bet and have action on every hand: yours, the dealer’s and the other players,” he says. “It just went live on some cruise ships and is doing well.”

As the wagers multiply, so do the prominent industry entrepreneurs. Snow increasingly credits others with enhancing the landscape.

“Ryan Yee, who runs the table games business for us, has become a prolific game creator,” Snow says. “He’s got some great ideas. Same with Geoff Hall, who’s one of the best of all time. I’ll work with them and maybe identify something to add to the game—or subtract from it—to make it better. I love working with those guys.”

Snow says roulette will ultimately join the side-bet party. Unlike the wagers that transform blackjack and poker, a roulette side dish would upgrade an already-rich betting menu.

Snow says Scientific Games has stepped up its emphasis on side bets.

“I think for a long time, we didn’t focus sharply enough on the side bets—it was all poker games. Now we’re making up for lost time and coming out with all sorts of side bets. Not only that, but Ryan Yee has come up with a mechanism that automatically tips the dealer when players win a side bet. We call it ‘Dealer Envy,’ and it creates great camaraderie at the table. It’s a game-changer, so to speak.”

 

Roulette with a Side

Snow’s prediction about roulette joining the side-bet party actually is already being implemented by table-game supplier TCSJohnHuxley.

The London-based supplier’s latest innovation is a flexible Roulette Progressive. A first-o-its-kind offering, the product features an optional progressive bet that can be placed on a roulette table for an opportunity to win a combination of bespoke progressive, fixed and/or mystery jackpots. All of these jackpots can be customized to meet the needs and expectations of each operation, focusing on preferred hit frequencies as well as specific jackpots, their seed values and contributions.

“With the ongoing and overwhelming success of TCSJohnHuxley’s blackjack and poker progressive offerings, it was a logical progression for us to roll out the system for roulette,” says Tracy Cohen, director of marketing for TCSJohnHuxley, “especially as there has never been a successful roulette progressive available that provides high levels of excitement as well as multiple customizable independent progressive jackpots, incorporating both event-based and mystery wins.”

TCSJohnHuxley’s Roulette Progressive allows the player to wager an “in it to win it” progressive wager which, once locked in, gives the player access to a variety of potential incremental individual, community and mystery progressive jackpots as well as fixed payouts. All jackpots are independent, so even if the top prize is won the other meters are not affected and do not reset. “This keeps the excitement building and players at the table for longer,” says Cohen.

The world launch of the Roulette Progressive recently took place at Tsogo Sun’s flagship operation Montecasino in Johannesburg, South Africa, to much fanfare.

 

Sides of the Times

AGS views new technology as an enhancement of the player experience while preserving the core game, according to Gabe Baron, senior director of table products.

“Side bets have become increasingly important to operators as a way to drive more revenue from traditional games like blackjack, and to add more player excitement by providing the thrill of a higher payout and an additional chance at winning each hand,” Baron says. “Low-limit blackjack, for example, is not a highly profitable game for casinos, but when you add a side bet, it becomes much more lucrative.

“We especially see a rise in popularity of dual-felt side bets, which create multiple games within a game at a blackjack table, which is very in tune with younger players and multitasking.”

Given the performance and popularity of side bets, AGS will continue to offer more side-bet options, often coupled with table progressives, in its portfolio of table products, he says. The company has more than 2,000 side bets in the market—mostly blackjack side bets, but also some craps and baccarat side bets.

Blackjack remains king of the side-bet theater “by a long shot,” Baron says.

“Aside from the total number of tables alone, the game lends itself so well to all kinds of various combinations of card-building poker hands, totaling the values of cards exposed, looking for similar suits, and so on, so that there really may never be a point when every possible blackjack side bet has been conceived. I have yet to meet a serious blackjack player who doesn’t have an idea for a new side bet in their head, waiting to be told to anyone who’ll listen.”

AGS’ Buster Blackjack is attractive “because it enables players to win odds-based payouts when a dealer busts,” Baron says. “This is a result all players enjoy. The number of cards in the dealer’s busted hand determines the payout the player receives, creating anticipation as more and more cards appear. There’s also a community element that players love as the whole table wins together.”

Baron touts a relatively new AGS side bet: Jackpot Blackjack. This wager pays odds when a player makes any three-of-a-kind using the player’s first two cards and the dealer’s upcard. It also pays even money for a winning blackjack hand, not just a blackjack itself. Any winning hand will pay out in addition to possibly receiving payouts on the three-of-a-kind combinations.

Baron loves the game-within-a-game philosophy driving the side-bet world, with increasing speed.

“It’s so hard to talk tables without devoting a large amount of time to progressive side bets and their mainstream acceptance by players,” he points out. “They increase the level of anticipation and excitement on any table game, because the player is eligible for a potentially large jackpot.

“One from AGS that is building quite a following is Blackjack Match, not only for the chance at both ‘night-changing’ and ‘life-changing’-sized jackpots, but also because it, like the rest of our STAX Progressive lineup, offers an optional ‘Must-Hit-By’ prize.”

The “Must-Hit-By” feature randomly awards a player who’s made a progressive wager.

“Imagine sitting and placing your regular and progressive bets as always, and at the end of a round, being awarded several hundred dollars just for participating in the progressive action,” Baron says. “That’s happening as we speak all over the continent.”

 

Electronic Excellence

IGT continually enhances its large-and-in-charge footprint in the electronic table games space, initially realized when it completed the nation’s biggest ETG installation at the Sands Bethlehem in Pennsylvania in 2016: 150 cabinets, featuring live roulette and baccarat games.

The company has maintained its momentum in this sector. Last summer, IGT deployed 15 Dynasty Electronic Table Games terminals with Dynasty Auto Roulette at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in Murphy, North Carolina. IGT’s new landscape-oriented Dynasty ETG terminal and Random Number Generator roulette content created a stadium-style ETG destination on the property’s casino floor.

IGT’s cutting-edge Dynasty ETG lineup, including RNG offerings such as baccarat and triple hand blackjack with expanded options for side bets, was on display at the trade show of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association in late July.

The demand for these products figures to grow. The number of installations in one room can certainly rise, and with the impetus of side bets, expanded wagers can mushroom. The combination of a live dealer, software-driven outcome, reduction of player chatter and increased number of units dramatically enhances the number of hands per hour.

The arsenal of products and venues gains a significant upgrade when side options unfold.

“IGT is focused on differentiating our offerings in the electronic table games space, and one way we’re doing that is with our expanded side betting options offered on our Dynasty ETG solutions,” says Paul Baskerville, IGT’s director of ETG product management. “IGT’s Dynasty RNG Baccarat, for instance, gives players the option to customize their betting to their personal preference with over 40 different betting options.

“This is done on our patented interface that enables players to drag and drop their chosen bets for a next-level player experience.”

The side-bet lineup has a significant upside, with games like live blackjack, sic bo, Multi Baccarat, and single-, double- and triple-zero roulette offering their own versions of a wild card.

“As more ETGs are placed on casino floors, it will be more important than ever to differentiate and modernize the player experience with engaging side bets, while ensuring they’re easy to understand and keep up with the pace of the game,” Baskerville says.

The industry giants like what’s going on here. More game types mean more players. And more options often mean enhancing the house edge.

These factors would normally butt heads, but side bets can be small investments and they are not mandatory.

This balance makes it easier for players—and operators—to “take sides.”

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Casino Connection Sports Editor Dave Bontempo is an award-winning sports writer and broadcaster who calls boxing matches all over the world. He has covered the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs, as well as numerous PGA, LPGA and Seniors Golf Tour events, and co-hosted the Casino Connection television program with Publisher Roger Gros.

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