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From Few, Many

Electronic table games are experience a renaissance rarely seen in any gaming segment

From Few, Many

A golden age awaits multi-player electronic table games.

Several factors suggest a lucrative era for their operators, manufacturers and distributors. A proliferation of sleek, aesthetically pleasing machines meets an unprecedented wave of support, via casinos wishing to cut labor costs, players seeking to increase action and U.S. regulations geared to unleash an online revenue windfall.

Three worldwide suppliers should benefit immensely. Interblock, Shuffle Master and TCSJohnHuxley flood the markets with products that are cashless, chipless, technologically sound, remarkably simple and, despite all the high-tech intricacy, fun. The pizzazz can be shown via hybrids like roulette with a dealer and a touch-screen betting terminal, or automated versions of craps.

The companies don’t change the odds of games, but they spike casino profit by expediting the time between player bets and results. They may also cultivate new players.

All have gaudy credentials. TCSJohnHuxley proclaims itself the world’s largest international casino supply company, with the No. 1 chip machine. Shuffle Master momentarily hit $1 billion in capitalization early this year. Interblock, the main brand of the Slovenian Elektroncek Group of Companies, has made several major inroads into American markets this year with subsidiary Interblock USA.

This group sports a buzz-word barrage of terms like automation, hybrids, multi-player platforms and touch-screen reconciliation. Upgrades begin the moment new products hit the markets.

In many ways, Interblock, Shuffle Master and TCSJohnHuxley are the face of the changing casino-supplier relationship. And what a wonderful time it is: American states are racing each other to approve online gaming, with New Jersey out in front. Furthermore, electronic games comprise a small segment of the nation’s gaming floors. The growth potential for multi-player electronic games is substantial.

 

Interblock-Buster

Interblock, founded in 1989, evolved through the realm of security systems and information technology before finding its niche of niches, electronic games.

Its innovations included the first fully automated roulette game, electronic dice, touch-screen technology, and an electronic machine using real cards. Then came multiple play stations, generators and games. Play anything, all at once, with anybody and everybody.

The fourth-generation product line, aptly named G4, enables perpetual action. It has been available for a little more than a year, and could not have been introduced at a better time.

Interblock looks ready to link its dynamic G4 product line into the lucrative, barely tapped United States market. It already has offices in Canada and Asia.

“A lot of people don’t know that we have over 30,000 play stations in the world,” says Tom O’Brien, vice president of sales for Interblock USA, “and that we have recently installed over 1,200 in the United States alone. As we are getting licensed, we are booming. It keeps getting better.”

Interblock installed 295 play stations at Aqueduct racetrack in New York last year. Approval for more is imminent. Interblock penetrated the fertile Atlantic City market in March, debuting at Borgata. A recent Florida court decision cleared the way for electronic multi-player games, with perhaps 160 of them awarded to Interblock. Maryland Live!, which will open this summer with the state’s largest casino, will utilize 87 units from Interblock. Missouri is in. Arizona is in. These are just some of the blossoming expansion stories for Interblock.

Expansion during dreary economic times?

“This is an asset for operators because it reduces their labor,” O’Brien says. “These games don’t have to be run by an operator; they run themselves. They are ideal for low-limit games. If you are hosting a $5 blackjack game, there is no money. Not after you have to involve a floor guy, a pit guy, etc. But here, you can play $5 blackjack all day long and the player does not necessarily have to stick with that limit. You’ve seen it so often that a guy on a hot streak may bet much more than the minimum.”

Customer satisfaction is no accident. The machines look engaging. They are brightly lit, providing the visual stimulus comparable to slots. They offer several games at once, comfortable arm and foot rests and a rapid speed of play.

“You normally see 25 spins of roulette in an hour,” O’Brien estimates. “Think about how you have to stop the people from betting just before the spin, and then afterward you must place the chips, check the chips, stack them up again, etc. In our game, you don’t do any of that. You can play almost 60 spins an hour on our game. In blackjack and baccarat, the rate would be nearly triple.”

G4 provides multiple generators in multi-player stations, enabling everything from horse racing, dice and roulette to sic bo to be wagered on simultaneously. The G4 Organic Island has a play station with bill acceptors, ticket printers and, for floor flexibility, wheels. The random results generator carries electro-mechanical (automated) live and virtual components.

The multiple generators allow players to switch games without moving an inch.

“We’ve seen a revenue increase of 10, 20 and even 30 percent in some of the places we’ve installed stations,” O’Brien says. “I think that happens because the low-limit players are satisfied and will likely stay for a long time. It takes the intimidation factor out of the mix. You are on your own play station, so people can’t see your wagers. If you are playing blackjack, nobody can label you as being a bad player or look at you in a weird way because you took a card you should not have.”

 

Table Dominator

Shuffle Master, meanwhile, clicks on multiple cylinders. It has achieved the unprecedented feat of launching five new products in five separate categories. One area, the online gaming category, is also brand new.

How do you define glory days?

“We have always had a robust innovation pipeline, but to have a new product of emphasis in every one of our categories and to come up with a brand-new category is absolutely exciting,” says Julia Boguslawski, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Shuffle Master. “Shufflers and table games are still our bread and butter, our legacy, but the extensions of our product lines have been fantastic.”

Shuffle Master has offices in Las Vegas, Vienna, Midrand (South Africa), Milperra (Australia), Macau and Mexico City. Its realm has grown like wildfire over the past couple of decades. Shuffle Master began with the utility segment in 1992, an area that now includes card shufflers, shoes and chip sorters.

A major transition occurred via proprietary table games, featuring felt table games like Three Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em as well as side bets and progressives. This allowed Shuffle Master to grow from merely supplying table-game service to creating both the game and the service that went with it. The process further evolved with e-tables, fully electronic and hybrid versions of real games.

A slot machine segment, with video slot machines in select markets, has been a hit in Australia. And now the i-gaming category looks poised to boom. In March, Shuffle Master announced its intent to acquire Ongame Network, a B2B online poker network based in Europe. While this looks promising, the company also positions itself for a potential windfall once the United States market opens up.

Unlike the old adage, there are plenty of “i’s” in Shuffle Master’s team. No game mirrors the balance between human resource and technology like i-Table Roulette. It merges the social element of live play with the thrills and whistles of e-games. Innovative yet simple, it combines a live dealer with electronic betting terminals.

Its genius aspect? A touch-screen produces instant action, recording a player’s wager and placing his chips onto the numerical grid.

Besides being visually pleasing, i-Table Roulette eliminates many hassles. There is no more reaching across another player to put physical chips on a number. No more concerns that sliding the chips over to a number could cause others chips to fall and delay the game. No more worries about where one’s chips are on the table. And no more feeling confined because of seat location. A player lodged in a crowded game and positioned near the bottom numbers, for instance, often feels encumbered trying to push bets to a dealer for action on the low numbers on the wheel. This results in some bets not being cast in live roulette.

Another benefit of i-Table Roulette occurs once the dealer has spun the ball on a live wheel and it lands on a number. Results are immediate. Forget the nightmare of chips stacked like skyscrapers and payouts backed up like a highway on July 4.

“All bets are reconciled with the push of a button,” Boguslawski says. “You will see you won and ‘boom,’ go on to the next hand. Players want action. What we have initially observed is a dramatic increase in the number of spins per hour. In a live table, you might be looking at 30. And although we don’t have a large sample size yet, our initial feedback puts that number somewhere in the 50s. Combined with all the security aspects that help protect every dollar, that’s more money for the operator.”

Even better (or bettor?), it’s a breakthrough for the player. It is both a live game enhanced with technical upgrades and a technology-based game that retains its social soul.

“I liken our i-Table innovations to the TITO (ticket-in, ticket out) years,” Boguslawski explains of an industry trend that emerged over a decade ago. “During the age when slot machines used to just be coins, and the industry started to evolve, the initial feedback was that people won’t play without the coins. Now you are hard-pressed to find places where you can get coins.

“This innovation is truly ahead of its time. If we look out five or 10 years from now, we envision a pit in which the usage of chips is dramatically reduced. There are many reasons why i-Table Roulette works. Our touch screen, for example, is about the size of an iPad. Many people are not intimidated by this; their smart phone, for example, is touch-screen.”

i-Table Roulette debuted for the Ho-Chunk Nekoosa Nation in Wisconsin, Prairie Meadows in Iowa and the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, early in 2012. Its next install will be a property on the Las Vegas Strip. It opened to strong reviews, according to Boguslawski. Operator feedback is likely to produce other features, like a ticket printer and bill validator, in future enhancements of the game.

 

System Innovation

While i-Table Roulette enhances the electronic tables section, OWAP is a table-games breakthrough. OWAP piggybacks on Shuffle Master’s existing table games progressive system. It stands for “Operator Wide Area Progressive,” which enables inter-casino linked progressives through a proprietary communication network, and champions a device that allows various casinos to communicate with the system at a central location.

It allows players to gravitate toward the fast-incrementing jackpots, while casinos enjoy the increased participation on the progressive bet. In Las Vegas, the Station Casinos properties have 33 different tables across 10 properties linked via OWAP. A popular game like Three Card Poker, Crazy 4 Poker or Fortune Pai Gow can set this into motion.

“You are seeing your meter gain in increments from tables that can be five or 10 miles away, as well as those on the property in which you are playing,” Boguslawski says. “The meter is being fed rapidly from all these different locations. The jackpot is incrementing at a faster clip than players are used to. One of the advantages to linking more than one property is that you are aggregating and funneling all the play into that common meter. There is nothing more unattractive to a gambler than a progressive jackpot that’s not increasing.”

The utility segment, of course, remains a Shuffle Master mainstay. It still accounts for about 40 percent of overall revenue, Boguslawski says.

For shufflers, innovations include the new MD3 for blackjack and baccarat. It shaves significant shuffle time compared to the previous-generation product. It also features optical card recognition and an optional onboard ticket printer, and reduces card wear and tear as well as card jams.

 

International Appeal

TCSJohnHuxley, an international table-game powerhouse based in London, made a substantial entry into the United States market last year. It gained access to Las Vegas via Planet Hollywood, and is now in the lucrative Caesars Entertainment casinos. The company should be able to spread its products profitably.

It already sports worldwide tentacles. The 32-year-old company has offices in London, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Toronto, San Jose in Costa Rica, Macau, Singapore, Johannesburg, Marbella in Spain and Stoke-on-Trent in the U.K. It sells 30,000 layouts, 6,000 chip machines and 5,000 electronic and gaming terminals annually.

Is it possible they can’t make the products fast enough?

“This is one of the most interesting and exciting times in our business,” says Roger Hawkins, CEO of the Americas for TCSJohnHuxley. “More products are coming into the market and players are demanding more from the casino gaming floor. Will we see more floor space for electronic multi-player games? I think so and I hope so. As we see younger generations of people come through with their comfort level in iPhones and touch-screen technology, they are going to almost demand it. This is a critical time for us as gaming providers to understand that.

“Furthermore, online is coming our way, and when that happens—I say when because it is not ‘if’ anymore—the United States is going to be a major market force to be reckoned with.”

Like others, he says that technology, which eliminates dealers, does not have to eliminate jobs.

“We are not advocating dealers losing their jobs,” Hawkins says. “We think there can be a refocus of the dealer’s functions. We think the operators can have an entertainer- or customer-focused agenda, something that will assist the player.

“It’s a better use of everyone’s time, in my opinion. The casino does not have to sit there with a down game. If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and one person wants to play roulette, he can go up to one of the electronic roulette games and play.”

The company offers a range of products under the MultiPlay Platform, available in two table configurations.

MultiPLAY Quad HD offers an effective way of quickly delivering live roulette, sic bo or craps to many people. It enables operators to adjust games at the flick of a switch, quickly reacting to the time of day and player demand. When this option is placed on a double or triple table, different games can be played consecutively, all still using only one dealer.

MultiPLAY HD Auto is a fully automated and cashless configuration for an even greater return on investment. By using the new automated TCSJohnHuxley Gemini wheel combined with bill acceptors and ticket printers, the result can be a lucrative 24-hour-a-day live-hybrid roulette platform that requires no dealer or inspection.

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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