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Ghosts in the Machine

The integration of gaming technology with live dealers offers a new venue for players, one with a human touch.

Ghosts in the Machine

While I was writing this month’s feature on the live dealer phenomenon in iGaming, I was reminded of a time when I was at the cutting edge of live dealer technology. It was around 1981 and I was working as a blackjack/baccarat dealer at Caesars Atlantic City. My cousin’s girlfriend at the time, Dawna, worked as a receptionist in the hotel offices. One day she fielded a call from a man who wanted to recruit dealers for a somewhat unusual assignment.

He was planning to create a slot-machine type of device that would feature “real” dealers dealing the cards, announcing the totals and congratulating the winners. More than a decade later, a Japanese company, the video game developer Sega, came out with a ready-for-market version of this live dealer game on a much larger machine that could seat up to seven players. That scenario has currently been perfected by Interblock in today’s casino environment.

But no one at Caesars at the time was interested in helping this gentleman, so when Dawna told me about it, I asked for the name and contact info, figuring I might make a quick buck arranging something. After talking to him, he was very grateful that someone had responded, so he wanted a group of six good-looking, well spoken, diverse dealers, which I could easily come up with. It didn’t include me because I didn’t qualify under at least one of those qualifications—and I didn’t ask which one.

So the deal was, he’d fly us from Atlantic City to Boston, put us up at a hotel, feed us at some very nice restaurants, arrange for some entertainment—which turned out to be a night at a Red Sox game, my first visit to Fenway Park—in exchange for filming the dealers saying all the catch phrases of dealing blackjack—things like “dealer has blackjack,” the numbers from three to 21, “player busts”…. you get the idea. That turned out to be more grueling than you might expect. They actually paid us all extra to stay another day to complete the shoot. For some reason, Caesars never asked whey seven dealers all called in sick on the same day.

The actual product had a mockup of a screen inside a standard-sized slot cabinet so they could see how the shoot would look in that limited space. And we’re not talking about the 62-inch curved screen behemoths we see in today’s casinos. This screen was around 12 inches from tip to tip (think the early Si Redd video poker games) with the silent movie flicker to them because it hadn’t been edited.

I knew almost instantly this wasn’t going to work because the technology just wasn’t there. In a later version they showed me—maybe the beta version—it had only improved a small amount, and in the lag between when the player hit the button and when the decision was made, you could have ordered a drink from the cocktail waitress—and had it delivered.

But what did intrigue me were the “human” dealers and how they made the game fun. Now, these people were my friends, so I knew what they were like and their real-life personalities, but somehow I could imagine total strangers getting caught up in the game and developing a strange relationship with them. And these were just filmed people, not live and in person.

That’s why I’ve been so fascinated with the live dealer, an actual person that you can chat with, someone who does have a personality that interacts with the players. The executives I spoke with for this story tell me that there are players that wait for certain dealers on certain shifts because they have developed a relationship with them. It doesn’t sound creepy or like they are stalking; it just seems like they like the personal interaction when they recognize the dealer.

But again, we come back to technology. The product that my dealer colleagues were working on in Boston all those years ago didn’t cut it, not because it wasn’t a good idea, but because it was ahead of its time. The live dealer we see today is really only scratching the surface with its potential. What happens when you can match players with certain “type” of dealer? Or maybe the camaraderie that develops between a group of players can turn into a kind of “weeknight poker night” for those players? And to stretch it even further, we’ve been teased about the possibilities of immersive virtual reality, with or without the headsets, where you could waltz into a virtual casino, dressed to the nines, and sit down at an elegant baccarat game or a high-limit blackjack game and make a night of it.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but there are plenty of things we haven’t even imagined that can be delivered instantaneously to our best players. But even with this remarkable technology, nothing will beat the human touch, even if they’re just a group of sad-sack dealers from 1980s Atlantic City.

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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