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If At First You Don't Succeed...

What do Viagra and shufflers have in common?

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s (an era today’s historians commonly refer to as “Hammer Time”), the big pharmaceutical company Pfizer was testing medications that accelerated blood flow to the most important organ in the human body.

Well, OK. Second-most.

The object of Pfizer’s fixation? Angina, a heart condition so painful it felt like a python was using your chest as a squeeze toy while an elephant was using it as a seat cushion. The true culprit was actually circulation, or more aptly, a lack thereof. After considerable time and expense, Pfizer’s scientists fleshed out a big, albeit unexpected, breakthrough. Circulation on test subjects—half of them, anyway—had improved; however, the improvement was localized to one particular area.

And it wasn’t the heart.

Pfizer had inadvertently invented sildenafil citrate, better known as Viagra. Big Blue. Vitamin V. The Tentmaker. There were probably more than a few giggles in the focus group that day, but it’s doubtful anyone is laughing now. Viagra has generated billions of dollars in revenue, and it has made life infinitely and intimately more satisfying for millions of men (and presumably the same number of women).

Chance, serendipity, and good, old-fashioned dumb luck are always discreet variables in the formula for success. Just ask the biologist who left his dirty dishes in the sink only to discover penicillin, or the engineer who installed the wrong battery in his heart-monitoring device only to create the pacemaker, or the casino supplier that designed a card shuffler for blackjack only to revolutionize poker.

Indeed, the table games industry had a Viagra moment in 2003, when Shuffle Master unveiled its new single- and double-deck shuffler, the DeckMate. Single-deck 6-to-5 blackjack was becoming all the rage, especially on the Las Vegas Strip, as gamblers were either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that 6 to 5 is a hell of a lot less than 3 to 2. 

Players accepted it. Casinos embraced it. And before long, it was everywhere.

And Shuffle Master was there, too, locked and loaded with the DeckMate. This new machine could mix a pack of cards in 45 seconds, fast enough to accommodate any hand-pitched game. The company was now living the ultimate business fantasy, a perfect storm of right place and right time. It was as if you were a surfer, waiting and paddling, paddling and waiting for that monster wave, and suddenly there it was—right behind you!—big and blue and breaking, and ready to take you on the ride of your life.  

Except that it didn’t.

The same blackjack players who acquiesced to a quadrupled house advantage drew the line when it came to shufflers. They balked, and the casinos bailed. It was a devastating setback. After years of planning and months of tooling and weeks of selling, it seemed that nobody—OK, almost nobody—wanted the DeckMate.

But a funny thing happened on the way to everyone getting fired. One of Shuffle Master’s salespeople showed the machine to a card room in Los Angeles, and the suggestion was floated to try it on a poker table. Faced with a dearth of options and a glut of inventory, the answer to the question, “Why?” ended up being, “Why not?”

The rest, as they say, is history. It turned out the DeckMate, born and bred for blackjack, was blessed with the ideal genetic makeup for poker. The game was faster and more secure. And talk about timing: This was right after ESPN televised the World Series of Poker, which Chris Moneymaker won, which made him a millionaire, which made him a celebrity, which made Texas Hold ‘em a national phenomenon. The poker bandwagon was running on nitrous oxide, and the DeckMate was sitting shotgun.

And in the end, this failure, this flop, this market misfire became one of the most successful casino products of all time. Nine thousand installs. Used on every continent that has casinos (sorry, Antarctica). Changed poker forever.

The point to all this is there are two points. First, accidents happen. You try to cure angina but instead cure erectile dysfunction. You try to read the human heartbeat but instead regulate it. You try to build the perfect blackjack shuffler but instead do it for poker. John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Occasionally, innovation is what happens when you are busy making other things.

Keep experimenting. Keep trying. Keep tinkering. It’s like a 10-year-old at one of those fancy new soda machines. Sure, a concoction of Coca-Cola, Orange Fanta, Squirt, Sprite, Fresca and Diet Dr. Pepper will probably taste like cold, sugary dishwater, but hey, maybe it won’t. No try, no success.

Second, you’ve got to keep it real. Don’t rationalize. Don’t sugarcoat. The best laid plans of mice and mine often go awry.  Big whoop. Call an audible. Change those plans, be they man-made or rodent. And hey, you know what? Admitting defeat in a battle can be the first step towards securing victory in the war.

Hindsight is 20/20, while foresight has cataracts and a detached retina. The true visionary genius of Pfizer or anyone that capitalizes on unintended innovation is recognizing what went right inside what went wrong. Break an egg? Make an omelet. Stuck with lemons? Make lemonade. Knock over a spring designed to keep instruments upright on ships? Make the Slinky. (True story.)

And above all else, when it comes to predictions, forecasts, theories, expectations and hypotheses, always write them in pencil, not pen. Much easier to erase that way.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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