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In the Chips

RFID technology is making gaming chips more secure, and tracking them more efficient

In the Chips

When radio-frequency identification first made its way into the manufacture of gaming chips more than 15 years ago, the main advantages of the technology related to security: Just as in the retail industry, RFID microchips embedded in gaming chips, plaques and jetons constituted a means to battle loss from internal theft, to deter counterfeiting and to aid in tracking chip inventory.

Since those early days, in addition to security uses, RFID-embedded gaming chips have evolved into a key element in functions more related to marketing-the tracking of wagers for the purposes of table-game player tracking-and in table-game operations, as a way to speed up the game through bet recognition and chip-tracking in poker.

The French supplier Bourgogne et Grasset, now a division of table-game supply giant Gaming Partners International Corporation, began the development of RFID chips in 1993, and sold the first gaming chips embedded with RFID in 1996, to the Regina Casino in Canada.

While there were a few suppliers at the time marketing the technology, it was Gaming Partners International, formed in 2002 through the merger of Bourgogne et Grasset, Bud Jones Company and Paul-Son Gaming, that embraced and developed this style of chip. GPI holds licenses to patents giving it the exclusive right to produce and sell RFID gaming chips in the U.S., and, according to GPI President and CEO Greg Gronau, commands more than 80 percent of the market worldwide for RFID-embedded chips.

Gronau says that while the U.S. patents are important, that exclusivity is not the main factor in its burgeoning business in RFID chips. He notes, for instance, that the sheer volume of the table game business in markets such as Macau means a high priority for security, a role RFID fills like no other
technology.

The first chips sold with radio-frequency identification were designed for inventory control-internal security, to keep the chips from “walking” from the back of the house-and for verification. In the beginning, GPI’s chips used a low radio frequency of 125KHz, but before long the company offered a higher-frequency chip as well, at 13.56MHz.

The two frequencies offered differences initially in both price and performance. The lower frequency was less expensive but was very simple yet robust and easy to deploy, making the chips good for security, chip-counting and inventory tracking. The higher frequency was more expensive and more sensitive-special shielding was required-but offered faster performance, making the chips better for table-top applications such as player tracking and chip-value verification in poker and other games.

In the 15 years since their initial development, the price has come down significantly for RFID technology, and nowadays, the choice between low-frequency and high-frequency RFID gaming chips relates mainly to how the chips will be used.


Changing Usage
According to Gronau, most of the gaming chips embedded with RFID technology are currently used solely for security, automatic chip-counting and inventory tracking. “These chips offer the highest level of security you can get,” Gronau says. “This is the currency of the casino. I would recommend that all casinos take care of their chips with RFID-at least those of $25 value and up.”

RFID chips also are being used for real-time counting of chips at the tables, which allows ongoing tracking of the casino’s chip float. An increasing number of the high-frequency chips, though, are being used in applications that didn’t exist when GPI first developed RFID gaming chips. Some of the newest applications involve bet recognition in various table-game applications.

For instance, one of the hits of the recent International Gaming Expo in London was GPI’s new “RFIDPoker” platform, which uses high-frequency RFID chips to improve the accuracy and speed of the poker game. The system comes in a package that is easily added to any poker table, with a reader that automatically tracks the total amount of pots, accurately calculating the casino’s rake. “This provides error-free, automatic and constant reading of the poker pot, calculates charges and rakes, and provides essential data and statistics such as game analysis, table performances, round-ups lists and daily totals,” Gronau explains. “The system also helps to speed up the game, and has proven to increase hands per hour by as much as 30 percent, improving revenues for casinos and reducing wait times for players both at the game and waiting for a table.”

GPI also offers a “Progressive Poker” system that adds an incrementing jackpot to the mix, linking several Texas hold’em tables to a jackpot incremented by automatic rakes from pots at all the tables. The system comes with an LCD display that shows the incrementing jackpot.

Other new applications of RFID technology include GPI’s “RFIDRoulette” system, which automatically monitors and tracks bets, game activity and chip-change operations at roulette tables. It’s all part of a product line GPI calls “RFID TableSolution.”

GPI also works with third-party partners like IGT to provide RFID chips for player-tracking systems, such as IGT’s iTable product. The common thread in all of these newer applications, according to Gronau, is that they improve the casino’s bottom line. “As you get into player tracking, there’s got to be a value proposition for the casino,” he says. “That’s one of the things we work on with partners like IGT. ”   


Growing Product Line

In addition to the software suites, RFID-embedded gaming chips have led to the creation of an entire genre of ancillary hardware products. GPI offers table-top authenticators; tip-box readers; video interface units that place chip activity in a frame on closed-circuit TV screens; readers for use in Texas hold’em, roulette and blackjack float trays and other applications; cage readers; chip bank readers; and electronic chip surveillance systems that place sensors at exit doors to prevent employee theft of chips.   

At the IGE show, GPI displayed a new countertop reader for its RFID Cage application that allows the operator to accurately read chips, whether they’re in stacks, chip racks or even a pile.

GPI has played a part in developing much of the RFID technology in use today, both on the software and hardware sides. “It has taken some time to develop solutions that are right for the customer,” says Gronau, “and for costs to come down so the value was more in line for the customer. We continue to work on the cost side every day. We believe in this technology.”

He adds that the company continues to work on new ways for RFID to add value to a pit operation. “Our R&D team works very closely with our suppliers to deliver the most effective technology that will improve operations and increase security for our casino customers. 

“GPI is constantly surveying and evaluating technologies, and will continue to focus on working with our customers to provide additional applications.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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