It’s a staple of the table game around the world: The side action.
At the tables in Asia, you find rows of gamblers making bets outside the action of the main game. Enterprising table-game suppliers have recognized the potential of this phenomenon-in this business, money in play means potential revenue.
With this in mind, suppliers are constantly introducing a stream of products designed to raise overall house edge by serving the side-action impulse, while spicing up sometimes-monotonous table games as part of the bargain.
It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, but one that is being achieved by an increasing number of inventors-some working within a team at an established table-game supply company; others working a clever idea at a kitchen table or in a garage.
Some side bets increase a game’s revenue through a simple proposition with a substantial house edge. Others do it by simply speeding up a game, removing a rake or commission that normally slows play.
“Everyone’s always trying to crack the code on these kinds of games,” comments Roger Snow, executive vice president of table-game supplier Shuffle Master, Inc., who notes that the successful side bet is one that adds to a table game in an unobtrusive manner. “Simplicity is very important; you don’t want to conflict with the main game, or have a strategy that would be contradictory with the main game. All side bets have that in common. They’re simple and they don’t disturb the underlying strategy of the game.”
It’s a formula being turned to more and more these days, as lately there has been a flood of new side-bet products on the market, both manual wagers and electronic, progressive additions for traditional table games. “It’s an exciting time,” says Earle G. Hall, president and CEO of Canadian technology company DEQ Systems, Inc., which partners with inventors to market table side bets and creates electronic versions of manual bets. “Three or four years ago, there were few side bets. In the last few years, thousands of applications have been built and commercialized. Right now, there is a surge in side-betting.”
All the Elements
Shuffle Master, the top supplier of specialty table games in the business, is, not surprisingly, also a top supplier of side-bet products to the industry. The company has launched no less than eight side bets to date, and is constantly adding more wagers to its repertoire.
One of the most successful, according to Snow, is Fortune Pai Gow Poker, which adds a “Fortune Bonus” wager to the game. If the side wager is made, the dealer places an “Envy Button” next to the wager and proceeds with the normal hand. The side bet pays off when more than one player (aside from the player with the wager and the dealer) have at least four of a kind. “In essence, you have action on every hand out there, not just yours,” says Snow.
Snow says Fortune Pai Gow has been successful partly because of “incumbency”-it’s been around 15 years-and partly because it simply improves the game. “The game of pai gow poker is kind of slow, and doesn’t even pay even money; it pays 96 percent,” he says. “It cries out for some kind of side bet.”
Most impressive, he says, is the side bet’s reach-660 installations to date, on a total universe of only around 1,000 pai gow poker games in the field. That’s 66 percent coverage, and it’s growing.
Other success stories from Shuffle Master include Dragon Bonus, introduced eight years ago and now with 450 installs around the world; and a complete lineup of blackjack side bets.
Dragon Bonus is a simple side wager that the hand you are betting-player or banker-will win with a natural nine. That pays even money, but if your hand wins by at least four points, there is a pay schedule that returns more the higher the margin. “It’s been the only baccarat side bet of any consequence in the market,” says Snow, noting that it satisfies the prime directive of a side bet-it doesn’t interfere with the rules, commission structure or the flow of the hand.
Shuffle Master’s blackjack side bets include two of the top such products on the market, Bet the Set 21 and Royal Match 21. Bet the Set, with around 460 installations, is a side bet that the player’s two dealt cards will be a pair, paying up to 25-1; Royal Match, with 700 installations, is a bet that the player’s first two cards will be suited, with the suited King and Queen returning 50-1.
Finally, side bets are integral parts of Shuffle Master’s proprietary poker games such as Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker and Let It Ride Bonus. All include the Pair Plus side wager, which pays according to a set schedule if the first player’s first three cards are a pair or better.
The company has added a new side bet to Three Card Poker which Snow says has been Shuffle Master’s hottest side bet product this year. Called the Six Card Bonus, Snow says it nearly never saw the light of day.
“I had this idea a couple of years ago to combine the player’s three cards with the dealer’s three cards to make the best five-card poker hand,” he recalls. “I dismissed it as a bad idea-too confusing, I thought, and what do you do if the player folds? One day, we had lunch with the people from Harrah’s, who said they thought it would be a great idea to combine the player’s and the dealer’s hands.”
Snow says he told the Harrah’s people he had thought of that and dismissed it as unworkable, but the operator insisted on trying it. “Once I saw it in action, I understood that I had been dead wrong, and they were right,” he says. “This thing has taken off like you wouldn’t believe! There are 50 out there already, mostly at Harrah’s properties.”
Shuffle Master, of course, offers progressive upgrades to all its side-bet products, adding electronic jackpots into the mix for the highest hands on its pay schedules.
Besides simplicity and progressive upgrades, one critical factor in success for a side bet is a good hit frequency, according to Robert Saucier, CEO of Galaxy Gaming.
Galaxy offers what is the hottest blackjack side bet in the business these days. Called “Lucky Ladies,” it originated in a Spokane, Washington, casino formerly owned by Saucier called the Mars Hotel and Casino. (Yes, it was named after the Grateful Dead album of the same name.)
It meets the simplicity test, alright: It pays if the player’s dealt blackjack hand is a 20, from 4-1 for any 20 to 125-1 for matching Queens of Hearts in a multi-deck shoe-the “Lucky Ladies.” If the Lucky Ladies land against a dealer blackjack, the player lands the big payoff-1,000-1.
The game was introduced at the Mars in 1997 as “Horseshoe Blackjack,” so named because the player’s 20 in blackjack is “close” to the top hand. “Most people didn’t understand that,” Saucier says, “and Asian players didn’t even know what a horseshoe was. It also became too associated with Binion’s.” Thus, Horseshoe Blackjack became Lucky Ladies.
And lucky it was-over 1,800 placements in North America alone. Saucier says it’s because the house edge-it is 24.7 percent, and higher in many applications-is countered by a good hit frequency. “You get a 20 every nine and a half hands,” he says. “That includes Ace-Nine-it’s included as a 20, and as a suited 20, for a 9-1 payoff-that’s enjoyable for the player.”
Speeding the Play
As these side bets show, a mantra of their inventors is that they do not interfere with the flow or structure of the games they augment. Some side-bet products, though, actually improve on the games by speeding up play.
Such is the case with EZ Baccarat, a product first invented by the Talisman Group but marketed and improved by DEQ Systems, which is the product’s patent-holder and licensor.
EZ Baccarat is a side bet that replaces the paying of commission on the banker’s hand. Called the Dragon 7 wager, it pays 40-1 on banker bets if the banker’s hand totals seven. “It’s a simple side bet with the goal of taking the commission out of the game,” Hall says. “The biggest problem in baccarat is that paying commission on the banker’s hand slows down the game.”
EZ Baccarat-which follows the side-bet mantra of no changes in drawing rules-replaces the 5 percent commission with a slight payout change that adds replaces that 5 percent with house edge. When the bank hand wins with a three-card seven total, the bank bet is a push, and the player and tie hands lose.
However, according to DEQ, the faster hands-per-hour made possible by absence of a commission, plus the 40-1 side bet, can increase table revenue between 40 percent and 60 percent. The product already has 200 installations, with more on the way. The product was recently licensed in New Jersey, where Hall says it went from zero to 10 installations in the first 30 days and is expected to be as high as 35 installations by the end of June. Hall says there will be 30 tables in Macau by summer.
It’s a formula DEQ plans to repeat in a big way, this time with pai gow poker.
EZ Pai Gow, just introduced in California and Missouri, uses the same concept as EZ Baccarat-replacing the game’s commission with a side bet to speed up the game and increase earnings. The side bet in this case pays on a player hand of three-of-a-kind or higher, plus an Envy Bonus on other players’ hands of a straight flush or higher. The pay change is that a queen-high dealer hand is a push. Player banking is allowed; a 5 percent commission is paid for that option.
Hall predicts that EZ Pai Gow could eclipse EZ Baccarat in installations by the end of the year.
The “EZ” products are only two of many being marketed by DEQ, which serves as sort of a clearinghouse for side-bet inventors. The company started as a technology firm in 1998, coinciding with the launch of its first side-bet product. Called G3, it essentially revived the side-bet income on Caribbean Stud.
“Caribbean Stud had started to die, because it was a $1 side bet with basic mechanics involved,” Hall recalls. “”We mirrored all the elements found in a slot machine, changing the dollar bet to a credit bet, with multiple-credit betting. Also, we were surprised that everyone was side-betting on their own cards, but not on the dealers’ cards. We created a second bet-the same as on the player hand, but on the dealer’s hand.”
Nowadays, inventors come to DEQ with their ideas, and the company develops and markets them to 32 countries, on every continent but Australia. DEQ has patents registered in 54 countries. Hall says he hopes to transform the company into “the gaming industry version of iTunes” within the next few years.
“We deal and partner with great inventors,” Hall says. “We wouldn’t think of taking credit for something like EZ Baccarat, but where we’re really strong as a company is in technology.”
Part of that is taking manual side bets and migrating them to progressive technology, a move planned for both EZ Baccarat and EZ Pai Gow-and for a product Hall predicts will be the next big hit for the company, a poker product designed to compete with Shuffle Master’s Three Card Poker.
“Before we’ll take anything electronic, it has to stand on its own as a manual side bet,” Hall notes.
Other companies are using technology to enhance a variety of side bets. Paltronics, Inc., for instance, works side-bet modules into its One Link online table-game accounting and player tracking system.
One proprietary side-bet module that has been successful for Paltronics is called “Bonus Spin.” Quite simply, it places an LCD video monitor on a table game to display a virtual prize wheel, and a combination of player cards in blackjack triggers a spin of the wheel for the player’s payoff.
The One Link system also can incorporate accounting and tracking information on side-bet systems from other manufacturers, including those of Shuffle Master, DEQ and Galaxy.
Another Paltronics enhancement of side-bet systems is the Table AVL system, which incorporates a touch-screen interface for each player at a table. This permits players to enter their side wagers electronically, insert a player’s club card, and take advantage of VIP services such as drink orders and restaurant reservations.
For all the technological help that can enhance today’s side bets, all the successful ones still go back to the basics-enhancing profits without interfering with the game.
“Everything we do is based on enhancing the performance of the game,” says DEQ’s Hall, “either electronically or manually.”
“The best side bets,” adds Shuffle Master’s Snow, “have good frequency, keep the player engaged, create additional drama, and reconcile hands quickly. They are easily understandable by the players, and, it really comes down to the math-they have to be created mathematically so the player will have good, positive reinforcement.”
In other words, both players and operators win.