Shortly after the start of the millennium, when casinos in many jurisdictions were closing their poker rooms, technology-in the form of online poker and television-brought the game back from near death. Suddenly, everyone wanted to play poker at the casino. For the operator, though, poker was still the same inefficient, low-earning game it always had been.
Since then, with the help of still more technology, the goal has been to improve the player experience and grow revenue.
Shuffle Up and Deal-Faster
Released commercially in 2002, Shuffle Master’s “Deck Mate” was the first product designed for single-deck shuffling that could also be mounted flush with the table surface. The device accomplished what pushy players at the poker table had been trying for years: it sped up the game. On average, use of the shuffler increases the number of hands played per hour by 25 percent. With the rake system in effect guaranteeing a modest win for the house every hand, that increase translates roughly to 25 percent more revenue from a given table.
According to Kirsten Clark, vice president of worldwide marketing at Shuffle Master, that fact has not been lost on operators. In the U.S., Clark estimates, the company has achieved a penetration rate of 90 percent of the poker market.
“The Deck Mate has become a standard feature in poker rooms,” says Clark. “There are very few places that don’t use them. To date we’ve shipped over 7,000 of them, which is a pretty remarkable figure. Not only in the U.S., but we’re also starting to get traction now as poker has become more popular in other countries.”
The procedure for the dealer is simple. The down time taken up by the manual shuffle is eliminated. So is a lot of the repetitive motion for the dealer.
As does any machine, the shuffler requires maintenance. How often and extensive the procedure depends on usage and the operating environment. Service schedules run from weekly to every few weeks.
“It really depends on a lot of variables,” says Clark. “How frequently the casino swaps out cards is one factor, because you get grease and dirt on the cards, and if they are very dirty the shuffler needs to be cleaned more frequently. The felt that the casino uses on the tables also has an impact-whether it is a synthetic or a wool felt, how much residue comes off the felt and ends up in the shuffler. All of that plays into how frequently they need to be serviced. It’s a pretty straightforward maintenance, blowing them out, cleaning the rollers and so on.”
Although the occasional shuffler might go down during a game or tournament, in general, the machine does its job consistently.
“Because we’ve been in the business so long, we produce products that really perform,” says Clark. “They last and last and last, and can run for hours on end. That’s really the only way the casino would trust them.”
Shuffle Master has not announced the features that a next-generation Deck Mate might include, but it is likely that development will follow other shufflers and be designed to work even faster and incorporate additional security features like card recognition. At present, the device can discern whether or not there are indeed 52 cards in the deck being shuffled, but exactly which cards they are is another matter. When equipped with card recognition, the shuffler could be able to notify the dealer if a player has removed a card from the deck and replaced it with, say, a fifth Jack. The technology is already in use in the company’s i-Deal single-deck shuffler, which is used in specialty house games.
Your Seat Just Phoned
The attraction of poker in the casino is that it provides more than just the chance to win money. For many, the game also is a social experience, which puts it in a category with other commercial forms of leisure and entertainment. The similarity was noticed by Keith McNally, president of Ameranth-QueueOS Gaming, Inc.
McNally started Ameranth 10 years ago with a focus on providing wireless and internet systems for the hospitality industry-restaurants, hotels, casinos, cruise ships, theme parks and sports stadiums. Clients include Madison Square Garden and 24 other sports stadiums, and the Holiday Inn chain. Like many entrepreneurs, McNally enjoys the occasional poker game.
“I play poker at least once a year with the same group of best friends from Oak Park, Chicago,” says McNally. “I would occasionally go into poker rooms and see how ladies in tennis shoes keep track of wait lists and player tracking with grease pencils and boards, and I thought that I could adapt our technology, used to manage hostess stations in restaurants, for the poker market.”
The product that resulted was Ameranth’s Poker Room Manager, introduced five years ago. Two years later the company acquired one of its main competitors, QueueOS, and merged the products and deployments of the former rivals. Last October, the company received a comprehensive patent, titled “Casino Poker and Dealer Management System.”
The patent covers player seating, public displays, tournaments, player tracking when using either electronic or manual poker tables, dealer rotation, tracking, security, wireless and internet connections and many other key aspects of poker room operations.
The basic Poker Room Manager system has a touch-screen interface that allows the board person to assign games and open or close tables, manage wait lists and interest lists and track table transfers. Players can follow their progress toward getting a seat by watching large monitor screens visible from anywhere in the room, while dealers can check their own monitors for rotation information. The system generates real-time reports for use by management.
The system was developed with the help of management and staff at Oceans 11, a well-known card casino in Oceanside, California.
“It was a partnership in a handshake sense, in that I used to play at Oceans 11 Casino a couple of times a year,” says McNally. “I saw that they had no system, so I approached the manager, Bob Moyer, and asked him and his team to help us design our Poker Room Manager system. One of the strengths of our system is that it is the easiest system to learn, use and operate because its user interface was really co-designed with the help of actual operators.”
McNally’s goal was to develop a system that would be recognizable to anyone already working in a card room.
“It intuitively works the way you think it would,” says McNally, “rather than a system having been designed by some IT guy who doesn’t realize how poker rooms truly operate.”
There are six modules to the complete system, known collectively as the “21st Century Casino.”
“Site Manager” assists with room layout, live room status, daily summaries and reports history, and the management of other modules. “Communications” lets dealers message via wireless with cocktail servers and floor personnel, who in turn text waiting players via their own mobile phones when their seats are available. “Player Manager” adds a specific poker dimension to player tracking systems, and “Kiosk Manager” can streamline the signup or registration process by creating a self-service option for players. A self-explanatory “Tournament Manager” module handles all aspects of that essential poker format.
Ameranth has a strategic agreement with Shuffle Master, which serves as a main distributor for Ameranth systems. A system interface for use with Shuffle Master automatic shufflers has been developed, but the downturn in the economy has delayed deployment for now, according to McNally.
In general, the Ameranth system is designed to make the operation of the poker room more efficient without over-complicating the process for management, labor or customer.
“There are certain functions that are still best left to human decisions and human interactions,” says McNally. “Sometimes it’s more time-consuming to try to figure out how to automate every single process. We automate the manual things that are giant pains in the neck and that computers are good at, but we don’t automate every single thing.”
No More Misreads
One technological development is doing more than just speeding up the local hold’em game. The fully automated, electronic poker table is allowing card rooms to offer with confidence the most complex of poker variants, and new games-within-games as well.
PokerTek was the first company to commercially manufacture an electronic poker table and accompanying system for the casino and card room market. The tables are available in a standard 10-player version, named PokerPro, and a two-player format, known as Heads-Up Challenge.
The PokerPro table is part of a complete system that features cashless gaming, automatic player rewards and a variety of benefits to the operator, including lower labor costs.
For the player, the automated table makes it possible to enjoy more games with more security. Besides no-limit hold’em, the PokerPro table now deals seven-card stud, razz, Omaha and Omaha hi-lo, with betting formats of limit, no-limit, spread-limit or pot-limit. It takes an extremely competent human dealer to manage a live pot-limit, hi-lo game. The all-electronic table, by contrast, can handle the most difficult situation automatically and get it right every time.
“Our platform allows us to do things that are really not possible on a manual poker table,” says Tracy Egan, vice president of marketing and product management for PokerTek. “We are trying to do things that make the game more fun for players, because it is traditionally a slow game anyway, even though we have speeded it up by 50 percent. We still want to give players other things that they can do while playing.”
Those other things include more action from each hand, more hands per hour and more rewards for playing those hands.
Take “rabbit hunting,” for example-a quirk that can bog down the game for everyone else. Some players facing a big bet with more cards still to come will reluctantly fold but feel compelled to know if the card they needed would have appeared. These rabbit hunters will ask the dealer to deal the final card and then be either relieved or devastated. Meanwhile, everyone else at the table just wants to get on to the next hand. It is a feature not many live rooms provide or tolerate.
With technology, however, rabbit hunting has gone from royal pain to revenue gain for the house.
“Rabbit hunting is purely incremental revenue for the casino,” says Egan. “Whatever the casino wants to charge, whether it’s a dime or a quarter or a dollar, the player can choose to pay that and the player’s individual screen will reveal the card that would have come.”
The other players win by not having to wait. The casino wins twice, by getting paid for the hunt and by getting to the next raked hand faster.
Another new feature is the PokerPro Reward system. Operators can set parameters to offer special-rewards promotions.
“For example, say for every 1,000 hands a player plays, you’ll deposit a $10 credit into his account,” says Egan. “Or for every 50 flops a player sees, he gets a dollar in his promotional fund. All of that gets tracked automatically by the system, and what we can see is how long that player has been sitting there, and whether or not he has been sitting out. The promotion gets deposited into the player’s promotional fund account.”
When the player brings new money into a game, the system will always take from the promotional account first. Once the money from the promotional account is risked and won, it goes into the player’s cash account. This gets around a common glitch in poker reward programs in general.
“The problem with running promotions on site, on a cashless system, is that a lot of times you’re putting money into their accounts but there is no way to guarantee that they’ve sat down at the table and played with that money,” says Egan. “This system comps the players for playing, and also gives the operator the benefit of knowing how many people have reached that milestone. And the money is taken care of automatically.”
PokerTek also is rolling out some familiar live options like kill pots, chopping blinds and the ever-popular straddle. But the technology is allowing the next generation of electronic play to evolve beyond mere replication of a human-dealt game.
Shown at G2E last November was a concept called PokerPro Plus. This enables players effectively to play at more than one table at a time. Basically, 10 players from 10 different tables could agree to play a second, “virtual” game while playing “live” at separate tables, like players online sitting at multiple tables. Players get to play more poker and operators get to collect more rake. The option is in demo stage currently.
Another added feature would be separate fixed-odds bets based on the hand being played. For example, what are the odds the flop will contain a pair, or three cards of the same suit?
“The technology allows us to do that type of thing without slowing down the game, and that’s our objective,” says Egan. “To keep poker as the core but at the same time to give players another option.”
And give operators more ways to capitalize on their poker room investment.