Clearly, there has been a revival of table games over the past decade, reversing the decline that occurred during the previous 30 years. Where once table games feared to tread, slot machines are grudgingly giving up territory. And replacing what once was considered the birthright of millennials—slot machines—table games have rudely stepped in as the favorite of the desired demographic.
But what could accelerate the growth of tables (and by “tables” we mean the ones staffed by humans and featuring actual human interaction)? Some believe technology will be the savior of table games. But technology thus far has played a small role in the popularity of the games. Sure, there are scoreboards, bonus counters and some electronic betting spots on the table that recognize chips, but it’s usually been clever design, quirky rules or the chance at a big jackpot that have spurred the popularity of the games.
But times may be a-changin’.
For more than 20 years, the industry has been pursuing the Holy Grail: a table game that prevents collusion and cheating, while delivering data as rich and as detailed as the modern slot machine. It started in the 1990s at Bally Technologies (and others) with systems with names like “SafeJack” and “MindPlay.”
The systems had most things in common: optical and RFID tracking of chips and cards so the game would instantly report who was playing, what they were betting, and how the table was doing (winning or losing). But challenges with the RFID systems and the optical readers were slow to be resolved.
Roger Snow, the table game guru at Shuffle Master, now a division of Scientific Games, likens the development of this technology to scaling Mount Everest.
“I imagine this occurred to Sir Edmund Hillary more than once looking up at the summit,” says Snow. “‘Oh, I’ll get to that; oh, it’s not that hard.’ Then you get up to about 28,000 feet and you can’t breathe.
“It’s analogous to what’s happened here. Everybody wants to get to the top of the mountain. Everybody wants to do this. But that mountain is littered with a lot of corpses. And I think some of my coworkers over the years, smart people with great ideas, have really tried to do this. But I think we’re getting closer.”
Robert Saucier, CEO of table-game developer Galaxy Gaming, believes there is still some work to do.
“There is a need for the casino operators to be able to have meaningful data,” he says. “And I think the advantage that the slot department has over the table game department is that they have lots of data, and it’s highly accurate.
“The problem was that MindPlay was too much, too soon. I think that if it came in certain stages, it could have been more accepted. I also think that we have realized that RFID is not the answer. It serves a function in places like the cage, or the vault, or being able to verify that the chips are not counterfeit. But I think that as far as being able to track play, and being able to use it to track patterns of play and specifically, to use with player tracking systems, RFID is not robust enough or accurate enough to really give that picture.”
Both Snow and Saucier agree that the most promising technology in this area is currently being developed by Walker Digital Table Systems (WDTS). Longtime gaming executive Steven Moore, who is president of the company, acknowledges there are still some hurdles to overcome, and his company has to provide a product that satisfies three desires from casino management.
“Accuracy, efficiency, and integrity,” he says. “With our technology, there’s a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in game speed, there can be no collusion or cheating, or even dealer mistakes because of the accuracy of the system. Payouts are always accurate. So, if the game goes faster, the payouts are always accurate—because in table games, mispays are always in the customer’s favor. It’s like giving them free play, which reduces hold percentage.
“So if you speed up the game, and you get rid of the free play through mistakes, the hold percentage gets driven massively up. And then you add in all the efficiencies of watching that game, so the computer system manages and understands everything that’s going on, so you don’t have to have as many eyeballs on it. You save a lot on staff, as well. Sometimes staff goes down from one supervisor per table in Asia, to four tables per supervisor.”
WDTS acquired all the MindPlay intellectual property, so Moore understands how the process has evolved and that it’s a granular process.
“The parallel, we like to say, is the electric grid,” he says. “When electricity was invented, the only use for it was to light a light bulb. There may or may not have actually been an ROI on that, but it was exciting enough that people did that. But after the light bulb, you started being able to plug other things in to the electrical grid—washing machines, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves and computers, and now everything runs on the electrical grid. So right now we’re building the electrical grid for table games. The best applications that are going to ride on that, we haven’t even thought of yet. That will take more people in the industry with the same vision we have.”
John Hemberger, vice president of table games for AGS, says accuracy is the most important aspect.
“It’s reliability,” he says. “That’s the No. 1 thing. Anytime you’re trying to provide real data, you have to be 100 percent accurate. There’s a lot of different technology that probably can even get you up around 92 percent or 95 percent of the time. But if you’re missing that other 5 percent, that’s a problem. It gets you closer, but it doesn’t quite give you the level of confidence that you expect in that type of data, to be able to invest from the casino side.
“And the investment isn’t cheap. You can give them the degree of certainty that they need to be able to say, ‘We’re rating these players accurately, 100 percent of the time. We’re capturing their true average bet. We know their win and buy-in and everything else that goes along with it.’ Until that time, unfortunately, you’re going to see a little bit of a resistance to make that sizable investment.”
Randy Knust, president of Genesis Gaming Solutions, says table game executives have never fully embraced technology.
“Some might argue that when RFID first emerged and was adopted by operators, the technology wasn’t nurtured appropriately,” he says. “Today, we all recognize how sophisticated analytics have become and how important the value of detailed and accurate data is to an operator. This, coupled with the fact that integration with technology has become much more seamless nowadays, suggests that we could start to see more RFID and other technology adoption quickly taking place.”
Tristan Sjöberg, president of TCSJohnHuxley, says cost has always been the barrier, and is still a concern today.
“There’s no shortage of innovation in this area, and we have been continually developing and evolving our smart table products, as have other suppliers,” he says. “However, some of these technologies being developed are extremely expensive to implement, and the value they return can be disproportionate. Data is a powerful tool, but too much data or inaccurate or out-of-date information is worthless to the operator if they don’t utilize it properly. “
But Knust says the value offered to casinos will soon outweigh the costs.
“With the increasing demand for accurate reporting, we believe that RFID is coming back to the forefront,” he says. “Yes, it is still considered to be an expensive option. However, when evaluated over the long term and taking into account the proven data accuracy it delivers, we believe casino operators will make the investment. Our belief is that the value of accurate data for player reinvestment, cage security, marketing, chip tagging, AML compliance, etc., will deliver ROI and operating efficiencies that will justify the investment. It is extremely hard to ignore the overall value that RFID offers.”
Because the basic casino games haven’t changed since the demise of faro (the most popular game of the 19th century), Snow says any successful proprietary game should be a derivative of what people know.
“I’ve always warned people about deviating outside of blackjack and poker,” he says. “I use the metaphor of language, that people know the poker language, they know the blackjack language; don’t make them learn another language.”
And while the game has to be easily explained and simple to play, Snow says you have to walk a tightrope.
“Keep your game simple, but you have to keep it interesting,” he says. “If simplicity were the only criterion, then Casino War would be our most successful game, where it is not. Yes, it’s a successful game, but it’s not in the upper echelons with Ultimate Texas Hold ’em and 3-Card Poker, and games like that.”
Saucier agrees that games must be simple.
“It’s been said, and I agree with this, if the game of craps was invented today, it probably would not succeed,” he laughs.
As the company that bought out the industry’s most successful table game inventor, Derek Webb and 3-Card Poker, Saucier says his company is constantly approached by individuals who claim to have invented the next 3-Card Poker.
“For every hundred games that we look at, there might be three that might warrant further consideration,” he says, adding the secret to a successful table game is numbers—the numbers that prove it would be successful in a casino environment.
“When you find that person in a table game operation that has an interest, what you need to do is make a deal with them. And I would say that the deal to make would be, ‘Give me numbers on how it performs, and you can have this game in your casino for life.’”
Baccarat is an up-and-coming game, not just because of the explosion of the Asian casino market, but also because it’s being discovered by mainstream casino gamblers who never understood the game.
Hemberger says AGS is coming out with a new version of baccarat called Dai Bacc that has a variety of different side bets enticing players with payouts as high as 40-to-1.
“The baccarat commission-free games that have these side bets with the high house edge, I think there’s energy and excitement that comes from those tables. If you’re in California, for instance, they’re three deep at a bacc table, and there’s just natural curiosity. That leads other players to maybe take a look at what’s going on.
“And when they find out it’s that simple, and that in a lot of instances, you’ve taken the whole commission idea out of the game, I think it really simplifies it, and keeps the excitement at a high level. So, it’s been a long process, but baccarat has really transitioned from the traditional game, to what it’s morphed into today, which is with some widely popular variations.”
“Mathematically, baccarat is one of the best games in a casino,” says Snow. “A lot of the blackjack games have been 6-to-5. Astute players are leaving that game. So, look at baccarat. The house edge is something like 1.1 percent if you blend it between a player and the banker. And no strategy necessary.”
Scientific Games recently acquired DEQ, which, among its products, distributed EZ Bacc, the first no-commission baccarat game introduced into the casinos. There is nothing to stop casinos from also using a no-commission game with rules like EZ Bacc, but Snow says there’s a certain loyalty there.
“The thing with EZ Bacc is our company tried to create a copy (before the DEQ purchase)—and we’re the biggest player, by far, in the table game industry—but could not make it work. That brand, the brand those guys created, has been incredibly resilient. And table games players like what they like. So the brand is important, but they also have a couple of proprietary side bets on the game. People are used to it, people are loyal to it, and we learned the hard way that they don’t accept imitations.”
People vs. Machine
How far can technology venture into an area where the human element is so important and attractive?
Snow believes that it is the interpersonal aspect of table games that will attract the coveted millennials.
“Everyone has been talking about skill-based gaming as being the Holy Grail that will attract millennials,” he says. “Well, skill-based gaming, that’s table games. Community-type gaming, that’s table games. I don’t have to do anything. I just have to wait for the customers to show up. And you see it, and I like to be a customer of our own company.
“I will go out there and I’ll play games, and I’ll look around, and you notice younger people playing table games, more so than slots. My opinion, from what I’ve seen, is that if you look at everything that young people do with their phones, it’s just a vehicle for some sort of interaction. And, table games give you that interaction. And it’s something you get to touch.”
Saucier believes it’s also the experience of the table that attracts the players, something that technology can’t reproduce.
“If you take a traditional table game and remove the ability for the player to see and touch the cards, hold and wager the chips, you take away a lot of that tactile experience that people enjoy about table games. I’ve never been a fan of placing, in the felt, a touch screen where people place wagers, because you can do that on your computer.
“Now, that being said, I think that we’re finding that some of the stadium-type games are actually doing well. Even some of the e-tables are doing well. From what I see, however, those games are not necessarily taking away from the traditional table game players, but rather, they’re acting as somewhat of a feeder system for people who are gravitating from slots into electronic table game play.”
TCSJohnHuxley is all in on table-game technology with its Gaming Floor Live platform.
“This complete network platform and gaming table management system provides a groundbreaking solution for operators and their table games,” says Sjöberg, “allowing a wide range of data gathered from each table to be analyzed in real time, enabling active and proactive management of gaming floors. For the first time, it’s possible to provide the same levels of real-time data collection that operators currently enjoy from their slot systems. You only have to think about the multiple vendors’ products there are on a single table that stand alone unable to connect and interface, to understand how compelling the GFL solution is.”
Genesis, which offers a robust poker-room solution, has developed Bravo Card & Chip Detection, a tracking and ratings management system.
“This system significantly improves overall efficiency, as it can measure exact hand counts and side bet participation, resulting in major improvements in the overall measurement and management of pit ratings, game performance and dealer audits,” says Knust.
For those mobile gaming applications within a casino, Sjöberg says his company is developing Qorex Terminals, which feature touch screens that allow customers to play live table games.
“We don’t believe there will be any detrimental effect on table games when handheld devices are approved,” he says. “In fact, we believe our system will only enhance and improve the player experience, as they have the freedom to play their favorite games in all areas.”
Table Game Growth
Optimism about the growth of tables is almost universal. Moore believes technology will drive this growth by speeding up the games, making them more accurate and providing operators with a rich data set.
“In the end,” he says, “a gambler is a gambler is a gambler—a real gambler. There’s really no difference in an Asian gambler, an American gambler or a European gambler. They want to play a lot of things, and as they gamble, they like incremental volatility. And a fast game’s a lucky game. Baccarat and roulette are historically slow games. So, you speed them up, and a player is going to enjoy it. You make fewer mistakes, then you frustrate the player less. If you under-pay a player, they get upset, they have to stop the game, it kills the mojo, everybody gets upset. It’s just not good for the flow and the momentum of the game. So providing a fast game, where the dealers can’t make mistakes that stop the flow and the mojo of the game—they all love that.”
Hemberger believes the human element will ensure the continued success of table games.
“As everybody focuses on millennials and younger folks gambling in casinos, it certainly appears that the data supports the fact that these folks are playing tables,” he says. “I think that’s a great thing. I think tables have the ability to be social, and that’s what these people are looking for. I think they have the ability to not focus entirely on cash awards, but on things that winners could share with their friends or family, or make things experience-based. That’s a very natural segue to capture the attention of young people and get their interest, and also have the skill element at the same time. They feel like they’re maybe not just pressing a button and getting a random outcome, but they’re influencing the outcome through their decision to play, or raise, or whatever it may be, that the game is allowing them to do.”
Sjöberg says casinos must be prepared to serve the changing desires of younger players.
“There will always be space on the casino floor for table games, and they continue to be popular with all demographics,” he says. “However, in order for the segment to grow significantly and gain new, younger players, operators will need to offer cross-platform table gaming and a greater variety of games.”
Knust says Genesis will be ready.
“We believe table games will continue to grow, given the wide demographic that they appeal to,” he says. “Evolution will certainly take place, and we will continue to work on the operational and the technical challenges that still exist.”
Snow is a bit more pragmatic.
“Table games will continue to grow,” he says. “But everything in the industry is always changing. You’re so close to it, you don’t feel it. But it’s changing constantly. If you go back maybe 10 or 15 years, they were ripping out table games to put in more banks of slot machines all the time. I wouldn’t say that we have re-conquered that territory, but we’re making some progress in table games.
“But that could change over time. You can never be satisfied. One thing that I hope people know about Scientific Games, when it comes to table games, is that we’re relentless. We are constantly working on things for the benefit of the casino industry.”
Snow applauds his competitors for some amazing innovations, and hopes that will continue.
“I love table games, I’ve been in table games for the last 20 years, and anything that can move the ball forward, advance the cause of table games, is something I think is terrific. As to where it lands, I think you’ll see more and more table games going in. Hopefully they’re ours, and hopefully they have a shuffler on them.”