The report that IGT has placed its new electronic baccarat games at Four Winds Casino in Michigan may be a signal that war is about to break out over this small but fast-growing segment of the casino business.
To date, e-tables in North America have been dominated by Shuffle Master, which got a head start when it purchased the business from Sega some years ago, then added to its advantage by buying StarGames.
That advantage has stayed even though IGT moved into the business several years ago and displays upgraded machines at every G2E.
As recently as the opening of Sands Bethlehem in Pennsylvania in May, all 16 electronic tables were Shuffle Master’s Table Master, because that is the only e-table yet approved in the Keystone State.
And StarGames’ Rapid Roulette maintains its near-monopoly of multi-player electronic roulette.
But that could be changing.
• IGT appears to be moving assertively in this area, as evidenced by the Four Winds placements.
• Electroncek is now licensed in Nevada. The company is 50 percent-owned by Aristocrat, meaning it has a big and motivated distributor in the U.S. Electroncek, with its well-known Interblock brand, has a strong presence internationally.
• TableMAX, once a little side business for a basically uninterested distributor of defunct Progressive Gaming, is revived and focused as a public company under ambitious CEO Steve Crystal.
• Aruze, the big Japanese company with a tiny North American presence, is preparing to push into the U.S. and Canada. Among its offerings: e-tables.
At present, it is difficult to tell which company has an advantage in products, each making claims for itself while rapping the competitors.
An example is Indiana. In the Indianapolis racinos, Shuffle Master and IGT e-tables compete against each other on the same gaming floors.
IGT says players prefer its live-dealer, DigiDeal-based games. Shuffle Master says its all-electronic Table Masters are holding up just fine, and without the cost of a dealer.
In addition to which games players and casinos prefer, another question is how big the market will become.
At present, it’s a niche. Machines are steadily making their way into VLT markets like Pennsylvania where live table games aren’t allowed.
Table Master, without a dealer, fits perfectly in those markets, and also in small casinos that can’t afford 24/7 live dealers. The same is true of TableMAX, which has been placing games in Indian Country.
Even large casinos seeking to cut costs can load in a few Table Masters or TableMAX games for slot players wanting to cross over, or to offer blackjack and other games in the wee hours when live pits might not be financially justified.
In most cases, bigger companies have the advantages of scale over smaller companies, which should bode well for IGT. SHFL, however, notes that it owns proprietary games, so it can go beyond blackjack and baccarat to games like Three Card Poker and Let It Ride.
However, our observation, at least in racinos, is that most players want blackjack, not the specialty games.
The big future battle might really be between hybrids—electronic tables with live dealers, which many players prefer.
For IGT and Shuffle Master, that may come down to IGT’s DigiDeal-based games, which are electronic games with live dealers, and Shuffle Master’s still developing i-table.
What sets i-table apart is that it is a felt layout but with electronic chips and betting. It gives casinos the advantages of e-tables—faster, more accurate play and lower supply costs—while giving players the felt-table experience they prefer.
It also can be readily switched from one game to another, so if all Three Card Poker tables are filled but several blackjack tables are empty, a casino can switch one of the empty tables to 3CP in moments.
With TableMAX as small as it is, and Electroncek not making a splash, the contest, at present, seems to come down to IGT and Shuffle Master.
And if e-tables grow to become casino staples, there might be room for both of them.
Then, there is the question of how important these products are to a company’s stock.
IGT remains a slot- and systems-focused giant. If e-tables remain a niche, they’ll contribute to the bottom line, but not make or break the company.
For much smaller Shuffle Master, continued growth in its e-table business can have a more dramatic effect.
And if e-tables become standard with thousands of units in the field, that can be huge for SHFL and very nicely positive for IGT.
Obviously, for a very small company like TableMAX, it takes even fewer placements to move the needle. But TableMAX remains an early-stage company.
Finally, one cannot discuss electronic gambling without mentioning PokerTek, the only publicly traded pure play on electronic poker machines.
PokerTek has had growing success in placing tables, but has not been able to reach profitability, though it always has projections to do so.
In a way, PokerTek PokerPro is similar to Shuffle Master’s Table Master. Many players may prefer a live dealer where available, but they’ll play PokerPro if it’s their only choice.
And, like Table Master, it can fill that niche of operations too small for staffed poker rooms—cruise ships, small casinos, the wee hours when live staffing might not be justified.
Frank Fantini is the editor and publisher of Fantini’s Gaming Report. A free 30-day trial subscription is available by calling, toll free, 1-866-683-4357 or online at www.gaminginvestments.com.