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Table Turnaround

A subtle change for the better has occurred on the casino floor

Table Turnaround

Funny thing about change: Sometimes, the closer you are to it, the harder it is to see.

Don’t agree? Try looking under your feet. The planet you are standing on is revolving at 900 miles an hour, and it’s orbiting, at 19 miles a second (so it’s reckoned), a sun that is the source of all our power. And unless you’re Stephen Hawking—or the gang from Monty Python—you probably never realized you were moving at all.   

The same holds true in the casino industry, where, unfelt by most, a shift has taken place. Not a tectonic one, not a seismic one, not even a Lou Boudreau one, but a shift nonetheless. Table games are making a comeback.

Had you said 10 years ago this would be the case 10 years later, you might have found yourself 5150’d into the nut house. And justifiably so. Back then, absolutely nobody wanted any part of the green felt jungle. Pits were being ripped out—bikini-wax style—in favor of slot machines, while in new markets like Pennsylvania and Delaware, the only “tables” allowed had bill validators, ticket printers, CPUs and virtual dealers.

If old-fashioned table games had been a stock, everybody would have been shorting them.

Well, those shorts would have gotten burned. In fact, table games have not only bounced off the bottom, but they are now poised to reach new highs.

This turnaround is remarkable. Trends rarely reverse. Sheesh, they hardly ever abate. If anything, they accelerate and accelerate and accelerate until what was once de rigueur eventually and inexorably becomes passé. That’s just how natural selection works, as in fashion, as in nature, as in business.

Well, then, why? Why did table games pull out of this death spiral? Why are they no longer on the endangered species list? Just what in the name of Benny Binion is going on here?

The first reason is something that’s familiar to anyone who has ever tossed a die or turned a card. Dumb luck. Table games got on a heater. The younger generations decided, for whatever reason (who knows what they are thinking?), to play tables in greater proportions than their parents and grandparents do.

Now, don’t misread this. Slots, outside of Asia at least, are the primary moneymakers for casinos and always will be. It’s just that on a relative basis, more of today’s young adults are scratching their gambling itch at blackjack, poker and craps than was the case in the mid-2000s. 

The second reason is a vast improvement in customer service. Something unexpected happened when slots pushed table games against the ropes. Instead of doping, they punched back, and they punched with the one advantage they had: the interaction between dealers and players.

It’s anecdotal, but haven’t you noticed how much friendlier dealers and floor staff have become in the past few years? They are more attentive. They are more animated. They are more fun. This is no doubt the result of a concerted effort on the part of table game operators. Through hiring and training, they have equipped their floors with ambassadors, rather than automatons spinning a ball or pushing cheques from one side of the layout to another.   

The third reason is product innovation. Compare a table-game pit today with one 10 or 15 years ago. This isn’t Hocus-Focus from the newspaper, where you struggle to circle the differences. These are like Jared from Subway’s before-and-after photos. They’re obvious. Card shufflers, roulette chip sorters, Three Card Poker, EZ Baccarat, High Card Flush, Spanish 21, Free Bet Blackjack, smart shoes, progressive jackpots, electronic tables, etc.

Table games managers, who historically have experimented far less frequently than their slot counterparts, now embrace change and the progress that comes with it.

Of course, the paradox about shifts is that

they are always happening. The only constant is change, right? And sometimes, it’s easier to obtain than to maintain. Table games can’t get cocky and fall into the mindset that such growth will continue on its own. There is no auto-pilot, no cruise control. Competitors abound, from

slot machines to mobile games and online wagering, as well as a gazillion other gizmos being created that are designed to grab the attention and the money of current and prospective casino players.

It’s easy to try new things when the prognosis is negative. You’ve got nothing to lose. It gets incrementally tougher, both physically and psychologically, to continue that continuum of innovation and experimentation as the prospects brighten. In addition, you also run the risk of exhausting all the good ideas and failing to come up with an encore.

Trees, according to the old saw, don’t grow to the sky. But with the right amount of attention and nourishment, they can survive and even thrive for many years to come. Thankfully for those of us vested in this business, the same can be said—and will be said—of table games.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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