I remember the exact point in time when I stopped questioning whether or not EZ Baccarat would be successful. As an analyst at Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego, I had been working on EZ Baccarat for about a month prior to the go-live, covering all of the usual preliminary tasks associated with the introduction of a new game to the casino floor. During that time, I came to truly expect great things from the game. I mean, let’s be honest, how often do we as operators find a product that completely relieves a significant operational headache (commission), generates greater revenue in a completely transparent way (increase in hands per hour resulting in greater hourly theoretical) and engages guests in a dynamic and exciting way (the Dragon 7)? Unfortunately for us, a product such as this is a rarity. But even with all of these tremendous attributes inherent to EZ Baccarat, I was still tentative with regard to the game’s success. We all know it’s hard to advance a new concept to the floor and even harder to shift a game-loyal constituency, such as those who play baccarat, to an unknown and slightly altered version of what they’re used to. So, even though I felt this game was going to be a slam-dunk, I withheld judgment pending guest approval.
And then it happened.
I decided to take a stroll out to the pit to take a look at the action and get some feedback about the game from the staff. EZ Baccarat had been live for around three weeks at that point, and the numbers were right where they should have been. I just wanted to see the game in action. It was a busy Friday night, and the play across the baccarat pit was solid. All tables, including the EZ Baccarat table, were at capacity. I kept my distance, wanting to observe the pit without intruding. While I was watching, a couple of colleagues saw me and came over to talk. I had not turned my attention for more than five minutes when I heard one of our regular (as well as more vocal) baccarat players scream “DRAGON!”—an indication that the Dragon 7 had just hit and she was about to receive a 40-to-1 payout. Not only did the table go nuts, but players on other tables even came over to see what all the commotion was about. From that point on, the guessing game was over.
It has been a little over two years since we first went live with EZ Baccarat. In those two years, we’ve seen our placements go from one EZ table to four EZ tables to our current floor layout, where all of our baccarat tables except one carry the EZ banner. And it’s not just us at Barona. Earle Hall, president of DEQ, told me that EZ Baccarat currently has roughly 100 placements in three countries (the U.S., Macau and Canada). There hasn’t been this kind of impact on the table game landscape since three-card poker solidified its place as the staple of the carnival pit. So, the question now isn’t will the EZ concept be successful? The question is why has it been so successful? And can taking it EZ do the same for pai gow as it’s done for baccarat?
Let’s cover the why first. If you were to boil down any game in the casino to its core element, what you would find is an unbalanced equation. There are x possible outcomes for which the casino (or game developer) is willing to pay out y, minus whatever they feel they need to hold. For instance, in a conventional baccarat game, if you were to remove the tie possibility, which carries a zero value toward the banker/player outcome, you would have a negative theoretical outcome on the player side, which carries a hit frequency of roughly 49 percent, and a positive theoretical outcome on the banker side, which holds a hit frequency of roughly 51 percent. To put it plainly, at 1-to-1 payouts, the player has a negative theoretical value and the banker has a positive theoretical value. However, since we are not in the positive player expectation business, we pay winning banker bets at a rate of .95-to-1. The 5 percent commission that has been attached to winning banker bets changes that positive theoretical expectation to a negative theoretical expectation, and the casino stays in business.
Now, while that 5 percent commission is absolutely necessary in conventional baccarat, it can also be a massive headache. Just the process of marking up commission creates a drag on hands-per-hour, which in turn lowers the hourly theoretical value of the table. When you bring in miscalculated or abandoned commission, that 5 percent shrinks a bit. And along with taxing the bottom line comes negative guest interaction. How many of you out there have had to settle an argument regarding commission or tried to collect the commission tab from a guest who has just dumped 50 large? This is no easy task, nor is it one where the guest will walk away satisfied. But what if there was no physical commission? In EZ Baccarat, the commission is built in to the game’s logic. It has bypassed all of the previously mentioned sore spots by creating a barred hand. Any time the banker wins with a Dragon 7, which is a three-card value of 7, all player wagers lose and all banker hands push. No more miscalculations. No more abandoned commission. No more arguments. Commission problem solved.
Now it’s all well and good that EZ Baccarat has bypassed commission, but how will the guests respond to a winning hand that they don’t get paid on? That’s easy. Create an optional wager on that specific outcome. By offering an optional wager on the Dragon 7, you not only increase incremental wagering and gain the ability to offer a session-changing event, which revitalizes energy and renews interest in the game, but you also eliminate the very cause of commission. It’s absolutely wonderful. Every time someone yells DRAGON!, they feel that they’ve won … and we’ve received our commission. Talk about a win-win. What’s terribly interesting here is that as EZ Baccarat’s popularity soared at Barona, a new psychology emerged from the pit. Players soon recognized that if the Dragon 7 hit, their banker bet would be pushed. So what did our guests do? They began making larger wagers on the Dragon 7 to “protect” their big banker bets. This organically developed thought process has raised the length and satisfaction of our guests’ play and at the same time relieved negative guest interaction while increasing our drop. Once again, it’s a win-win situation.
So the question still out there is this: If the EZ format is applied to pai gow, will it have a similar response as in baccarat? That is to say, will taking it EZ change pai gow? Well, let’s take a look.
EZ Pai Gow is quite simply pai gow that utilizes the barred hand concept. Once again, the simplicity of the logic is key. The conventional form of pai gow is strictly adhered to, with two exceptions. First, there is absolutely no physical commission. Now while commission isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—the type of headache in pai gow that it is in baccarat, this exception still very much enhances the game. For instance, how often do your dealers stop to make change for commission? Or, if you’re taking your commission off of wins, how many hands per hour do you lose to a dealer or guest trying to figure out the correct commission amount? It might not seem like much, but think about that process over the course of a day, a week, a year. The numbers behind this are significant. Actually, for sake of clarity, let’s go ahead and draw out the value of one hand (plus or minus): One round of capacity play at a $25 average bet earns the house about $4. When that $4 is applied to an hourly scale, it turns into $96 per day. When that daily scale is converted to yearly, the value to your bottom line comes to $35,040. So as you can see, the advantage to no physical commission is substantial. Who knew that losing (or gaining, for that matter) just one hand per hour would make that much of a difference?
The second exception to conventional pai gow is the use of the barred hand concept to retain the house edge. Just as in EZ Baccarat, EZ Pai Gow retains the value of commission by pushing all wagers on a Queen’s Dragon (a dealer’s 7 card, Queen high only). That is to say, when the dealer receives a 7 card, Queen high only, all players’ wagers, regardless of their hand composition, will be pushed. Voila! Commission is served.
But, once again, we are left with a dilemma: How can we get away with not paying out on what is almost certainly a winning players hand? As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, there is an optional side wager on the occurrence of a dealer receiving a Queen’s Dragon. If the player makes a wager on the Queen’s Dragon and the dealer receives the Queen’s Dragon, the player is paid 50-to-1. Just as in EZ Baccarat, the player is actually hoping for the barred hand to hit. The concept is brilliant in its subtleness. By shifting the focus from the pushed hand to the possibility of a large payout, EZ Pai Gow players scream with excitement every time they pay their commission.
But the question still remains, will taking it EZ create a better pai gow game? Will it make sense for casinos to change from the pai gow of the past to the pai gow of the future? Will guests accept and adapt, as they did with EZ Baccarat? Will taking it EZ do for pai gow what it did for baccarat? As we all know, it’s hard to transfer a game-loyal constituency, such as those who play pai gow, to an unknown and slightly altered version of what they’re used to. So will EZ Pai Gow gain the success of EZ Baccarat?
Here at Barona, the answer just came in. One of our regular (and more vocal) Pai Gow players just screamed, “Queen’s Dragon!” And now we know.