Tech-Based Table Games

Author’s Note: This is the third installment in a series of articles on the business principals that have propelled Barona Resort & Casino into being the dominant player in the San Diego gaming market. Each article is penned by an executive at Barona and is followed by an in-depth interview with Max Rubin. This month’s executive is Brian Doerr, shift manager and games analyst.

Shuffle Master’s iTable
At last year’s G2E, I was fortunate enough to represent the casino I work for, Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego, on a panel discussing table games trends. During the discussion, several table games-specific topics were covered, including the significance of hold, the effect of educated play and the necessity of side bets, along with several others. I found the discussion to be a quality and comprehensive view of the current state of table games. As per usual, the end of the panel allowed for about 15 minutes of open questions and answers. Around minute 14 we had a question from the floor that caused our time to run a little over. The question itself was as straight-forward as a question could be. However, the responses from the table were extremely varied. I listened to my fellow panelists discuss the how’s and why’s, and I agreed with several of their points, some positive some negative. At the conclusion of the discussion, I leaned into the microphone and repeated the gentleman’s question. The question was, “Can electronic table games work?” My response was, “Yes.”

If the question posed had been, “Has the casino industry embraced technology?” all you would need to do to answer it is walk inside a casino. Make no mistake—casinos love technology. Ask your marketing director what they would do without their synchronized data blasts on every available 60-inch flat screen. Ask your slot director about the value of ticket in/ticket out as it applies to a slot machine’s value or about the multi-casino linked progressives as a quality attract feature.

I believe it a very easy statement to make when I say that the casino industry, as a whole, has followed (or at least closely followed) the technological trends the rest of the world has become accustomed to, with one notable exception: the table games department.

If you were to sit down at a slot machine 50 years ago and compare it to the slot machines of today, the difference would be massive. If you were to sit at a blackjack table 50 years ago and then buy in to a game today, the only difference you would see is the 6-to-5 payout on the table min/max sign. [Note: It was an easy shot that I had to take, because Barona would never do this!] And while I will concede that technology has touched the table games department behind the scenes in the form of upgraded patron management systems, shuffle machines and surveillance systems, the actual behavior of gaming in most pits is virtually the same as it was decades ago.

But let’s get back to the original question. Can electronic table games work? And if so, why should we use them? Well, in my opinion the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes, electronic table games can and will work.” As to the why, there are a multitude of benefits from advancing tech-based table games solutions on your casino floor. Beginning with:

1. Increased Efficiency
Whenever I’m involved in a discussion about tech-based table games and the efficiencies they bring, I am always met with the labor gains first, and sometimes, only. While it is absolutely true that staffing one dealer for x number of terminals does help with staffing levels, which makes your labor behave more efficiently, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Let me explain. Efficiency means performing a task with the least waste of time and effort. Freeing up your labor needs certainly plays nicely into that. However, what is the goal of your staff? From my perspective, the goal of our staff is to minimize the down time between decisions without affecting the guests’ overall experience. To speak plainly, the goal is to deal a sufficient number of hands without making your guests uncomfortable. By automating the pay and take process, you not only streamline your hands per hour, but you do so in an unobtrusive way. Also, by automating the pay and take process you virtually eliminate incorrect pays and takes. A winner is always a winner; a loser always a loser. How’s that for efficiency?

2. User Customization
If you were to strip all of the glitz and glam away from gambling, what you would find is a financial transaction based upon a decision. This decision can be as in-depth and complicated as doubling your 10 into the dealer’s Ace with a true of +3, or as simple as making a $5 Pair Plus wager and hoping for the best. The type of decision is linked directly to the type of gambler and, more specifically, to how that gambler wants to customize their level of involvement in the process. This is one of the main areas where technology can and will help. We are coming into a time when several table games systems have complete knowledge of all cards in play. This provides for some really cool real-time options. Take, for instance, the Odds Bet from Shuffle Master’s iTable. Due to the logics recognition of the player’s two-card total, in real time the iTable is able to calculate the probability of your two-card total beating the dealer’s upcard and offers you a separate feature bet based on that probability. This is something that is impossible to do in the old-school physical world. But inside the systems logic, not only is it possible, but it is also configurable to your desired hold. Adding to that point is the ability to offer a multitude of side or prop bets in real time. Once again, as the values are all understood via the systems logic, no bet is impossible. And, as mentioned in point 1, pay and take is immediate and perfectly accurate.

3. Loss of Initial Intimidation
I love to argue this one! Ask any “old school” pit boss about tech-based table games, and they will immediately (and at length, from my experience) go on and on about how technology will never work in table games due to the fact that technology scares people. What’s interesting from my perspective is the fact that just about everyone who has ever walked into a casino has played a slot machine (technology driven), while a significantly smaller percentage of casino guests brave the jump from the rail to the felt. What intimidates people is a lack of understanding of the process, not necessarily technology. With terminal-based table games wagering now offered by several companies, guests have the option to learn a game from the comfort of their own terminal, which can be as social or as private as they want it to be. Imagine how intimidating it would be to learn baccarat on a live table. Now imagine being at your own terminal, watching the hand unfold and being able to ask the terminal the how’s and why’s. It would seem to me that going digital would alleviate the initial entry fear and possibly drive business from customers who otherwise might have passed up the opportunity.

Now, even with all of the above, there is still one outstanding question—one that I’d be remiss in not addressing: Will players make the switch, and will they accept electronic table games out on the casino floor? If Barona is any barometer—which it is—the answer is undeniably, “Yes!”

Max Rubin: OK, Brian, assuming that we’re sold, what sort of hard evidence do you have that players have embraced technology on table games?
Brian Doerr: Quite simply the fact that our tables are full. We’ve offered three new technologies over the past year-and-a-half to two years: the G3 from DEQ and the Rapid and iTable formats from Shuffle Master.

MR: And … ?
BD: The tables are filled.

MR: That’s a pretty compelling argument. Aren’t most of your games full anyway?
BD: Well, absolutely they’re full. But the new technology-based games are sustained full and not just full on weekends. They’re full all of the time, and our head counts are comparable to our live table games. The case in point is we just added two new iTables, for a total of six, and 12 new Rapid format terminals yesterday, and by 7 p.m. they were all filled.

MR: Do you think that if you had just opened regular new table games that they would have been filled as well?
BD: Probably, but not that fast. And what’s compelling here is that before we dropped the curtain, we had players standing by waiting to play these games.

MR: It seem pretty amazing to me that in this down economy when everybody else is shrinking their pit size and reducing their labor force that Barona is actually growing their table games department. To what extent is the introduction of these new games responsible for that growth?
BD: Very large. With tech-based table games we create a situation where we can offer an acceptable initial price point—

MR: (interrupting) What does that mean?
BD: In a down economy, everyone is more conscious of their money—not just casinos, but guests as well. These tech-based table games and their efficiencies of the pay and take processes allow us to drop the minimum bets, which attracts the money-conscious guest. They would much rather sit at a table with a lower minimum bet. The reason we can offer these lower minimum bets is due to the increase in hands per hour. The increase in hands per hour is a direct result of the tech-based table game pay and take process.

MR: Don’t your guests feel like they’re being rushed with faster processes?
BD: Absolutely not, because the process that sped up is the non-interactive process. The actual interaction between dealer and guest feels the same.

MR: How do you know?
BD: Because I’ve played them myself.

MR: Fair enough.
BD: And when speaking with the players on the floor, the term “rushed” has never come up. What has come up is how simple and entertaining these new games are.

MR: Are you finding that players who wouldn’t normally play table games are sitting at these new tables?
BD: We definitely have slot players coming over. What’s interesting when the slot players come over is that they say the intimidation normally associated with table games is gone with these new products.

MR: Is that because they’re more private?
BD: That’s one of the factors, but it’s mostly due to the fact that they don’t get that feeling that they’re “doing something wrong” on a table.

MR: So are those games more sociable?
BD: Interestingly enough, they’re not more sociable than any other table game, but they’re as sociable as the guest wants to be.

MR: So are you saying that the player can design their own experience and be as private or as sociable as they want to be?
BD: Absolutely. The guest can sit at a terminal and tune the rest of the world out or he can share his experience with the group around him.

MR: Hmm. Sounds like you’re giving the players something they’ve needed for a long time.
BD: I think you’re right in saying that. Being able to offer a customer a customized experience is what every business wants.

MR: That seems to cover the iTable and Rapid games pretty well. What about DEQ’s G3 progressive system? Is it also a piece of technology that the players have embraced?
BD: They definitely have at Barona.

MR: Meaning what?
BD: Meaning once again our G3 tables are not only filled, but that the progressive bet is also being heavily utilized.

MR: OK. How’s the service from DEQ?
BD: Top notch. If there’s a company I want to work with, it’s DEQ.

MR: Why?
BD: They have a quality product, they have fantastic service, and they have the type of vision that should turn some heads in this industry.

MR: Not that this is a sales pitch for DEQ, but what is that vision, as you understand it?
BD: Their vision is to design a product that optimizes a player’s experience. What they’ve done with their progressive is taken a known concept and shifted it to provide a more full experience.

MR: What’s that mean?
BD: For instance, instead of betting one dollar to get a static amount paid back to you as in other progressives, you can wager multiple credits and get paid odds on those multiple credits. Instead of wagering on your hand only, you can also wager on the dealer’s hand. And finally, they’ve introduced random bonusing, so it’s possible to win regardless of what your cards are.

MR: And the players like that?
BD: Absolutely. There’s something to being paid just because you got a “magic” card. Your hand may not have won, but you can still win just because you’re the lucky player. What’s really neat about their random bonusing is the ability to win without winning.

MR: Which means that if you get the “magic” card you win no matter what?
BD: Correct. Regardless of the composition of your hand or whether you beat the dealer, you can still get paid whenever that “magic” card hits.

MR: And you’re telling us that the players like it?
BD: The only proof I need is the utilization rate on the bet, which has been very strong since we introduced it on the floor.

MR: If you could take a look at your crystal ball, where do you see tech-based table games five years from now?
BD: I see them across the casino industry. We’re moving into a time when everybody is not only comfortable with technology but is now customizing their technology. If you were to look at the video and cell phone industries as a benchmark, the push is toward personalization. The next generation of gamers will not only be able to understand tech-based table games but also demand the ability to customize their experience.

MR: So what new things do you see on the horizon?
BD: I see the advancement of real-time prop wagers against all game types. I see table game types reacting to the player’s preferred games of choice. In the future, gamers will come in and swipe their player’s cards and the system will recognize that they like to play “Game X” with their customized side bets. I see personalized progressive pay scales …

MR: How’s that going to work?
BD: The guests will be able to choose their volatility. Meaning that they may choose more frequent paybacks or they can go for a much bigger prize.

MR: And how soon do you think we’re going to see that?
BD: I can’t give an estimate in time, but I will say that with the way that we’re evolving, it will happen in the very near future.

MR: I seems like you’ve become pretty deeply immersed in these new technologies.
BD: I want to make it clear that I’m not for technology for technology’s sake. What I am for is quality technology applied properly with the goal of creating an unsurpassed experience for our guests.

MR: Well, if technology can do that, it’s done everything we need. So do you believe that by utilizing these new technologies that most table game departments are going to be able to hold their own over the next five years?
BD: With proper communications between casinos and table games technology providers—if they listen to us—I believe that good table game operations won’t only hold their own but grow again, like Barona’s.

Brian Doerr has been a member of the Barona family for the past nine years. As Barona’s Table Games Analyst, he has had the opportunity to find and launch some of the most cutting-edge initiatives and enhancements in the table games industry today.