Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

November 29, 2007

FEATURE: Video Table Games - Worth the Risk?

Posted by Hunter

This is exciting - an original piece from a new guest author, Matthew Farley. This piece focuses on video table games, a growing segment of the manufacturing scene.

Big thanks for Matthew for providing this - we hope there's a lot more to come! Anyone else interested in writing something should feel free to get in touch with me at editor AT ratevegas DOT com.

The feature story starts after the jump.

Recently, during a trip to the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, I became profoundly aware of a trend that I had been aware of previously, but had paid little attention to. Looking over the new offerings from a vast array of vendors at the convention, there seemed to be an overabundance of computer-based machines designed to replace human dealers at traditional table-style games. From poker to roulette to blackjack and many more, there seemed to be an electronic-dealer solution out there for nearly every classic game.

My awareness of this trend began quite some time ago with exposure to Shuffle Master's Rapid Roulette, a system that positions a number of video-screen betting terminals around a traditional dealer-operated roulette wheel. The benefits to the casino were obvious, both in terms of game speed (eliminating the mucking of chips, paying of bets, and potential for dealer error in doing so) and in labor cost, since a larger number of patrons could be served by a single wheel.

I avoided Rapid Roulette when I first encountered it, and was a bit puzzled as to why so many people seemed to be patronizing it. The answer to my silent query as to why it would be popular came much later, when my wife and some of her friends visited Las Vegas and fell in love with Rapid Roulette. She has always been a machine-only player, patronizing slot machines for the most part, and never taking an interest in the traditional table games.

I talked with her for a while about her sudden interest in roulette, and came to realize that her avoidance of table games was not due to the nature of the games themselves (with the exception of blackjack and other games in which the odds are player-skill based), but was in fact based on her own desire not to have to deal with chips, dealers, other players, and all of the hassles that can arise from those aspects of table play.

The gaming machines offer a safe, non-judgmental option for the player who wants to avoid the embarrassment of doing something wrong in front of others - in fact the machine offers no negative feedback whatsoever, and if you try to do something in the wrong order, it just sits there and does nothing. This, for some, is the draw of the machines, slots in particular. The machine may well take your money, but it certainly isn't going to look at you funny, get upset because you hit a hard 17 at third base, or holler "I SAID NO MORE BETS" when you try to lay a chip down.

The psychology behind this, and an underlying interest in the traditional games by those who avoid them for social reasons, would seem to be the magic formula behind the success behind machine-based table games. On the floor at G2E, however, I found that that machine-based table games are going far, far beyond the human-dealer style of Rapid Roulette.

A great many products were on display at G2E, from a wide variety of manufacturers, which entirely replace the human dealer with a computer-based simulation of a table game, usually shaped like the gaming table in question. By comparison, the actual manufacturers and distributors of new gaming tables for human-dealer use were much more scarce. This piqued my curiosity to a great degree, in terms of wondering whether or not these machines might be accepted by players in general or if they would serve mainly a niche 'crossover' type of player who had traditionally been a slot-only customer. I was bemused by the number of such systems on display, and went away wondering how these would 'play' on an actual casino floor.

I didn't expect to find anything other than Rapid Roulette in the casinos I visited, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a single-player video version of roulette (a Bally Technologies product) on the floor at the El Cortez. I paid it no mind for a moment, then noticed that it was an extremely low-limit game, and featured only a single zero on the wheel. This was enough to get me to sit down and run the machine for a while, though I did notice that one could take advantage of the single-zero odds on even money bets, but the higher payout bet options had been adjusted payout-wise. I didn't take the time to do the math on it, but I suspect that placing single number bets would have produced a casino edge equal to or larger than that produced by a traditional double-zero wheel. While the video version of roulette was nicer-looking than the single-player blackjack offerings I encountered, it was still a single-player machine experience, leaving me still curious as to how a multi-player machine would be received.

The answer to my questions came sooner than I thought. Having just seen the multi-player, dealer-simulating machines on the floor at the convention, I didn't expect to find any of them on a casino floor just yet. However, a visit to the Orleans proved this expectation to be wrong. Not too far from the entrance, on the right of the main aisle, sat a computer-dealt 'Table Master' blackjack table, made by Shuffle Master. It was empty, so I sat at one of the terminals, fed it some cash, and gave it a shot (I lost my stake in the game, but hey - it's called gambling for a reason).

So far as video-blackjack is concerned, it was a very good game from a game-rules standpoint. Unlike the even-money payout on IGT's Game King blackjack program that I have come to know and loathe, this one paid 3:2, and seemed in nearly every way (game-rule wise) to be equivalent to a table with a really low limit ($1, I believe). It was a good game, but I finally decided that I would have preferred the same rules on a Game King. The video representation of the dealer (actual video of live dealers) was choppy to a really distracting degree, and the game speed was well above that of a table.

The Table Master experience was almost identical to that I get from online casinos' blackjack offerings. I'm sure the video segment of the system will improve over time (the video-playback dealers were good-looking, but the production quality shortcomings outweighed their charms on-screen). However, the other players who came and went during the time I spent playing demonstrated another aspect to the multi-player machine-dealt table game that I hadn't bargained on. Since we were seated at video terminals, the social aspect of player interaction didn't happen at all like it does at a live table. I asked another player or two what they thought of it, and they reacted in a semi-annoyed fashion, the kind of response one would get if one were to interrupt someone intently focused on a video-poker machine.

Just to be sure this negative social change was due to the form of the game and not just my perception of it, I left the machine and joined a half-full live-dealer blackjack game (lost money there too, go figure), and was able to chat with the other players in a much more satisfactory fashion. It would seem that no matter what the game, patrons in general have very different mindsets when it comes to how they expect to behave and be treated when at a machine or at a table game.

The parallel between my experience at the computerized blackjack table and my experiences playing blackjack online highlight what I consider to be the most significant pitfall of all for these systems. Sure, the quality will improve, they may become popular, and may even serve as a bridge between machines and table games for patrons, but the computerized action is so markedly like playing online that it sacrifices something that I consider to be one of the greatest assets of brick-and-mortar casinos. That asset is the incontrovertible fact that an online table game can never truly emulate what it is like to sit down, handle cards, make small-talk, look your dealer in the eye, and feel the weight of a big stack o' black when you hit something just right.

If the brick-and-mortar casinos move further and further away from human-dealt games, I believe that they may well be giving up one of their greatest assets in the fight for players that will be a free-for-all if Internet gaming gets fully legalized in the United States. Though it would take an analyst on the inside to answer the question, I have to ask... Is it worth it to replace the dealers with machines? Sure, there's money to be saved on labor and games to run faster (and card-counting to prevent), but is it really wise to risk making one's joint even more similar to an online experience? Personally, I believe that having human-dealt games is the heart and soul of a casino, and should under no circumstances be left behind.

For the record, I have no stake in any product, company, or event named within this article other than IGT, in which I own a modest amount of stock.


Reference Links:

Global Gaming Expo:

Shuffle Master Rapid Table Games (i.e. Rapid Roulette, now including Baccarat, Craps, Sic Bo, Big Wheel, and Jackpots)

Shuffle Master Table Master product line (with video product tour):

Brochure for the Bally Alpha Elite V32 Video Roulette game:

International Game Technology's Game King:


Read archived comments (5 so far)
November 30, 2007 8:15 AM Posted by socalduck

Great article, Matthew. I primarily play craps and blackjack, so I followed one of your links to the ShuffleMaster site and read the somewhat-limited specs on Rapid Craps.

Barring any software error, the payouts would always be correct and you would never have to keep on eye out for rail birds trying to pluck your cheques. Since it incorporates live dice, I assume that there is a chip embedded in either the dice and/or table that will provide a correct read of the throw. Looks like you still need a stickman to marshall the dice, call "no rolls", etc. but the casino eliminates the boxmen (who are already a vanishing breed in the live game) and dealers. I'm actually surprised they have a cut-out for the boxman on the table, as you could potentially fit another couple revenue-generating terminals in that slot.

Unfortunately, much of the joy of this game, at least for me, is the banter between players and the crew, handling chips, understanding the odds and payouts, calling out the occasional obscure sucker bet to impress the gals (horn high yo, anyone?), and (hopefully) coloring in at the end of good session with some high denomination cheques in my pocket. Punching bets into a touch screen and walking away with a printed ticket does not seem all that appealing to me.

In terms of contributing to the atmosphere in a casino, craps pits generate a fair amount of energy, which is why they are typically placed in such a manner as to draw people deeper into the casino. I just don't see an interactive video game creating the same level of excitement as the real deal, so I think you end up losing some of the energy that makes casinos appealing in the first place.

My prediction is that within 10-15 years, the live craps game will exist only in the higher-end resorts, and will be restricted to only those games where the minimum bet is $25 or (most likely) higher. I would not be surprised to see any BJ game under $25 also head the electronic route, as well.

November 30, 2007 2:01 PM Posted by Craig

I was at Mohegan Sun in CT today. There was a video version of live poker. The game was dealt electronically, with the players sitting around a table. They appeared to be playing against each other.The use of your players card was required. The game was called PokerPro or something of that nature. Mohegan closed their poker room a few years ago, just before it's the game's boom. For those not familiar with Mohegan,it has two full sevice casinos that rival most(other than Bellagio or Wynn)in Vegas with a combined 200,000 +/- square feet. It is supposedly one of the busiest casinos in the world.

November 30, 2007 7:48 PM Posted by detroit1051

Craig, the Seminole tribe was one of the first to install PokerPro at its casinos in Hollywood, FL and Tampa. The one in Hollywood has 50 regular tables and initially had four PokerPro's.
They sat empty so much that they took out two and finally removed the other two this year. Same in Tampa. Players missed the live action and banter of a dealer. I don't see how PokerPro can succeed in casinos. I bought into the hype at the beginning and bought shares of the company, PTEK, but sold after seeing the results at the Seminole Hollywood Hard Rock.

December 1, 2007 8:54 AM Posted by Mike P.

Here's a Liz Benston piece on PokerTek in the LV Sun a few days ago:

And here's PokerTek's website:

Most of their installations are on cruise ships and Indian casinos where qualified dealers are scarce. I don't see them making big inroads into major LV casinos any time soon.

December 3, 2007 9:01 PM Posted by Jinx

Just one point though, dealerless games are not new, BJ Blitz, tabletop roulette and craps appeared and disappeared about 5-7 years ago. Craps and roulette were .25 games with 6-8 seats at a table and for both you utilized a trackball.

Not to say I don't like the innovations, rapid roulette in my opinion is a great blend of technology and in some cases I think the casinos do a good job of making it what it is a casual low limit fun game. I.E dealertainer pit at IP. But in other areas it's a bit of a bland computer game, with a dealer that usually doesn't want to be there.

The human element of table games is underrated by these companies, I don't think in the long run your going to see it in Vegas, other areas that don't allow anything but machine games will have them though and I think it's a good thing for those places.

As the author pointed out, I'd much rather they put solid rules on Gameking BJ, then try and make me feel like it's a table game.