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.
Shuffle Master Rapid Table Games (i.e. Rapid Roulette, now including Baccarat, Craps, Sic Bo, Big Wheel, and Jackpots)http://www.shufflemaster.com/02_eu_products/entertainment_products/electronic_table_games/rapid_table_games.asp
Shuffle Master Table Master product line (with video product tour):http://www.shufflemaster.com/02_eu_products/entertainment_products/electronic_table_games/table_master.asp
Brochure for the Bally Alpha Elite V32 Video Roulette game:
International Game Technology's Game King: