“Some patrons prefer to play poker with dealers and we are in the midst of negotiating with our unionized dealers to see if we can do that,” says Roy. The union representing the dealers or croupiers claim these tables lack the personal interaction between dealers and players. Players at dealer-less games touch their individual screens to signal their moves, for example.
The Casino de Montréal chalked up another record in mid-February, when it hosted what was billed as the world’s largest multi-table, no-limit poker tournament on automated PokerPro tables – involving 240 players and only four staff.
Tracy Egan, vice-president, marketing and product management for Matthews, NC-based PokerTek™, Inc. which develops and markets those products and related software, says they are designed to increase casino revenue, cut costs and attract new players. She says that given the game’s success in Quebec, the company will look for other markets in Canada. PokerTek also supplies major casinos such as the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and casinos aboard Carnival Cruise Line ships.
How does it work? “Each of the ten people around a table with their own screens and a 40-inch screen in the middle facing them. Players are dealt two cards face down and when they touch the screen the cards curl up so players can see their hole cards. They touch their screen to place bets, they can look at their last hand, but can't bet or fold their cards out of turn," she says.
(The poker tables, manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Lightning Poker Inc., are distributed under an agreement with casino equipment supplier Shuffle Master, Inc., Las Vegas.)
As for the casino, Ms. Egan says the electronic game action “is about 50 per cent faster” than live dealer-driven games with paper cards and chips, which makes them more profitable for the casino.
“Poker players are there to play as much poker as they can,” she says. This way they get their wish, because while most dealers spread 25 to 30 hands an hour, a PokerPro table can handle about 40 hands per hour.
The system also offers side bets similar to those with other table games, which offer better returns for the house, provides a better way to track the progress and earnings of games, and eliminates dealer error.
While she wouldn’t discuss the financial arrangement for the Quebec installations, she says the tables are typically leased to a casino for about $6,000 per month, and up, or alternatively PokerTek gets 18 and 20 per cent of the action.
Electronic table games, i.e. non-slot machines, haven’t caught on in Ontario, for all of the province’s profusion of gaming venues. There are two automated craps tables, with three dice shaken electronically and two electronic roulette wheels, and that’s it, according to provincial gaming authority sources.
Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, Niagara Falls, ON, offers 3,000 slots and 150 table games, operates a poker room with high and low limits’ Texas Hold’em, no-limit Texas Hold 'em and Omaha games. They use automated card shufflers and a patron seating system, but live dealers still run the tables.
Richard Taylor, vice-president, slot operations at Niagara Fallsview, says the casino does, in fact, have an electronic roulette game with eight stations around the wheel and a twin machine at sister, Casino Niagara. It’s not unlike a slot machine in the way it works, he adds.
Would he consider installing more electronic games at the two casinos? “We’re always on the lookout for new product and games that people want to play,” he says, but for the time being there are no changes contemplated in their gaming product mix.
There are similar table games across Canada, but none like the dealer-less ones in Quebec. Brad Broderick, vice-president, sales, Las Vegas-based TCSJOHNHUXLEY, described as the world’s leading provider of casino equipment and services, recalls his company first distributed Touch Bet, an electronic roulette game in British Columbia about five years ago, then Quebec and Saskatchewan.
Close but no cigar. Touch Bet roulette runs off a large wheel with terminals for players in other locations within a casino to place their bets at a dedicated table under a fixed overhead camera, with a server and seven players. The difference is that the live action is connected to remote terminals to extend the play simultaneously throughout the casino. “You can run up to 250 terminals from the one live roulette table,” notes Broderick.
The company also recently launched Touch Bets Baccarat and Touch Bets Blackjack, with terminals carrying live games, unlike the PokerPro games in Quebec which use virtual cards and virtual dealers. Neither the baccarat or blackjack games are ready to be distributed in Canada, he says, because they are still being tested.
Has anything been lost by games being electronically extended throughout a casino, like extensions to a single telephone in a house or office? “On the contrary, if I’m intimidated by joining in at that live table and how quickly I have to play, or I’m afraid to ask, I can hit the help button on the terminal about various odds, how to push the bets, payouts, etc. in the comfort of my own station with nobody over my shoulder or pushing me aside or having to stretch across the roulette table. It attracts novice players and ones who would ordinarily only play slot machines,” Broderick says.
One of the advantages for the house, he adds, are substantially lower labour (dealer) costs, which can recover the price of a machine, often within 90 days.
Broderick foresees more virtual games in casinos pressed hard by competitors and rising costs, and who will try to reduce the labour component. However, no virtual dealer will ever replace the classy, formally-dressed dealers running higher-limit games for high rollers.
Reducing dealer staff won’t come easily, he adds, because obviously unions representing them will put up quite a fight, as much as casinos, pressed by tougher competition and rising operating costs, will try to lower their labour costs.
One issue that doesn’t stir up confrontation is gaming security. James Maida, president of Gaming Laboratories International Inc., Lakewood, N.J., has noted that RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology and other electronics have led to a new generation of "smart" table games, which allow casinos to track bets, identify cheating scenarios and be able to "playback" disputed table game activity.
“This technology is aimed at preventing table game cheating by checking everything the dealer and the player do electronically,” he says. “For instance, one product using RFID technology in chips knows exactly how much is bet on the table at any time, can tell if players try to add more to their bet after betting is closed and can identify counterfeit chips.
“Another product not only tracks the chip play, but also tracks each card as it is dealt, determining independently which player has a winning hand, catching dealers who pay on non-winning combinations.”
If there is any room left for players to cheat at these games, it would have to be smaller than a RFID device planted in a chip. But that doesn’t mean someone isn’t working on that, somewhere, at this very moment.
By Albert Warson, MediaEdge