Scientific Game

Built for Speed

Though it has been accused by some as an attempt to skirt Macau’s table cap, Sands China’s new Fast Action Baccarat is much more. It is designed to heighten excitement on the floor, and through various time-saving innovations, allows much lower minimum bets, paving the way to court a neglected customer segment

Wednesday, 23 January 2013 14:07
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Celebrity models Li Ying Zhi and Han Zi Xuan joined Sands China EVP and COO David Sisk and Las Vegas Sands Corp SVP and Chief Casino Officer Andrew MacDonald at the 7th December launch of Fast Action Baccarat at The Venetian Macao

Sands China’s in-house-developed Fast Action Baccarat (FAB) offers a fresh, fast-paced spin on Macau’s most popular casino game.

The first four FAB tables were unveiled at The Venetian Macao on 7th December and were immediately decried by several media outlets as an attempt to bypass the government-imposed cap on the number of gaming tables in the city. The commentary carried on bore the title: “Macau Casinos Continue to Find Ways Around Gaming Table Cap.” The body of the article added: “The Macau Daily Times quoted Sands China COO David Sisk stressing the fact that his company was ‘continuously looking for ways to innovate the gaming for our customers,’ while leaving out the company’s equally continuous search for innovative ways to circumvent the table cap.”

Crowd-pullers—violinist triplets Alizma perform ahead of the Fast Action Baccarat launch at The VenetianMacao

The cap—which had stipulated a maximum 5,500 tables citywide until the start of this year, after which a 3% annual increase is permitted over the next 10 years—clearly factors in the strategic thinking of casino operators. And let’s face it, FAB’s supersized dimensions do make Sands China appear guilty of setting the stage to flout the spirit of the cap—each FAB table is 21 feet long and 8.5 feet wide and with 28 betting positions can accommodate up to 60 standing players.

But it would be simplistic to point to FAB’s size and automatically conclude that Sands China’s primary purpose in developing the game was to explore ways to get around the table cap. Another view is that it was inevitable someone familiar with player behavior in Macau would be inspired to create a gaming table capable of accommodating dozens of players as a means to channel and heighten energy and excitement on the floor.

As world-renowned casino architect Paul Steelman observed when coming up with the idea for the stadium-style casino at Sands China’s first local property, Sands Macao, “Gambling in Macau is a spectator sport.” Oftentimes at Macau casinos you’ll see all the players in a given section of the public gaming areas crammed around a single table, while the surrounding tables lay idle. More than anywhere else, in China, crowds draw more crowds.

True to its name, another distinguishing trait of FAB is that the games are much faster than at other baccarat tables, even though so many more players have to be dealt with, and by only three dealers at each FAB table. Play is sped up by a host of simple yet highly effective time-saving devices. First, there are trap doors built into the table through which chips placed on losing betting positions automatically fall onto an enclosed conveyor belt that takes them to a chip sorter—normally used on roulette tables—to be stacked in neat piles according to denomination. Thus, all the time dealers spend collecting and stacking losing chips is saved. As for winning bets, the FAB tables are equipped with mobile chip trays on glide rails, so the trays move with the dealers as they go quickly from player to player handing out chips.

FAB’s speed has also been enhanced because it runs the face-up, no-commission version of baccarat—a departure from the way the game is traditionally played in Macau.

The vast majority of baccarat tables in Macau allow players to “squeeze” the cards, a process that can hold up play for minutes each hand as players attempt to influence the outcome of the game by channeling their energy into the cards. Card-squeezing is a widespread practice in Macau. For the casinos, the squeeze game translates to significant foregone revenue by reducing the hands played per hour, but they continue to offer it for fear the players would go elsewhere if they didn’t.

Face-up baccarat, where the players are not able to touch the cards, has been offered sporadically at a table or two at various  casinos—usually featuring a significantly lower minimum bet made possible by the increased hands per hour—but never seems  to persist. That doesn’t mean Chinese players won’t play baccarat if they can’t squeeze the cards. After all, only the largest bettor on a given position at the table has the privilege of squeezing the cards, while the rest of the players are left either hoping his or her “force” is strong or merely impatiently awaiting the result. Face-up games in Macau to date have generally been offered on speciality tables that are smaller than regular baccarat tables, conducted as small-scale experiments, and thus perhaps destined to disappoint.

It could well be that a large and growing proportion of players in Macau do not actually harbor illusions of control but rather are only squeezing because it is either expected of them, it prolongs the excitement and anticipation of each hand, or simply because it’s fun. If the face-up game was presented in a more compelling package, offering something that the regular tables don’t, it would have a better chance of gaining wider acceptance.

Face-up baccarat has already been accepted by legions of Chinese players betting at LT Game’s electronic terminals on games dealt by a live dealer. It would be wrong to think of these players—huddled around LT terminals placed in sprawling amphitheater style configurations at City of Dreams, The Venetian, Sands Macao and Sands Cotai Central—as less serious than table players. If anything, many of them could be more serious. There are reportedly several among them who bet up to HK$100,000 (US$12,820) per hand at those terminals, playing a new hand every 30 seconds, whereas in a VIP room they may have to wait up to four or five minutes for a new hand. For these guys, the potential draw of the face-up game on an electronic terminal is speed as well as anonymity. “They don’t want to stand out,” explains Jay Chun, chairman and managing director of Paradise Entertainment, the parent company of LT Game. Seated behind one of Mr Chun’s terminals, high rollers easily blend with the masses.

Knowing full well how the LT terminals are performing at its casinos, Sands China was emboldened to finally extend the faceup experiment to a live table it had designed to have real crowd-pulling appeal.

Meanwhile, FAB’s use of the no commission variant of baccarat also leads to faster play by doing away with the need for the dealer to calculate and subtract the 5% commission on each winning bet on the “Banker” position. The general rule for no-commission baccarat is that all winning “Banker” bets pay even money (as opposed to 95% in a commission game), except for a “Banker” win with a total of six, which pays only 1 to 2 (50%).

As with face-up baccarat, casinos generally have been loath to push the no commission version of the game despite its revenue-boosting potential for fear of alienating players. Sands China has been a lot more aggressive than the other operators in pushing no-commission baccarat, setting aside a large portion of the mass market tables at Sands Cotai Central for it and holding its major tournaments as no commission games.

Given its emphasis on speed, FAB clearly had to be a no-commission game. The increased hands dealt per hour allow FAB to offer much lower minimum bets—HK$100 compared to minimums ranging from HK$300-500 at The Venetian’s other baccarat tables, whose minimums are in line with most major casinos around town.

Mr Sisk claims, “FAB offers an exciting twist on the much-loved baccarat game.”

While face-up and no-commission baccarat are not common in Macau, they are popular variants found the world over. What is perhaps most exciting about FAB, given its imposing presence on the floor and the marketing surrounding it, is it could help generate greater acceptance of those variants locally, which in turn would allow casinos to extract greater productivity out of their existing tables regardless of where they stand with the table cap.

FAB also creates the exciting possibility of opening up a new customer segment, or perhaps even bringing one back—mass players disenfranchised by rising table minimums who now are able to make HK$100 bets again as long as they aren’t put off by FAB’s fast pace or unorthodox setup.

“It is a priority for us to explore avenues to bring different experiences to our customers and ensure that we diversify our gaming offer within the market,” added Mr Sisk. “FAB is one big way we’re doing that.”

Although trap doors, conveyer belts and float trays on glide rails are hardly cutting edge technologies, their application to a gaming table is indisputably unique, and by enabling a small number of dealers to handle a relatively large number of players very quickly, they are the vital underpinnings of FAB’s ability to bring back $100 minimums on live baccarat in Macau. When offering such low minimums, greater volume is needed to cover the casino’s costs. And that’s the technical reason the tables have to be so big and accommodate so many players.

Despite all the commentary on the table cap, none of the local casino operators express great concern about it. They seem sure they will be able to get the quotas they need for the new properties they plan to build on Cotai by working with the government, reallocating underutilized tables from other properties, and if all else fails, perhaps even implementing some workarounds such as installing more electronic betting terminals or oversized tables.

The cap has been widely criticized as an arbitrary measure to control myriad variables—from mitigating the strain on Macau’s infrastructure created by the gaming and tourism boom to placating the central government in Beijing, which wants to limit the large sums its citizens are losing there. The local government has more recently taken to staggering future resort development by delaying project and construction permit approvals.

Operators are no doubt counting on the government to allot them sufficient gaming tables in order to run profitably and support their lavish expansion plans. After having already held back their opening schedules, the government—reluctant to tarnish the city’s reputation for providing strong returns on resort-level investment—will find a politically palatable way to ensure they all get a reasonable table allocation. As such, while FAB does have value as a potential insurance policy against an inadequate table quota, it will probably not be necessary.

A final point is that Macau’s gaming regulator clearly didn’t find FAB an affront to the table cap, otherwise it would have simply denied permission to install the four tables at The Venetian. After gauging player reaction to the game, Sands China plans to launch more FAB tables at its other properties.

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