Scientific Game

Elevating the Pit

Tracking slot machine play is science. Every penny is followed electronically. If the customer uses a rewards card a wealth of information is available on wager sizes, wins and losses, duration of play, game and denomination preferences

Thursday, 15 October 2009 00:00
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Bally's TableView

Tracking table games play has always been more of an art. It's been the domain of floor and pit supervisors to record buy-ins and time of play, observe a few hands and estimate average bet and skill level in order to calculate the value of the player and how much it's worth in comps and perks to keep him or her coming back.

But art is giving way to science. Optical scanners and radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are giving operators an accurate reading on wagers. Coupled with analytical software they can track skill levels, helping casinos determine whether a blackjack player spots the house a large advantage, a small one, or in the case of advantage players, no edge at all. Even slot-like bonusing is now a reality. And the combination of all these technologies can enhance game security, rank dealers for speed and efficiency, spot cheaters and scams and evaluate traffic and occupancy rates.

The elements of near-total automation of the pit are in place, or soon to be in place. But the key to making all this work and bringing table tracking up to scientific par with slot tracking is going to be cooperation among manufacturers, says Mike Patterson, vice president of table games at Barona Resort & Casino in Lakeside, California, USA.

"There are a lot of components to these products," he says. "You have bet recognition, you have strategy, or what I call play recognition, and then you have player recognition. And everybody seems to hold a component. What the operator really needs is to bring it together into a complete system that's functional at a cost-effective price that makes sense for them. And I don't think they've done that yet."

Step 1 has been to cut down on paperwork in the pit and at the same time move player ratings into real time. Bally Technologies has been doing this with TableView, acquired from Prism in 2003. TableView gives floor supervisors touch screen data entry for game ratings, and it has accounting features to record openers, closers, fills, credits and markers. This saves supervisors from having to fill out slips at the tables and take the data back to a computer for entry.

"Our player tracking piece actually resides in the back, where TableView is fully integrated with our player tracking system," explains Jerry McGowan, Bally's regional sales manager for table management system. "The best way to look at TableView is point-of-sale. It's really data entry, and that information flows back to our player tracking system in real time."

The next step, McGowan says, is more automated information through RFID or optical solutions to track wagers and cards. Bally worked on an optical solution for its MindPlay system but never quite got the card recognition feature—which used bar codes on card edges—to be as accurate as desired. MindPlay is no longer being marketed, though McGowan says it can always be taken off the shelf if a customer wants to look at it.

International Game Technology is going the RFID route with its Table iD suite of products developed in conjunction with Shuffle Master and others. IGT also has gone in for game development and bonusing with fully automated electronic table games on its MP Series and DigiDeal Digital 21 game.

On live tables, the original Table iD application, called Table Manager, was developed in the mid-1990s to take paper out of the pit. In its current version, computer monitors can be installed at each table for the same kind of data entry Bally does with TableView.

New in the last two years are Chip Manager, using RFID chips to track wagers, and Card Manager, using a Shuffle Master card-reading shoe, to track game play, and Lucky Draw for table bonusing.

With Chip Manager tracking actual wagers through RFID chips instead of relying on pit supervisors to estimate average bets and time of play, table games managers will finally have information as accurate as that gathered on the slots, says Eric Lancaster, IGT table product marketing manager for network systems.

He explains: "I walk up to the game, I sit down, I give them some cash, they give me some chips, and I start betting $25 a hand. So the floor supervisor puts in $25, and they turn their attention to another player or another table. And then I up my bet, and now I'm playing $100, but the floor supervisor doesn't see that. And so for all we know the average bet on that rating is going to go in as $25. So if I sit there a couple of hours and then get up and go, what the property is going to reinvest in me as a player is below what I as a player would expect. The point of the matter is, with the RFID technology reading the bet, you're not counting on average bet any more, you're counting on the equivalent of coin-in on the slot floor. You know exactly what was played. Therefore you're rewarding for comp dollars, for player reinvestment, you're rewarding the proper players the proper amount based on your marketing philosophy."

Next up for Table iD is Lucky Draw, which in its original application plays off an old casino standard. Operators who have wanted to created bonus excitement at the tables have had drawings, with dealers handing players a ticket, say, for each blackjack. Tickets then were drawn out of drums for prizes. With Lucky Draw, the awarding of tickets is automatic and the drawings use a random number generator, just as in bonus games on slot machines.

"You can do some more exciting things with it," Lancaster explains. "Let's say it's the Fourth of July and you want to do a promotion called 'Fours on the Fourth,' and so everybody who gets dealt a pair of 4's on a blackjack game gets a ticket in a drawing. Or on a baccarat game you can say: everybody who's playing whenever a natural shows up gets a drawing ticket. Or you can say 'Win for Losing': every time the dealer gets blackjack you get a drawing ticket. The concept's the same, you just have that real-time thing going on now. It doesn't affect the game itself or the rules or the speed of the game. This is all going on in the background."

Inching toward integration

The concept of bonusing on table games is something that excites Barona's Mike Patterson, who sees loads of potential in Shuffle Master's iTable. Chips are replaced with individual touch screens for electronic wagering, although dealers and cards are still used. Shuffle Master also has set up blackjack games with some of its proprietary side bets, such as Royal Match, and also incorporates an odds bet that allows players to wager on the outcome of a hand after they've seen their initial cards and the dealer's up card.

"When I saw that, that was like a home run out of the ballpark," Patterson says. "Some of the side bets are insurance or mitigating bets and some are odds bets, and the odds bets just excite the hell out of me. I love that kind of action. If you have a 17 against a dealer's 9, it'll put up the odds for you to bet on whether you win or lose. I think that's just awesome. If you get 20 against a 9, it may only pay eight bucks or something, but you're pretty sure you're going to win the hand, so you make the bet. And the house gets its 2 percent no matter what."

iTable also gathers information on exactly how much is being wagered and uses a card-reading shoe called the i-Shoe to track player decisions. And with that information operators can make accurate decisions about how much a player is worth to the casino and how much they should reinvest in the customer to keep him or her coming back.

"Once you have the betting electronic, if you're playing blackjack, I know you bet five bucks, 10 bucks, five bucks, five bucks, 20 bucks, a hundred bucks; I know how much action you generate," says Roger Snow, Shuffle Master's table games product manager. "On a live table game you have no idea. You couldn't possibly keep track of it. But in this form we can. So I know exactly how much you bet. And also I know from your play strategy, if you're doubling down on 16, I know you're a bad player. If you're standing on 9, you're really bad. But if you're playing according to the book, I'll know that too. There are no sinister purposes here, I'll just know your value. Now, most casinos simply assign a house advantage for all blackjack players. Say they play a 1 percent house advantage, maybe a percent and a half. But there's someone playing half a percent, and there's someone playing 4 percent."

Accurate information is a primary goal at Gaming Partners International, a leader in the development of RFID solutions.

"The company always strongly believed that the technology would be a key point for the tables' management systems," says Emmanuel Gelinotte, GPI's wheels and table equipment manager. "Indeed, the table games, while they've involved high-denomination chips and transactions, had no technology and system to track and secure the activity like they have for the slot machine floor."

The technology has led GPI to TablesSolution, released in 2006. It provides real-time online information for roulette and card tables based on the chips float evolution, the fills and credit and the drop. For the drop, GPI introduced late last year a software module for driving the new JCM bill validators in order to automatically obtain and control currency-related information.

A second GPI table management system is designed for Texas Hold 'Em poker, automatically tracking the game and the pots and generating reports. And looking ahead the company is working with large casino companies to develop a progressive jackpot system for Texas Hold 'Em that was scheduled for release in the second quarter. Down the road is a possible mystery jackpot for roulette.

The opportunities inherent in integrating all these technologies is drawing thought leaders like NICE Systems into the gaming space. Headquartered in Israel and with offices around the world, NICE provides industries such as financial services, telecommunications, health care, retail and security with solutions and services in advanced multimedia analytics embracing all data sources. NICE is working with Tangam Systems, based in Waterloo, Ontario, on Tangam's optical card reading solution, which furnishes operators with a wealth of management data using analytical software to evaluate the calibre of player, value to the casino, to spot advantage players and cheaters and track dealer speed and efficiency.

"When we talk about accurate information, when we talk about how the operations and the data that you're going to be collecting are going to be very proactive, it's going to be a system that can be managed by dealer, by table, by game," says Douglas Florence, director of the gaming sector for NICE. "And running these statistics, now you know what's happening to your game pace, your deck penetration. You can look at your accuracy of occupancy. We look at the seat supply. Do we have the right occupancy on certain high-limit games and low-limit games, and do we need to open some in the middle of my bet range? And then the win-loss data, giving you greater insight there. And the integration with RFID, simplifying the process for table games to really accurately measure the productivity in your casino... The benefits? Bottom line without question. Greater table game profitability."

Barona dealt directly with Tangam in installing Tangam's TableEye21 and TableEyeBacc to track blackjack and mini-baccarat. Patterson came away impressed.

"One of the biggest advantages I've seen with Tangam, they actually did their laboratory work here," he says. "They came to a live environment to really make their product work. What their product says it can do, it can do. It hasn't been an overnight solution, but we worked through those things. They have been very responsive, and they've always completed what they said they were going to do. That is kind of rare. It's not waiting till version 11.9 comes out. They've been responsive in fixing their product so that it works. If it says it'll read the cards, it will. If it says it'll track accuracy, it'll track accuracy."

Patterson maintains, though, that the key to making all these innovations an every-day reality, and sooner rather than later, is cooperation among the providers.

"Can it all be made cost-effective? With cooperation. Any time you mass-produce something you get an economy of scale. But the problem is, everybody wants to piecemeal it, and they feel like their individual component is the most important. And so the cooperation is somewhat limited."

Still, it is undeniable that the technology is here. And the time has arrived, or it's very near, when table tracking will be more science than art.

By John Grochowski. Reprinted with permission from Casino Journal.
John Grochowski's syndicated casino column appears weekly in The Detroit News, the Gary Post-Tribune, Casino City Times and other periodicals and is available on the Web. He is the author of six books on casino games, including "The Video Poker Answer Book" and "The Slot Machine Answer Book".

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