The old ‘when is a slot machine a live table’ debate has popped up again—this time in Macau in relation to semi-automated sic bo—and no one’s really left as a winner; especially not the players.
It started when Sands China was told recently by the DICJ that its Shuffle Master Rapid Sic Bo products at The Venetian Macao and Sands Macao were to be regulated—at least as far as the odds were concerned—as live sic bo, because they use a live dealer alongside the electronic betting and bet settlement technology. This was a problem, because the maximum payouts allowed on many of the bets on live sic bo in Macau were lower than those being offered on fully electronic sic bo games around the city. For example, the payout on any triple bet is 150:1 on a live table, versus 180:1 on most fully electronic tables.
Sands China not unreasonably pointed out this would put Rapid Sic Bo—into which the company has invested a considerable amount of money and effort—at a considerable competitive disadvantage to fully automated sic bo products in the Macau market. The answer from the Macau authorities, however, was not to raise Rapid Sic Bo up to the same odds level as the fully automated product. The DICJ’s answer instead was to bring all the electronic games down to the same level.
Why? Inside Asian Gaming e-Newsletter can only think of two answers, and neither of them reflect terribly well on Macau. The first possibility is that the DICJ—sensitive to the ‘issues’ that the government and Sands China have had recently, wants to bend over backwards to be seen as being fair to Sands China. If Sands China has to ‘suffer’ then so must everyone else, goes that reading of the situation. But why should anyone have to ‘suffer’? Why couldn’t the ruling on odds be based on method of bet placement and settlement (i.e. electronics) rather than on whether there’s a human dealer?
That brings us to the second possible reason for the ruling. This is that Macau officials have some kind of problem with the concept of semi-automated gaming and don’t wish to see it flourish—especially if the delivery technology is foreign-owned. We’ve seen it in their surprising willingness to grant copyright on the concept of semi-automated baccarat to a local company. Most other jurisdictions regard the basic concept as generic and rule that only the specialised functionality within the hardware or software is capable of being copyrighted. Macau has decided the rest of the world is wrong.
Could it be that Macau officials—keen to create and protect lucrative casino dealer jobs for local people—see semi-automated table games as the thin edge of a technological wedge? Perhaps the fear is that if allowed to flourish, Macau’s live dealers could be replaced by lower paid, lower skilled ‘attendants’. Never mind the fact that arguably semi-automated games offer fairer results, better odds and more accurate payouts for the people who ultimately guarantee Macau’s economic prosperity—the players.
Certainly there’s already some evidence from the government’s attitude toward labour importation that the main focus may be on protecting locals’ interests rather than on building a better and more profitable market. It may also be that the DICJ sees semi-automated and fully automated table gaming as a way for operators to circumvent the 5,500 table cap in the market supposed to run from now until the end of 2013.
If that’s the case then even if Macau casino operators are ready and willing to put their marketing muscle behind semi-automated table games, they may baulk at the politics of it.