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Hi Tech Gaming Can Be a Loser

July 27, 2011


(c) 2011 MGM Grand Resorts

Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Enquirer, July 18, 2011

The march of technological change has been as relentless on the casino floor as it has been in every part of society. Vouchers instead of coins in slot machines, video-game animation in slots bonus rounds, and virtual dealers on big-screen monitors have become as familiar in gambling halls as the clatter of a steel ball around a roulette wheel.

However, occasionally new technologies bring new problems that can strain the always delicate relationship between the gambler and the house.

Here's an example:

Earlier this year, I was trying out a $5 high-tech blackjack game at Red Rock Casino, an upscale gambling resort about 20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip.

The Red Rock was using an i-Table, which incorporates some 21st-century twists into the traditional card game. There is still a live dealer who slides actual cards out of a dealing shoe, but the players bet with virtual chips _ digital images on a touch screen. Players make decisions to hit, stand, or double down, among others, on the same screen. When the player wins, new chips appear; when the player loses, the chips disappear (some things never change).

The shoe holding the cards also is able to recognize the value of each card as the dealer slides it out, and a digital display in front of each player keeps count of the hand total.

In part, the technology speeds up the game, reduces errors in paying players, and allows more options for fancy side-bets, such as wagering on the likelihood that a player will be dealt a so-called royal match, a suited king and queen.

In my case, after playing several hands I was dealt a player's delight-  an ace and a face card blackjack, a two-card total of 21.

But as the dealer distributed the cards, I noticed something amiss. The digital display keeping track of my hand total registered that I had been dealt an ace and a five. All the other players' counts also were incorrect. It appeared that the card reader had missed one card coming out of the shoe, and that each player's digital count was off by one card.

The dealer quickly called the floor person, who looked puzzled and pointed to a placard that stated table malfunctions voided a hand. I politely pointed out that the policy seemed to discount the obvious- that a winning hand had been dealt and the digital counter was simply a visual aid in tracking the total- to no avail.

Uneasy with the technology and the casino's reliance on the table placard as a response to the error, I decided to leave the game- and so did everyone else, it turned out.

"Placards and notices have relevance, but they're not the only thing that matters," said Mark Lipparelli, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "And (such notices) are not the only thing the board considers (in a dispute). The facts of the case also matter and they are also relevant."

A spokeswoman for Red Rock Casino said that recent personnel changes there meant that no one was available to discuss the casino's policies about the i-Table blackjack game.

However, executives at Shuffle Master Inc., the Las Vegas company that manufactures the new-age i-Table, took a decidedly old-school stance.

"The cards speak," said John Hemberger, director of table games for Shuffle Master. Coincidentally, I had used the very same phrase in making my case at Red Rock.

There are more than 50 i-Tables being used in several states and internationally, including Pennsylvania (Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh) and Delaware (Harrington Raceway & Casino). New Jersey is evaluating the devices. Shuffle Master officials said the problem that occurred at Red Rock- where the digital count differed from the cards on the table- often happened when the dealer distributed cards to a betting station not occupied by a player.

But regardless of the cause, in such disputes, Shuffle Master executives said, the best approach is to give each player the option of whether to play the hand.

The larger issue is that customers are often wary about casino practices, and that complex high-tech devices can heighten suspicions that gambling operators are able to manipulate outcomes.

"When the casino introduces this type of new technology, the customer has an expectation that the technology is going to work," said Anthony Curtis, a former professional blackjack player who now runs a publishing house that produces gambling books and the bargain-tracking newsletter Las Vegas Advisor.

"And when that technology does not work, the casino has to be prepared to take the worst of it," Curtis said.

After all, Curtis pointed out, players have already committed to playing a game where the house has the mathematical edge.

"And here players are getting the message," Curtis said, "that even when they win, they can't win."


Bill Ordine: [email protected]


(c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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