Packing 'em in
Packing 'em in
To minimize poker room queues, casinos are taking a cue from restaurant reservation systems and adding automated table games
Poker is no longer considered the loss-leader on the gaming floor it was just a few years ago. Televised poker tournaments have fueled such a high demand for poker, and the problem at many casinos is no longer filling all seats at all tables, but seating all players itching to try their luck against others like themselves.
Thanks to some new technologies and products, poker rooms can now better meet player cravings for the game, and boost bottom lines in the process.
According to poker room managers across the United States, Texas Hold 'Em remains the king of poker games, especially among the younger players who have entered the market during the past five years. In parts of the country, Omaha Hold 'Em is starting to catch on, while Five Card Stud is making a modest return. But while Omaha Hi-Lo seemed to be gaining traction a year ago, Mike Smith, director of poker operations at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla., reported that the game peaked last summer and is now declining in popularity.
With people lining up most of the day to play poker, the challenge for casinos is to get them seated with minimal delay when a current player relinquishes his seat so as not to reduce revenues generated at the table.
"In the past, players would have registered with a poker room employee, who would write the person's name in a book. When a seat opened up, the employee might have cuffed his hands to his mouth and shouted the name of the person at the top of the list, or announced the name on a microphone," Smith said.
But there are now better ways to seat poker players that enables them to patronize other parts of a casino instead of waiting for a seat at the table.
Poker Room Manager from San Diego-based Ameranth Wireless is a computerized reservation system similar to those used in large restaurants, but with a key difference. When card players sign up, they can be asked to list three preferences (based on types of poker and betting limits) when seeking a seat. They are then issued a portable pager. Tables are wired so that as earlier players get up from the table, the dealer can press a button that electronically informs the reservation grid that a specific seat is available. The program then scans reservations to determine which player seeking the action at that table has been waiting the longest. The player is thus alerted through the pager to get to that table and begin playing.
"By refilling seats faster, poker dealers can deal more games per hour. Since the house take comes off the top of the pot of each game, increasing the number of games per hour from 25 to 30 can increase the hourly profit at each table by about 12 percent," said Keith McNally, chief executive officer at Ameranth.
JTECH Communications, based in Boca Raton, Fla., has adapted its GuestPass system for use by poker rooms. This computerized system also takes reservations with preferences and then matches them with waiting players as seats open up. But JTECH pagers offer four options for alerting players when then seat has arrived: tone, voice message, flash message on a screen or vibration, said Doug Crisafulli, JTECH's marketing director.
"Unlike old seating systems where player names are broadcast, GuestPass lets players choose to remain anonymous. This tells players the casino considers them important, and helps the casino generate future business," Crisafulli added.
Another way to handle an overflow demand for poker is with dealerless automated poker tables.
The PokerPro table marketed by Matthews, N.C.-based PokerTek Inc., is "designed to provide players with the look and feel of a live poker table, using computer technology to speed up the game and eliminate the annoying errors," said PokerTek Chief Executive Officer Lou White.
Each 10-position table employs virtual cards and gaming chips. It automatically shuffles and deals cards. Built-in technology creates side pots, splits pots, displays winners and awards pots instantly. Players can sneak a peak at their hold cards by touching them to virtually curl up the edges. Players can select any chip denomination and confirm a desired bet. Video touchscreens at each player location provide options for players to fold, call or go all in. Data on the player screen notes the size of their stack (how much they have to bet) and the main pot, and how much they must bet to call a hand. The center video screen displays all community cards and indicates the winner when hold cards are revealed at the end of play. Players can recall the previous hand to analyze how they played it.
Current PokerPro systems play all forms of Texas Hold 'Em poker, including Limit, No Limit and Tournament. In the works are systems that will play other forms of poker, including Omaha Hold 'Em.
The Lightning Poker System, marketed by Lightning Poker in Aston, Pa., likewise offers automated, dealer-free poker games on a furniture-grade table with 10 player positions (each with a 12.1-inch touchscreen) and a 45-inch high-definition LCD screen in the center. Cards and gaming chips exist in a virtual environment. Cards are shuffled automatically, and players able to move around chips by touching their screen. And the table automatically calculates pots and determines winners.
An advantage of Lightning Poker tables is the 3-D animation that adds depth to "card curls" when players check hold cards and flip and slide chips, said Ron Skotarczak, president of Lightning Poker. Real sounds also make each game "a memorable experience," he added.
The newest automated poker table is the DTS-X-or simply the X Table-introduced at the 2006 Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, by DigiDeal, based in Spokane, Wash.
An outgrowth of its DTS automated table that requires a dealer, the X Table provides larger screens-a 15-inch touchscreen at the 10 player positions and a 46-inch screen in the center for displaying the pot and community cards-than other models.
"Our goal with the X Table is to make the poker playing experience as real as possible," said Dave Krise, vice president of design and development at DigiDeal. "A virtual 3-D environment created on the screen gives chips and card depth. When betting, you can actually slide chips into the pot."
Once a seat has been assigned to a player, only that player can play at that location. To activate a playing location, the player must input a special personal identification number supplied by the casino to input money and initiate play. DigiDeal also offers the X Table in eight-, six- and four-player versions.
All three automated tables come with free-standing kiosks that enable players to sign themselves up to play at the table of their choice. With PokerTek's Waiting List Kiosk, poker aficionados need only swipe their player cards in the kiosk and follow directions on the screen. When the desired seat becomes available, the device reserves it for the player, and then directs him to it.
All three also offer computerized management systems that monitor table action, allow supervisors to set game limits and record information on player behaviors and preferences that can be used for player comping and future individualized promotional strategies.
"The major advantage of dealerless, automated poker tables is that they speed up the game," said Lightning Poker's Skotarczak. "You can play about 50 percent more games per hour, thus boosting poker revenues accordingly."
"Automated tables also enable casinos to offer poker action at odd hours when it wouldn't be cost effective to have live dealers on duty," said PokerTek's White. "You can thus serve a niche market more economically."
Into new markets
One such niche market is cruise ships. The cost advantage provided is that ships do not need to have a dealer of staff, occupying a cabin that could be used by a paying customer, White said.
Carnival Cruise Lines has acquired five PokerPro tables, the first of which went into use on the Carnival Victory last March, reported Paul Jarvis, Carnival's director of casino operations. The tables have been so well received by customers that Carnival has ordered more to install on ships plying the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean off California and Mexico, he said.
Automated poker tables have so far been installed in casinos ranging from the Turning Stone in upstate New York to the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia. However, in October the Hollywood Park Casino, Los Angeles became the first casino to create a separate poker room for its automated tables.
The goal of the automated table room is to create a stimulating and exciting environment that will not only please existing poker customers, but attract the online poker players looking for the same thrills they got from virtual games over the Internet, said Phyllis Caro, director of poker operations at Hollywood Park. To promote play in the six-table room, the casino will offer entertaining tie-ins with sporting events like Monday Night Football, visits from local radio celebrities, and even a Ladies Nights-in addition to limit and no-limit poker tournaments.
Management software helps operators organize and simplify poker tournaments
What's better than playing poker against nine other players?
Playing against 1,000 other players. This makes poker tournaments a popular event at casinos. And while they generate extra revenue-and not just in the poker room-they also require much effort to pull off.
To help casinos better run poker tournaments, San Diego-based Ameranth Wireless has introduced Ameranth Poker Tournament Manager, a software-based program that integrates all tournament related activities into an easy-to-handle system.
Programs in the package enable a casino's tournament administrator to easily set up daily or weekly tournaments. The system speeds registration by enabling players to sign up through a simple card swipe (thus shortening lines) and automatically assigns players to tables and seats.
A prominent clock displays up-to-the-minute tournament information, including time remaining, levels, blinds, prize pool and numbers of remaining players. Able to be seen throughout the tournament area, these displays enable players to adapt their play to changing tournament conditions.
The system also prints player receipts and saves information tournament managers can use in setting up future tournaments.
-James J. Hodl