New equipment is helping casinos add more attractive features and functionality to slot and table tournaments, boosting attendance and revenue in the process.

PokerTek's PokerPro product is one example of how technology is being used for tournament play.

Slot and table game tournaments have become popular events on casino properties – for both players and casino management.

“Tournaments create a good buzz for a casino,” said John-Paul Symeonidis, director of sales and marketing at Amaya Gaming Group.

There are the big-money tournaments staged by the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour, which attract the best card players with high buy-in costs. Such events are great spectator events, but what regular players seem to enjoy more is to participate in the tournaments themselves, which casinos have found create greater excitement and raises the fun quotient on their gaming floors.

Holding tournaments on a regular basis gives regular patrons a reason to visit more often. And these patrons often bring a friend to cheer them on, Symeonidis said. While the friend may not join the tournament, he will likely play some other games.

“Tournaments improve a casino’s cash flow, not just from the buy-in price to participate, but the player will likely stay after the tournament, playing other games and spending money on meals and other nongaming sources of revenue,” he added.

Thomas Sullivan, director of slots, poker and keno at the Grand Sierra Resort & Casino in Reno, agreed. Typical among casinos, Grand Sierra has an active tournament schedule. It runs casual slot tournaments weekly that are open to player card members who play regular slots on Mondays and video poker machines on Wednesdays between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. for prizes of up to $377 in free play awarded to those who claim their prize at 9 p.m. Bigger slots tournaments requiring a $100 buy-in with a $20,000 top prize are held monthly by the Grand Sierra. Each has a theme, with the May event called the May Flowers Slots Tournament and the June event the Wild West Slots Tournament. And this summer, Grand Sierra will hold a $25,000 Winner Take All Blackjack Tournament.

These types of events are heavily promoted on the Grand Sierra Web site with e-mail advertisements sent to persons who have patronized these events in the past.

Amaya Gaming Group's PokerMate 2 product.

Switching gears

Staging tournaments requires additional work by casino staffers in setting up, promoting, and maintaining the necessary records for the proper authorities. However, help has arrived from manufacturers that make tournaments easier to schedule and hold.

The Grand Sierra’s slots tournaments are played on IGT S2000 spinning reel machines equipped with a computer chip specific for tournament play, Sullivan said. These chips provide more frequent hits as reel symbols hit the payline on every spin, which adds more fun and excitement for tournament participants. “Imagine being able to declare a slot tournament and then start it with just the flick of a switch,” said Marco Bertolin, marketing manager with the Spielo unit of GTECH of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. “You can do that with Spielo’s TournaMaster product.”

Available on Spielo’s prodiGi video slot machines, TournaMaster offers hardware and software options that help casinos stage and manage slot tournaments while making these events more exciting for players, Bertolin said.

The main feature for casinos is central game switching for linked slots. Flipping the switch automatically turns slots from the main game to tournament mode, and enables tournament features such as duration of the tournament, credit amounts available to participating players and payout percentages up to 150 percent. A promotional messaging feature also is activated, alerting players to join the tournament and offering enticements for other events and features on casino property.

During the tournament, the software automates reporting and accounting functions, which are stored in individual machines but can be downloaded in a single step into the central computer after the tournament is completed. This eliminates the chore of having to printout individual machine data and reenter it into the central computer, thus saving casinos many hours of expensive labor, Bertolin said.

TournaMaster also boosts interaction between players during a tournament by providing real-time standings. Individual play identification (by three initials), ranking and total credits won are displayed on the slot machine’s second screen.

“By showing who is in the lead, it not only raises the fun and excitement level for players, but also among spectators,” Bertolin said. “When tournaments are in progress, crowds gather. They root for favorites. And the TournaMaster system ratchets up the excitement level by counting down the minutes left in the tournament.”

Overhead sign packages are available for putting real time tournament standings in bigger and more brightly lit letters for the benefit of spectators.

And when the tournament is completed and final standings are posted, a flip of the switch sends all linked slots back to their main games.

The PokerPro product allows for tournaments to be run quicker and more efficiently.

Promoting table play

Anticipating server-based gaming becoming a reality in Las Vegas and elsewhere, other manufacturers are working on software-based tournament staging programs.

A big assist in staging tournaments in poker rooms and on the table games floor is provided by the Bravo Poker Table and Bravo Pit Watch tracking systems marketed by Genesis Gaming Solutions of Spring, Texas.

Both systems include the Tournament Watch and Tournament Clock programs. Tournament Watch assists the setting up of poker and table game tournaments by automating the registration process (participants can use their player cards to sign up), randomly assigning seats, and retaining a complete record of the tournament, including the required Title 31 financial information. Tournament Watch maintains the Tournament Clock and keeps a running account of moneys going toward the tournament’s top prizes, said Genesis President Randy Knust.

Multi-table poker tournaments can be played on the PokerPro System, automated 10-position tables on which poker games are played with virtual cards and gaming chips, but without a live dealer, marketed by Matthews, N.C.-based PokerTek Inc.

Switchover to tournament play can be easily made, and as players are eliminated, casinos can merge those left onto fewer tables, taking those vacated out of the tournament and making them available for regular play, said Tracy Egan, vice president of product management at PokerTek. During tournaments, players also can engage in Showdown Odds, which are instantly displayed when cards are flipped over and players are all-in. Card games that can be played on PokerPro tables during tournaments include Texas Hold’em poker, Omaha Hi, Omaha Hi/Lo, Seven-Card Stud and Razz.

Increasing speed

Tournaments move as much as 30 percent faster on PokerPro tables, which automatically shuffle and deal cards, which appear on a screen at each player position. Players can view the cards when down by touching the top to get the card to “peel” over, Egan noted. In games involving community cards, a center video screen displays them. Winners are automatically identified after each hand.

“The largest table game tournaments staged on PokerPro tables are at Casino Montreal, which has 25 tables,” Egan said. “Held on a regular basis, these tournaments require a $100 entry fee, which entitles a player to select the table at which he or she wants to begin play. Casino Montreal has had as many as 240 players participating in a tournament.”

But Egan noted that casinos with fewer tables may stage mini-tournaments with only a $25 buy-in with play beginning as soon as 12 participants are seated.

PokerPro tables also include a program that easily configures game profiles for poker room management. Single- and multi-table tournaments also can be staged on PokerMate automated card tables marketed by Montreal-based Amaya. Offered in six- eight- and 10-table versions, PokerMate is a fully automated system in which games of Texas Hold’em and blackjack are played with virtual cards and virtual chips (which players secure by inserting banknotes, coins and player cards) and no dealer. Players play their cards on a touch screen at their position with community cards appearing on a center screen. The system automatically calculates payouts to winners.

Tournament play is enabled from a monitored central location in the gaming space.

“The Okwari Poker Palace, Kenwasake, Que., has been staging weekly Texas Hold’em Poker tournaments on PokerMate tables since last December,” said Amaya’s Symeonidis.

Amaya also offers a single-table tournament ability in PokerMate to accommodate cruise ships, which often acquire only one automated poker table due to their limited size gaming areas, he added. To assure a full table during a tournament, an option permits some players to play two hands.

Amaya’s PokerStation also links players who prefer sitting before a slot machine to play poker alone or against other players. This linkage also enables tournaments to be staged, with the individual’s machine functioning as his position at the poker table.

As Amaya brings to market its server-based slots system, the product also will have a yet-unnamed tournament capability, Symeonidis said. The Amaya server system will enable players to choose from among 16 different slots games with digital reels and keno.

A tournament option is reportedly in the works at Reno-based IGT for introduction in 2009. This option would likely be offered on the M-P Series Digital Table Systems formerly distributed by DigiDeal. The line consists of the DTS-C, which has digital cards but uses real gaming chips and a dealer; and the DTS-X, which uses both virtual cards and chips and is fully automated so as to require no dealer. Against-the-house table games played on these tables include Bonanza Blackjack, High-Tie Blackjack, Digital 21, Dragon Baccarat, Taracabb and three variations on Texas Hold’em.