CASE STUDY 1: Stepping up

Innovative Gaming Concepts looks to reinvigorate the blackjack experience with its innovative Next Step Blackjack side wager

Breaking into the table games market is never an easy task, and is made harder these days by the expanding resources and reach of established table game suppliers. Still, each year a number of independent game developers brave to gauntlet and attempt to bring innovative and unique table prototypes to the casino market. One such company is Innovative Gaming Concepts, which is in the process of launching Next Step Blackjack, its inaugural table game side wager, to the greater gaming marketplace.

At its core, Next Step Blackjack combines the bad beat protection concept with the excitement generated by a 21 at blackjack and a table game dice roll. According to company literature, the game starts by a player making a standard blackjack bet and then placing an optional side wager on the adjacent Next Step Blackjack spot. Placing the side wager assures two things—a payback to the player in case of a two card dealer blackjack and a chance to shake the dice and win up to 1,000-1 if the player happens to hit a two card blackjack.

The blackjack game is then dealt as usual. If neither the dealer nor the player hits a two card blackjack, the side bet is lost and collected by the dealer. If the dealer hits a two card blackjack and the player does not, the dealer pays the player 3-1 on the amount of the side bet. If the player hits a two card blackjack, the dealer completes the standard blackjack round and then returns to the Next Step Blackjack player with a self-contained shaker holding 4 six-sided dice. The player then shakes the dice and the total of the four dice added together determines the final prize payout. The objective is to roll a 21 dice total or closest to it, similar to the concept of standard blackjack.  The player payout starts at 10-1 on the amount of the side bet but increases to 15-1 if the player rolls a total of 17 on the dice. A roll of 21 gains the player a 50-1 payback on the bet, while combination of any suited blackjack with a 21 dice roll pays out at 100-1 and an ace and king of hearts blackjack with a 21 dice roll returns an impressive 1,000-1 on the side bet.

Innovative Gaming Concepts and Next Step Blackjack are the brainchild of the Birkenmeyer family, a father and son duo who launched the company about a year ago. Brian Birkenmeyer, CEO of Innovative Gaming Concepts, recently took some time to meet with Casino Journal editor Paul Doocey to discuss the company and the Next Step Blackjack concept. Below are some excerpts from that conversation: 

Why did you decide to get involved with the table game development?

Birkenmeyer: My father and I are poker and blackjack players…we never worked in a casino, never lived in Las Vegas, never worked for one of the major gaming companies. As players, we noticed that traditional blackjack tables appeared to be losing their appeal; the game was stale and a lot of people were migrating to the poker rooms or venturing into new games. We saw an opportunity to reinvent the blackjack experience, which has become the tagline for our Next Step Blackjack side bet. We wanted to create something from the players’ perspective that was simple but would also bring excitement back to the game.

How did the concept for the Next Step Blackjack come about?

Birkenmeyer: Originally, It was my father’s idea to establish the company and start developing proprietary casino games. A casino pit boss from South Florida who befriended my father advised him that a side bet may be the easiest entry into this market because new games require field trials, have more regulation, and are just harder to introduce. You do not need to replace tables for our concept; it is an add-on product to any existing blackjack table, therefore no need to replace real estate.

I brought the creative game development skill set…the bonus round dice game and paying the player on a dealer blackjack was my contribution.

What sets Next Step Blackjack apart from other table game side bets?

Birkenmeyer: When you talk about developing table games your two biggest access points are simplicity and excitement. How can I create the most excitement and yet keep it simple? We teetered back and forth with that and came to realize that when someone is dealt a blackjack, it is usually the high point of the game. So we decided to put a bonus round on top of that. We then looked at the most exciting table game in most casinos, which is usually the craps table and debated how to bring that excitement over to our blackjack side bet. We thought the dice component was the way to go. When we discovered the dice math worked roughly the same as blackjack math—that it is actually harder to roll an 18 than a 17, and harder to roll a 19 than an 18 and so on, that is when it all came together and we knew we were on to something.

The final piece was coming up with the dealer blackjack bonus for the player. In a traditional blackjack game, when the dealer has a blackjack, players are used to losing and that is a negative thing for the player. We have turned the tables on that… we have made the dealer hitting a blackjack a good thing for the side bet. The player may lose their standard wager, but they get paid 3:1 on the side bet if the dealer has a blackjack.

What this does for operators is that it will keep players in their chairs…. it is going to increase time in chair. Often, a player gets up and decides to leave the table if a dealer gets blackjack; often that is their last hand. Now we have mitigated against that negative experience. We have turned the negative experience of a dealer getting blackjack into a positive experience and softened the blow on the player. 

Where do you stand in the development of this product? Has it been tested in a casino yet?

Birkenmeyer: We are at the point right now where we are ramping up sales and marketing efforts. We recently received approval in Nevada and Mississippi. We have secured our first installation with a major casino operator and we plan to go live before the end of this year! 

Are you looking to produce other side games going forward?

Birkenmeyer: We currently have other games in research and development, although it will be really hard to top Next Step Blackjack!  Our goal is to be an independent gaming company with a library of proprietary table games, more specifically dice games…we want that to be our niche.

I understand you will be displaying at the Cutting Edge Table Games Conference and competing for the Best New Table Games contest. What do you hope to accomplish at this event?   

Birkenmeyer: We will be at booth #117 at the conference. Winning the competition would obviously be great. We are also looking forward to the event for all the connections it will bring and as a networking opportunity with fellow game developers. Ultimately we hope for new licensing deals, and to getting our game in front of as many casino operators as possible and having them sit down and play Next Step Blackjack.  When they sit down and play Next Step Blackjack live and see how fast and easy the game is to play and deal and how exciting it is to shake the dice to win up to 1,000-1 after being dealt a blackjack…..That has great value to us!

Next Step Blackjack® is a registered trademark of Innovative Gaming Concepts, LLC.  © Copyright 2015. Patent Pending. All Rights Reserved.


How EZ Baccarat, the first Gold Winner of
Casino Journal’s Best New Table Games competition, became the reigning brand in baccarat

In 2008, Raving Consulting Company started the Cutting Edge Table Games Conference (since purchased and now produced by BNP Media). That year, EZ Baccarat was voted by table game executives in attendance, as the Gold Medal winner in Casino Journal’s Best New Table Games Competition. Today, EZ Baccarat is fast becoming the leading brand in baccarat despite losing patent protection in 2013.

EZ Baccarat lost its patent protection two years ago, and its methodology became part of the public domain. “You can copy the methodology but you cannot copy thebrand,” said Francisco “TJ” Tejeda, co-creator of EZ Baccarat. “EZ Baccarat has earned and retained something far more valuable than any patent: the loyalty of its players.”

When the patents on other popular games run out, players typically drift away to newer, more enticing versions of the original games. But players aren’t leaving EZ Baccarat; they’re staying and their numbers are growing because the brand itself means something valuable to them. “When a game loses its legal protection, the Darwinian law of the jungle takes over,” observed Tejeda. “Games with brand loyalty are like tigers; games without it are the prey.”


“After years in the baccarat business, we realized there was a failing in the game: a commission that had to be manually collected after each hand, and this made the game very hard to deal,” said Tejeda. “If we could figure out a way of eliminating the commission, we were certain we would have a hit on our hands.”

Instead, it would be a decade before EZ Baccarat took off. The challenge was to convince the gaming industry to change what was already a good thing. The 1990s and early 2000s were an era of legendary baccarat “whales” like Australian tycoon and raconteur Kerry Packer, who would play the traditional game for $250,000 a hand. The idea that the game needed to change—let alone that it would soon need broader appeal in order to flourish—seemed absurd.

“The advantage of EZ Baccarat over the traditional game was as obvious as the advantage of a steamship over a sailboat,” said Tejeda. “Surely everybody would see that, right? Nope. The wind is free, but you have to buy coal to make a steamship go. And we were asking the gaming industry to buy our coal.”


Although the game had some traction with a few casino operators, EZ Baccarat’s first big endorsement from the gaming industry came when it won Casino Journal’s Best New Table Games of 2009 Competition. 

The Gold Award had real meaning, since it was voted by the executives who really had a stake in a table game’s success—the table game operators themselves. In order to cast a ballot for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners, these savvy table execs had to first play all of the games involved in that year’s competition, and then evaluate them based on player appeal, ease of understanding and potential for commercial success. And EZ Baccarat was a runaway winner in that inaugural competition in 2009.


A key element of EZ Baccarat’s success was the licensing agreement: there’s a single, flat fee per table. As Tejeda put it, “If you’re a mom-and-pop operation, you pay one price, and if you’re a giant gaming corporation with a hundred tables, you pay the same price. This is unheard of today in the industry.”

As unusual as it is, this policy has always had a purpose: “As a concept, it’s revolutionary (it’s a fair brand) and it almost cost me my neck a couple of times: we were trying to make the big casino companies understand that EZ Baccarat wasn’t a commodity, with discounts for bulk purchases,” Tejada said. “It’s a brand, and the price reflects what the brand is worth.” 

But, of course, there’s another key aspect of the brand: not its price to operators, but its value to players. That’s hard to put a dollar figure on, but easy to see. As Tejeda pointed out, “When a proprietary game loses its patent protection, the market quickly determines whether the game is a commodity—with game-makers racing to undercut competitors’ prices and offer new value propositions—or a brand, with loyal players sticking with the original.”


While EZ Baccarat now has nearly 750 game placements worldwide through its distributor DEQ Systems, its creators credit Casino Journal’s Best New Table Games Gold Award of 2009 for “putting it on the map.” As Tejeda recalls, “I remember putting the cut-glass trophy on display in our business suite at Wynn Las Vegas during G2E that year. I could see it made a huge impression on our potential clients, and ‘potential clients’ were pretty much all we had at that point.”

Like EZ Baccarat, Casino Journal’s Best New Table Games Competition has rapidly grown as well, and likewise created its own brand. Up to 25 new table games are entered in the competition each year, and now the Gold Winner gets the added bonus of guaranteed floor placement in a number of participating casinos, which is what the business of table game invention is all about—getting operators to give them a chance to prove their revenue potential.

Just like it did for EZ Baccarat.