John Fort has been working the live game pits on the Las Vegas Strip longer than many of his current players have been alive. But for the venerable yet forward-thinking director of table games at Penn National Gaming’s recently renovated Tropicana Las Vegas Casino, his vision for digital technology on table games is undoubtedly a leading indicator of industry trends in the pit.
What Fort has just implemented at Tropicana also illustrates how the thoughtful application of technology in the pit can dramatically improve the business side of live game operations without disrupting the allure live games have for discriminating casino players. In fact, he’s already seen it enhance their experience.
Starting as a young dealer at the Carousel Club Casino in 1969, and having worked at most of the major casinos along the way since, Fort has seen it all; card-counters, wise-guys and squares. In addition, he has seen a parade of table-oriented technologies come and go—but mostly go; smart chips that fail, side bets that emerge and fade, pretty wood or glass limit signs with twinkle-lights or table-mounted gizmos that sometimes work but more often end up unused and broken with dust on the keys.
So earlier this year when Fort took a cold call from Johan Stoop of Henderson, Nev.-based VisuaLimits to come see the company’s latest Intelligent Limit Sign, his first reaction was, “…right, this will be the 200th betting limit sign I’ve seen in my life, but it is time for an upgrade so it’s worth the five minute drive and go look on my way to lunch.” But what the sharp-eyed pro didn’t expect was that the small, unobtrusive piece of equipment he was about to see would so dramatically improve his day-to-day operations, his live table profits, his players’ gaming experience and virtually every aspect of his corner of the casino domain.
“I expected to go visit and look for 20 minutes, but every time I asked a question whether the two-sided LCD video screen could do this or that, they not only said ‘yes,’ but then they would show me something else that was even more impressive,” Fort said. So instead of an early lunch, he didn’t leave for two and a half hours and was so full of ideas and excitement he couldn’t wait to get back to share the discovery with staff and discuss it with Tropicana’s general manager.
The device which Fort saw demonstrated at VisuaLimits is called the VL-Focus and the impact of that technology on the Tropicana’s live game operations was quickly proven as soon as the intelligent, dual-sided signs were installed and working on most tables on the Tropicana floor. The remainder of the casino’s live games is scheduled for installation.
The VL-Focus is a discreet 10-inch dual-sided monitor display unit mounted unobtrusively on the corner of gaming tables. To John Fort and his staff, however, it is the magic carpet of analytic and communications capabilities that he has been waiting for. Packed into the small sleek unit is the digital/optical capability to intelligently track hands dealt, detect chips wagered by every player including side-bet utilization and even perform facial recognition to spot both good players as well as known cheats. And all of this power is enclosed in that small and discreet hardware and requires no other exotic paraphernalia or modifications. In fact, even the casino’s existing player rating system input screen was seamlessly integrated into the sign’s rear touch-screen so player ratings are now displayed on each VL-Focus device in the pit. One more aging piece of equipment was gracefully eliminated from Fort’s tables at the Trop with that integration.
IMPROVING PLAYER EXPERIENCE
When a player sits down at a Tropicana gaming table with a VL-Focus unit installed, the first thing he or she sees is the wagering limits displayed prominently on the front screen as required; minimum bet and maximum bet as well as all other game specific verbiage, like rules, payoffs or side bet limits.
In Fort’s operation, he also uses the sign to advise players with visual message-crawls at the top or bottom of the screen like, “MINIMUMS WILL BE INCREASING FROM $5 TO $10 AT THE END OF THE SHOE.”
“This instant messaging helps us avoid player misunderstandings in advance by eliminating unexpected changes of betting limits in the heat of a game,” Fort said. “The other nice thing about the front-side player display is that we can scroll baseball and football scores in real-time, live-stream important TV events such as the Super Bowl in the center of the screen, and show marketing ads and messages about our restaurants and events at appropriate times between play.” “Better yet”, he added, “any of these screen actions, displays and information can be automatically or manually programmed to run a certain way or pause depending if we are in an active BJ game, when the dealer is shuffling, or completely different when the table is closed or the game is dead.”
In another example of how the new pit technology is improving his player-experience, Fort said, “Now imagine if a VIP player comes to an empty table and wants to play on that particular table for whatever reason, but it’s a six-to-five table and he wants to play three-to-two BJ. Just last month we would have had to either turn him away or change the ‘layout’ on the spot. But as of this month, I can now use generic layouts on my tables and simply change the ‘rules’ and ‘pays’ on the screen of the VL-Focus and accommodate that player in literally seconds! Did that improve the player experience? You bet it did. It also saves our casino a lot of money in layout inventory, labor costs and time.”
Players typically do not see the pit supervisor’s rear touchscreen on the back of a VL-Focus terminal, but they certainly benefit from its features. As Mike Landry, Tropicana’s beverage manager explains, “Before the advanced messaging capabilities of our new intelligent table signs were introduced, if a pit supervisor wanted to order a cocktail for a VIP player, he’d have to leave the table, go to the podium, pick up the phone, call the service bar, tell the bartender to make the drink and ask him to direct a cocktail waitress to bring it to the table where she would have to then find the right customer. What are the odds of having that occur hundreds of times a day without delay or error—pretty low, right? We have tried other table service request approaches, but with this intelligent unit, the table number and seat position are entered by the supervisor in the pit when a request is made. When the order displays on our monitor at the service bar, our bartender and waitress must ‘acknowledge’ that the order is both received and coming. So now the pit and table know the drink is on its way in a timely fashion and the server no longer has to hunt and peck for the right customer. It’s slick, it’s fast, it’s accurate and gets the drink to the player in a fraction of the time.”
THE RIGHT DATA
The live-game technology feature which most dramatically improves Fort’s ability to manage his games and his dealers is the VL-Focus system’s ability to collect and analyze impeccably accurate data for each dealer’s hands-per-hour while simultaneously maintaining real-time headcounts of players at each game and on every table. “I used to have surveillance do dealer-pace audits two or three times a year,” Fort said. “They would watch a dealer for 20 minutes, count hands and multiply by three. Then they would write a report on each dealer—keep in mind we’ve got 170 on staff—and we’d do that over and over again spending literally hundreds and hundreds of man-hours of the surveillance department’s resources and budget. Oh, and by the way, that doesn’t even include the hourly floor headcounts we also used to do. I never had a calculator big enough to keep track of those hours and costs. And on the old-style pace audit reports, even when we got the results, I knew they would not necessarily be accurate. My dealers were being judged on a 20 minute slice of their life, but what if twice in a row they had a difficult couple at their table slowing down the game? That dealer would have gotten a less than stellar quarterly review and I would have gotten less than inaccurate information on which to base other business decisions in my pit.”
“With this new technology, I get absolutely accurate information in real time on every dealer, every table and every side-bet game right down to every hand if I need it,” Fort added. “ And once we have the raw data, VisuaLimits’ software can slice-and-dice the information by dealer, shift, hour, season, special promotion… quite literally, however I want to look at it.”
Fort summarized his newfound motherlode of data capabilities saying, “This new table game technology finally allows me to manage my live pit operation as finitely as the slot system guys. No more guess-work; a lot less error, better intelligence and all in a fraction of the time.”
While Fort is relieved to have the burden and cost of pace audits lifted and streamlined, he noted that his pit staff adapted to the new system very quickly. Another huge benefit Fort and his team are realizing is that the VL-Focus tracking and analysis system presents every dealer with a condensed Dealer Performance Gauge—similar to a tachometer—right on the VL-Focus “tap-in-review” screen which shows their individual hands-per-hour performance over the previous dealing stint as well as their average against house norms. “Better yet, I no longer need to worry as a manager about giving a good dealer a bad review just because they got stuck with difficult players during their last two manual pace audits,” Fort said.
Reflecting on the new technology-driven capabilities for managing his live games, Fort mused, “Some things never change, and players may not even notice, but this changes everything; for me, the staff, the company, and, most importantly, those customers we work so hard to please.”