Table games executive Bennie Mancino discusses his path through the gaming industry, the table game management lessons he has learned along the way, and how he is sharing this information with newcomers.

Bennie Mancino is vice president of table game operations, Hard Rock Cincinnati, a property that is transitioning from the JACK Entertainment brand, where Mancino served as corporate vice president of table games. Prior to coming to Ohio, Mancino spent many years in table games management in Las Vegas, including 12 years at Hard Rock Las Vegas.

Casino Journal Executive Editor Charles Anderer recently spoke with Mancino about his career in table games and his belief in sharing knowledge with other operators as a way to advance the category.  What follows are some edited excerpts from this conversation:

Hard Rock Cincinnati inherited a property with 84 table games and 30 poker tables, what kind of re-branding timeline are you looking at?

MANCINO: It’s a long process. We’ve got many months of changes ahead. We’re going through a transition from the JACK brand to the Hard Rock, which is probably going to take until the end of the first quarter of next year.

Hard Rock is obviously a great brand. How are you managing the transition?

MANCINO: Hard Rock is a great fit for Cincinnati, particularly with the college community here. We’ll be able to provide 55-plus concerts a year. My prior experience with Hard Rock is probably going to make it a little bit easier because I’m very familiar with the culture and what changes we’re trying to bring to the guest experience. It’s an atmosphere that’s a little bit more laid back and a lot more fun. There’s always something to spotlight, whether it’s the café or an event going on at Hard Rock Live. 

What are the risks and opportunities from a defector and new player standpoint?

MANCINO: Gaming started here in 2013 with the Caesars/Horseshoe brand and in 2016 we transitioned to JACK Entertainment. We definitely had some defectors when we changed the brand to JACK because of their long-term status with Caesars Entertainment and their loyalty club offer. I think Hard Rock Entertainment gives us an opportunity to recapture a lot of that business because of the reach of the brand. I think only Starbucks is in more countries than Hard Rock International; we’re in 74. We’ll be able to offer a few more amenities that weren’t available through JACK.

Table games wasn’t your first love in gaming. Can you talk about that?

MANCINO: I was a trainer of standardbred race horses and one of my owners had a side business running a casino night. He only had one horse, so part of the deal was I would be a dealer at his casino nights when he wasn’t running horses. When my main owner passed away, I dropped 17 horses; this was in the mid-1980s when the economy was kind of in the dumper. So I had a mid-life crisis when I hadn’t even reached mid-life and I had to decide what to do. I got this great idea that I would deal for real and went to dealer school just like everybody else. I learned all the games and started to move up through the ranks.

You started out in Stateline, Nev. with Gary Primm. What were those years like?

MANCINO: It was quite a hopping place. It was another very special culture. I can’t say it was identical to the Hard Rock, but the customer experience there was special and not something I will forget anytime soon. It was a great five years of my life. Gary Primm, like Peter Morton of the Hard Rock, was one of those guys who have a lot of vision that immediately establishes a strong brand. Gary was a very significant figure in the evolution of gaming. Jon Lucas, who is the chief operating office at Hard Rock International, was actually there at the same time I was.

What came next?

MANCINO: I spent 12 years at Hard Rock Las Vegas and got into some director roles in downtown Las Vegas. Ohio came about because I had a daughter late in life and my plan was to move out of Las Vegas when she got to middle school. My wife was an attorney at the time and she became the executive director of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association, where she still is. We still had race horses—I had gotten back into that habit—I had 10 standardbreds that we had to tote across the country.

My ultimate plan was to raise my daughter and race these horses again. For six months, I took a job at Hollywood Columbus as a floor supervisor, which I hadn’t done for 14 years, just to get insurance while we waited for my wife’s contract to kick in. When it kicked in, I resigned and trained horses for a year and half and then I got a call from a gentleman I had mentored as a dealer, Jeff Cutri, who was vice president of table games at JACK Entertainment, who asked if I wanted a job. I said “no,” but I could tell that he had already volunteered me and given our relationship. I said I would go down there and talk to them, but one thing I’m not going to do is take the job. And you can see how well that worked out.

You’ve become one of the more active networkers in the table games space, particularly on the knowledge-sharing front…

MANCINO: I’m very passionate about paying it forward. You don’t leave with a whole lot when you leave this world and if I can leave somebody with a little bit of knowledge that they didn’t have and help them out, I feel I’ve done my job. Table games is an area that expanded so fast that people got run over without actually having the necessary tools available to them to do the job. A lot of people get set up for failure and I hate to see that.  I don’t give out trade secrets on the company I work for, but I’m willing to pass on knowledge that people should and can know so they can be successful.

What’s your general outlook for table games?

MANCINO: I think the table games category has a really bright future and has turned a corner form where it was, say, a decade ago. People are so connected now with their devices that when they go out to spend some of their disposable income on entertainment, they want to disconnect and have some kind of interaction with a human being; table games gives them that. You see it in a place like National Harbor, which was the first property in a long time where table games outperformed slots. If you give people a good, “wow-type” of experience from a customer service standpoint, you’re going to get their business.

Younger players certainly seem more drawn to table games than in the past, it would seem that the skill aspect is part of that. What are some things operators can do to encourage growth in this part of the market?

MANCINO: If you give a price point to a younger player who has a limited bankroll to induce them to table games instead of to a product where they’re just spinning a wheel, it’s worth a try. They like to feel they’re a little bit more in control of the outcome.

You’re a regular attendee of our Cutting Edge Table Games Conference, which happens this month at Paris Las Vegas. Bill Zender’s pre-show workshop will be followed by two days of sessions. Apart from your own session which we’ll discuss, what are you looking forward to at this year’s event?

MANCINO: I’m always interested in other people’s thoughts and the way they look at table games. Starting with Bill Zender—for anyone who hasn’t heard him speak, if he isn’t the godfather of operations I don’t know who is. When people ask me for advice, I tell them I’m just a guy who’s smart enough to listen to people who are smarter than me, put what I learn into action and maintain my knowledge base. Zender’s one of the guys that I fall back on time after time. Michael Shackleford, is another, and game protection guys like Sal Piacente.

Also, because of the Best New Table Games competition, there’s a lot of talk about which games are working and where. That information is so important. People go into new jurisdictions and they often force-feed what has worked elsewhere instead of analyzing individual games and side bets. Having access to all this knowledge and information in one place is really good; I just eat it up.

We’re looking forward to your session, “The Silent Killers of Table Game Revenue.” That was something you spoke about at your keynote address last hear and now you’ll do a deep dive. How did that concept come to you?

MANCINO: One of my sayings is: If a Colt-45 was laying on the table, would you even notice it’s there? The Silent Killers session is really the same idea. There are a lot of things out there that aren’t big-ticket items that people don’t think about all the time. We’re so focused on advantage play and customer service that we end up missing all the simple things in between.   For instance, I was in Atlantic City recently and I watched a dealer use a nine-move method to stuff the discard rack to try and prevent shuffle tracking even though they were using an automatic shuffler on the game. You can’t shuffle track that game. That nine-step move probably takes away two rounds of blackjack per hour. If you look at the blackjack productivity section in Zender’s book, those two lost rounds can cost you almost $200,000 a year.

Let’s talk about some of the specific areas you’ll be covering with your panel, such as environmental issues and man-made design issues…

MANCINO: It’s amazing how many games there are where nobody ever sits in spot one. What’s going on there? Well, you look up and you have this bright light that’s mis-aimed and it’s in the player’s face all the time. Maybe a cold-air vent could be blowing down on a table and it doesn’t really affect the dealer so they never complain and you could lose a spot that way.

Cutting out a spot like that kills revenue.

How about bad rules?

MANCINO: No mid-deck entry is a terrible rule—99 percent of the time it’s really of no value to you.  People put that rule in thinking they’re going to stop bet counters. Let’s just say you let them play and they beat you for $25,000 to $50,000 a year, sticking that mid-deck entry sign in there probably costs you $200,000 year. You need to know what you’re guarding against.

Ineffective promotions is another item you’ll be talking about...

MANCINO: Ineffective promotions can come in a lot of different ways. Two-to-one odds on blackjack, for instance. Sometimes, people don’t think about the cost of promotions and if you don’t come up and say, “Stop,” it can put a pretty big dent in your bottom line. I’ve seen so many promotions over the years that went bad.

Is that something you can be proactive about in terms of building a relationship with marketing?

MANCINO: Absolutely. I’m very excited with our new vice president of marketing here in Cincinnati, who is very open to discussing the playbook for the next month and the next quarter. That’s really good—you don’t get blindsided. I’ve been in environments where marketing controls it all and you don’t have that kind of access. When you get the opportunity to have a good relationship with marketing or slots or operations it can have a big positive impact on the overall property.

In the area of labor, you’ve identified poor service and inadequate training as two other revenue killers. Before we get to those, how many dealers do you manage at your facility?

MANCINO: About 300. We’ve been very successful at keeping turnover down. I’ve been lucky to be able to move the needle on the toke rate, which has increased by almost $7 an hour since I took over. Our turnover on table is right around 3 to 3.5 percent.

On training, we have a training academy like most casinos east of the Mississippi. One thing I mandate is yearly customer service training, which I usually teach myself, along with an outside expert, usually from Las Vegas, to add a little star power. That’s a three-hour course. We also do core-game refreshers annually on craps, baccarat and roulette. I do yearly training with my supervisors called Masters of Supervision, where we go over every aspect from customer service to game protection. And I usually bring in somebody once a year from the outside to give us a perspective on deep game protection. I also do a training course, Masters of Table Games Management, for people who want to move into management, so we have a pretty extensive training regime.

How do you track player satisfaction?

MANCINO: We use Market Metrix and send out constant surveys to the guests. We use the data we get back from them to improve any part of customer service that may be lacking.

What’s your approach to new games?

MANCINO: Ohio is very restrictive for new game opportunities because you need a vendor’s license which is very pricey; it can cost $25-$50,000 just to get in the game here. So most games come through the bigger vendors, such as Scientific Games, AGS or Galaxy. I’m always on the lookout and I will always find a spot if the game looks good. I put a couple of new games in the last two years that have been very successful. One was Zappit, and I was the first install Face Up Pai Gow east of the Mississippi. Now the game is monster all over.

A lack of proper analysis of performance is something everyone wrestles with. Where are you at on that issue?

MANCINO: Daily analysis is very important because the quicker you find the leak in the dike, the less chance of the whole dam bursting open. I do an analysis of every game each day and if it has a win/loss that I can’t explain, I dig into it. I also do monthly analyses and if a game is not performing to where the par was for that game type, I’ll investigate it. 

There are a couple of other things I will talk about in the Silent Killers session on this topic. One is game settings—it’s unbelievable to me how many table games operators do not know what the settings are in their ratings system for each game type, like hands-per-hour or house advantage. Games can produce so much reinvestment value to the player, sometimes millions of dollars, if you haven’t set the right parameters up in your system.