For most casinos that have reopened after COVID-19 shutdowns, regulatory restrictions have made the gaming environment somewhat less productive then it was before the pandemic struck.
A primary factor for this less-than-inspired performance is the need for gaming facilities to practice “social distancing”—separating individuals by six feet or more while in the gaming resort to reduce the potential transmission of coronavirus. Unfortunately, while social distancing does wonders to slow the spread of the virus and has seemingly little economic impact on the operation of essential businesses such as supermarkets, the strategy doesn’t work as well for space-confined commerce such as bars, restaurants and casinos.
And within the casino, the table games pit has been particularly hard hit by social distancing measures. Indeed, to make the pit safe from coronavirus, table games have been subject to several restrictions:
- Per state/county ordinances, the number of visitors and employees allowed within the casino is strictly capped, sometimes by as much as 50 percent of pre-COVID figures.
- Many regulatory agencies mandate that half the licensed table games be closed to play. Essentially, every other table game must cease operation to maintain proper social distancing.
- The number of players on each table game is limited to every other seated position. Table chairs are removed from the game, and only seated players can gamble. In addition, players are not allowed to stand at or by the games.
- The need to constantly sanitize gaming equipment such as playing cards, gaming chips and furniture substantially reduces the number of rounds dealt.
The need to adhere to all these restrictions has also temporarily changed the practice of customer service to customer safety, with table games employees constantly reminding gamblers to wear masks and maintain distance.
All this has a drastic impact on table game appeal. In the casino business, a common mantra is, “The action is the attraction.” Under COVID restrictions, this attraction is reduced through occupancy restrictions, table and device separations, and the limits placed on players who can participate in the “action” on the game tables. What fun is it to stand around a craps table with a semi-dead game of six players, unable to high-five each other when the roll creates multiple winners?
As a result, table game revenues continue to suffer.
BRINGING MORE TO THE TABLE
However, there are steps pit operators can take to improve both table game atmosphere, function and, ultimately, profitability in the time of COVID:
Increase table limits—The most obvious method for maintaining a pre-COVID level of revenue is to raise table limits. The trick is determining by how much. The objective is to raise table limits to a point where table game revenues stay somewhat the same, but without making the limits so high as to discourage play. If my pre-COVID table minimum limits started at $10, how much do I have to raise them when pandemic regulations close 50 percent of my tables and allow only three persons per game?
Believe it or not, there is a formula for determining minimum limit raises. First, one needs to determine the amount of wagers a table generates from a full table at pre-COVID minimums. For example, a six-player game with a table minimum of $10 will generate X amount of wagers.
(Note: Establishing the amount wagered is all that is required to determine this equation since, based on average house advantage, the same percentage of revenue (theoretical win) will be generated from $100 that would be generated from $1,000.)
So, a $10 limit x six players/wagering spots x 61 rounds per hour = X dollars; with X = $3,660
(Note: I am using Tangam System’s rounds per hour numbers of six players of 61 rounds per hour and three players of 104 rounds per hour; the fewer player spots the more rounds generated per hour.)
However, to determine the necessary minimum limit to generate the same amount of total wager, the formula needs to be modified: $X limit x three players (wagering spots) x 104 rounds per hour = $3,660, or $3,660 total wagers divided by three player spots divided by 104 rounds per hour = minimum table limit, or $11.73.
The necessary increase of table limit to generate the same amount of dollar wagered pre-COVID is $11.73, or a 17.3 percent increase. Remember, this increase is only for that single table game. Considering regulations have eliminated 50 percent of your games, the limit must be increased. If you multiply the original minimum limit by approximately 2.35 (rounded) times ($10 x 2.35 = X) or $23.50.
Since a minimum per-spot limit of $23.50 is not realistic, management would need to consider a minimum limit raise to $20 in order to capture some of the missing revenue opportunity.
Forced side bet in blackjack—Is there another option to raising table minimums to offset some of the anticipated loss of revenue potential due to the limited number of tables and seats? The answer is yes, there is an alternative procedure that allows operators to maintain standard minimum betting limits—forcing the player to risk a portion of their wager on a side bet.
For example, a $15 minimum can be converted to a $10 main bet and a $5 side bet. Even though the combination of the two bets is still only $15, the “forced” blackjack side bet is subject to a much higher mathematical house advantage and will result in an increase in revenue potential. The resulting change in theoretical win (t-win) due to this combination is interesting, to say the least:
- Without a side bet—The main blackjack bet is only $15, so a main bet of $15 at a house advantage percentage (H/A%) of 1.3 x 60 rounds = an estimated t-win of about $12 per hour.
- With a forced side bet, in which there is a main blackjack bet and “21+3” side bet combined—In this scenario, the main bet is only $10, with the same H/A% of 1.3 as listed above. The forced side bet is $5, with a 21+3 side bet format that would be subject to an H/A% of 4.14. Multiple this side bet by 58 rounds (side bets slow down game pace), and you come up with an estimated t-win of about $19.50 per hour.
By requiring a forced side bet of $5 and a main bet of $10 (total of $15), your casino can expect an increase in t-win of more than $15 per table per hour. You would have to raise your table minimum up to $25 to generate a similar revenue potential if the side bet is not included.
Allow betting on all table positions—You do not have to limit the player to wager from a seated position; instead, allow them to wager from any open position on the table. The player can wager the same amount or more on other open positions, but the wager must be placed through the dealer (no reaching across the table). The dealer would handle any additional chip placement and collect any payoffs for the winners. This procedure can be used for blackjack and most alternative games.
By allowing the players the option to wager on other positions, the average amount of wager dollar each round would increase, which, in turn, will bolster potential table game revenue.
Masks and barriers a challenge for game protection measures
Mask wearing and plastic barriers are essential parts of a rigorous COVID protection plan. Unfortunately, both these measures provide additional challenges for table game managers.
On the mask-wearing front, face coverings are proving difficult for table game staff and surveillance teams, since both rely mostly on facial recognition to detect problem gamblers and banned customers.
A California casino has come up with a simple solution—they stop customers at the door before they enter and have them temporarily lower their masks. This process allows the property to scan the customer with a heat sensitive thermal camera that provides a facial image of the customer along with their temperature, both of which a forwarded to the surveillance team who can remove patrons showing signs of COVID or those who are on self-barred or watch lists.
Even without thermal cameras, management should consider capturing an entry picture of all customers sans mask, in case anti-money laundering or other security issues arise.
Another issue that has arisen concerns the use of plexiglass at the gaming tables. The glass is great for protecting the customers from the spread of possible infection, but even though the glass is transparent, it will distort the visual image of playing cards, casino chips and players’ actions at the table game. It becomes quite frustrating for surveillance to rectify a simple gaming mistake if, upon review, the image of the cards and chips on the table are unclear. One way to resolve this issue is to reposition specific cameras (or adding additional cameras) to better capture a clear picture of the table layout.
Plexiglass distortion is not only a problem for surveillance, but also for the game supervisor positioned in the pit. If the use of plexiglass dividers does reduce gaming table visibility, it might be wise for the casino to consider reducing table responsibilities for floor supervisors. Instead of watching six to eight table games, management should consider increasing personnel and reduce floor responsibilities by a couple of tables. In some jurisdictions, where gaming tables have to be spread out through the existing gaming pit, the actual pit space might need to be widened if doing so will increase the floor supervisor’s unobstructed view of the tables’ surfaces.