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November 1, 2014

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New device makes it harder to walk away from the game

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Steve Marcus

This mobile gadget, which lets players gamble with real money away from tables and machines, is being testing at the Venetian.

A new crop of gambling machines has arrived in town — stacked on a countertop at the Venetian like so many GameBoys or the buzzers that a restaurant hostess uses to let you know when your table is ready.

After years of research and design and regulatory approvals, here comes the mobile gaming device — a miniaturized gambling parlor encased in hard rubber, with a touch-sensitive, blue-glowing screen that allows me to place bets while walking around.

The devices are picked up at the customer service desk at the Venetian’s high-limit slot machine lounge. For now, the Venetian is the only casino in town that has these things, while state regulators monitor their inaugural use.

To get one, I sign up for a slot club membership, hand over my driver’s license, cough up a password and give the cashier a tired twenty to load up my account. (I didn’t say I was a high roller. I’m just in their lounge.)

In exchange, she puts on my wrist a flexible plastic, gold-colored bracelet that contains an embedded radio frequency chip to track my movement through the casino. It will also verify that I’ve still got the device in my hands.

I’m handed the mobile gaming device, wishing desperately it had a nickname because it just doesn’t sound exciting to say, “Hey, Hon, let’s head down to the Venetian and play some mobile gaming devices.” (The casino will soon brand and market them, but for now, they are generic, unobtrusive gizmos.)

I sink into a plush armchair and select $5 blackjack from a menu of games that appears on the screen.

With a stylus, I click on a tiny box labeled “deal” and draw an 8, then a 10. The device tells me to stand on 18. The dealer busts with 23. Then I breeze through five hands in five seconds by clicking on the “hit” and stand” buttons the machine recommends for me. It even adds up the values of the cards, which might have nipped off a few nanoseconds of thought.

I have to remember: This isn’t some solitaire game I bought at Wal-Mart or Target. I’m playing with real money.

And a lot of thought went into it.

A major investment

The device is manufactured by Cantor Gaming, which offers an online casino and cell phone betting on financial markets in the United Kingdom. It began work on the device for the U.S. market five years ago. The company, a forerunner in the burgeoning mobile gambling industry, pushed through a bill in Nevada’s Legislature in 2005 to allow for mobile gaming devices and worked with regulators for two years to craft regulations, investing tens of millions of dollars in research and development.

After a year and a half of testing in the Gaming Control Board’s slot lab, a field trial was approved for the devices at the Venetian, where low-limit bets will occur under the board’s watch for the next few months. If the technology works as expected, the Venetian and other Nevada casinos will be allowed to enable the devices in all public areas of a casino, such as convention centers, shopping malls, restaurants and the pool. They cannot leave the casino’s property, and hotel rooms will be off-limits.

Cantor Gaming, a subsidiary of the global bond trading giant Cantor Fitzgerald, is known for creating a speedy, do-it-yourself financial trading platform with minimal transaction fees. Similarly, its hand-held mini-casino allows for lightning-fast games by offering basic strategy recommendations, such as which poker hands to hold and discard. Just as more trades generate more commission fees for the trading platform, more play — with the odds in Venetian’s favor — translates into more profit for the casino.

And indeed, the game seems too easy to play, what with the command prompts and on-screen suggestions. Without having to give strategy too much thought, one could easily slip in a few bets on the device while ordering drinks poolside, eying the competition in a nightclub or watching the game in a bar.

As for me, the sparsely-populated lounge allows for less ambitious multitasking: I’m able to hold a fluid conversation with an onlooker and watch TV as I play. I win more hands than I lose and I’m up by about $10.

I switch to video poker by clicking an “x” in the corner of the screen, taking me back to the home page menu faster than I could hit a television remote. I select Deuces Wild under the video poker heading.

As the miniature cards appear on the screen I decide to head for the bar outside. In the middle of a hand, the device shuts down and a message pops up. Whoops! — I’m outside of the verification area.

Limited by invisible walls

For now the devices, which are part of a three-month field trial with the Gaming Control Board, will work only within the high limit slot lounge and will automatically shut off if taken beyond that point.

Technicians installed Wi-Fi service within the precise specifications of the lounge, going so far as to create invisible walls in open spaces leading to the casino beyond.

This is where my wristband comes in handy. As I walk back into the lounge to reactivate the device, it asks me to scan my bracelet by pressing it to the rubber backing of my mobile device. It instructs me to enter my PIN.

Because of the distraction, my playing decisions get sloppy. For a couple of hands, I hold high cards and discard deuces, which isn’t recommended when playing Deuces Wild. I’m losing the $10 I won earlier.

Behind the counter, casino employees can monitor my electronic play.

Each line of play is stored on the central computer server that transmits the game to the devices, which are simply receivers that display but don’t store data. If I dispute or question any play, an employee can call up my account and view each play, line by line, to find the source of my discontent.

It’s time for some roulette. I click on “red” and a pinhead-sized ball, making an electronic whooshing sound, spins against the wheel and lands on a red number.

I realize I should’ve played European roulette, which has only one zero pocket and therefore better odds than the American version, which has two. No problem: I click off the game, pick the European game from the menu and in two seconds I’m betting on red.

The next few bets go even faster, because I’ve clicked “repeat” so I can carry on a conversation and watch the news on TV. This is too easy — which, of course, the house loves because it knows it will win over time.

But for now I’m up again — by more than $20 — and wondering whether to cash out. I’ve paused too long, though, and the device tells me to repeat the verification process once again. It’s programmed to shut down after a few minutes of inactivity — and to seek verification after every 30 minutes of play, in accordance with the Gaming Control Board to prevent gamblers from, say, letting the device fall into the hands of a minor for a few hands of blackjack away from prying eyes.

Back at the customer service desk, the device displays tiny numbers showing my credit of $42.75, and I cash out, up $22.75.

The 15-minute experience was more like checking cell phone messages or surfing the Internet than actual gambling.

That might be the whole appeal of these devices, ready-made for legions of BlackBerry and flip-phone users.

“We’re going to change how people can gamble inside a casino,” said bond trading guru and Cantor Gaming President Lee Amaitis.

But it won’t vibrate when your dinner table is ready.

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