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July 22, 2014

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Electronic tables offer a faster game

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Tiffany Brown

Howie Wilson of Las Vegas returns to his seat at a new automated poker table at the Excalibur. Casinos see the tables as a way to increase revenue, not cut costs.

When PokerTek debuted Las Vegas’ first dealer-less, electronic poker tables at the Excalibur last month, some dealers saw the beginning of a devious plan to slowly replace them with machines that wouldn’t need wages or breaks, would never get tired and wouldn’t seek a union contract.

And yet, the reasons for implementing new technology — a progression that’s become inevitable in almost every industry — aren’t that simple.

North Carolina-based PokerTek, the leader in electronic tables, hasn’t turned a profit since launching its product more than three years ago. But the tables are spreading rapidly.

Las Vegas casinos have been slow to adopt them, partly because of the public relations problem inherent in downsizing dealers.

Excalibur Vice President of Casino Operations Todd Deremer said the decision was aimed at boosting revenue rather than cutting labor costs. Displaced dealers haven’t been fired, he said. They have found jobs at other MGM Mirage casinos or have been retrained as “poker hosts” — explaining the machines and setting up accounts for players.

The tables are yet another attraction for a property that’s attempting to shed an image, symbolized by its castle exterior, as a child-friendly fantasyland. The night of the tables’ debut, the casino also opened a blackjack pit featuring go-go dancers. They gyrated to music blaring from a rowdy restaurant nearby called Dick’s Last Resort, another recent addition to the property.

“They’re in a competitive market in a tough economy and they have to fill their rooms every night,” PokerTek Chief Executive Chris Halligan says. “This is about customer service.”

To say that a machine can replace a human being and also improve a product or service is controversial, though hardly new. Robots have replaced human workers on auto assembly lines, for example.

Even workers will admit that such technology has resulted in better cars because machines reduce errors and improve quality control, said Richard Block, a professor of labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University.

Danny Goldstein, a Las Vegas resident who plays poker for more than 30 hours a week, is an early fan of the tables.

“If you’re a good poker player, it’s all about getting in as many hands as possible,” he said. “It removes human error. Dealers can interfere in the game if they don’t know what they’re doing or they have an attitude. And then there’s tips. That’s several hundred dollars a year, at least.”

PokerPro tables are initially met with skepticism from players who eventually warm to the technology, managers say. When PokerPro tables have entirely replaced traditional tables, players — with no opportunity to fall back on a familiar alternative — usually end up preferring the electronic version.

The Four Winds casino opened last year in Michigan with a poker room entirely outfitted with PokerPro tables. Many loyal customers are now older players, not just the younger, more technologically savvy players one would expect, poker room manager Glenn Arana said.

“They don’t have to hold their cards or go to the cage with chips,” Arana said. “It’s convenient and there’s a fast learning curve. They come in here thinking they’re going to hate it and they leave thinking it’s not so bad.”

At their debut, nearly all of the Excalibur’s 12 tables were being used by players of all ages. People were waiting in line for a game to open as clusters of onlookers lingered for hours — a change for a property that had scaled back its poker room for lack of business.

PokerPro tables can speed up poker games by 60 percent, boosting revenue for casinos, which keep a percentage of the pot.

Deremer said that’s a bonus but not the point of the tables, which are expected to draw new customers.

While dealers and sympathizers rail against the inevitable spread of the devices in Las Vegas, Goldstein — whose father once lost a job setting up bowling pins by hand with the advent of automatic pin setting machines — takes a more history-oriented view.

“Technology comes along that makes things better. It’s just a fact of life,” he said.

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