Electronic Poker Tables

On August 22, 2008, the Excalibur Hotel Casino in Las Vegas undertook an ambitious experiment. Management removed all of the live action tables in their Poker Room and replaced them with machines—a dozen electronic PokerPro® tables for dealer-free play.

Manufactured by PokerTek, Inc., the automated tables were installed as part of a 90-day field test, the first such systems to be used in Nevada. According to the North Carolina-based supplier, established in 2003, its automated poker tables and related software applications were developed to “help increase revenue, reduce expenses and attract new players into poker rooms by offering interactive poker that is fast, fun and mistake-free.”

Seating up to ten players, PokerPro uses no decks of cards or poker chips. Players view digital images of their hands on private display consoles and betting is performed with pre-loaded credits. A large screen in the center of the PokerPro surface shows wagers, community cards and chip stacks for all to see, just like at a traditional poker table.

As predicted, the novelty of PokerPro made it an immediate hit with Excalibur patrons. Visitors wanting to try out the new technology flocked to the resort. Players raved about how the games were faster, dealer errors were eliminated and “you do not have to tip when you win a pot.”

One Las Vegas resident, who claimed to play poker over 30 hours a week, told the Las Vegas Sun newspaper why the machines were such a breakthrough: “If you’re a good poker player, it’s all about getting in as many hands as possible. It (PokerPro) removes human error. Dealers can interfere in the game if they don’t know what they’re doing or they have an attitude.”

In many ways, the move toward automation made perfect sense. Poker is a game played among customers who win money from one another. There is no advantage nor any winnings for the House, which earns all its poker revenue from the “rake” or commission subtracted from each pot.

Dedicated card rooms provide poker fans with a safe place to play, along with cards, chips and a dealer, whose wages make up the bulk of operational expenses. Not surprisingly, many dealers saw the Excalibur’s experiment as part of a devious plan to gradually replace them with machines that wouldn’t require paychecks, benefits or rest breaks, that would never get tired or seek union contracts.

Excalibur executives emphasized that they saw the new devices mainly as a way to stem declining interest in dedicated poker rooms. Cost saving was simply an incidental benefit. Nevertheless, the change meant the MGM-owned property was able to cut its poker staff from 55 to 15.

To the casino’s credit, none of the displaced Excalibur employees were fired. Most were retrained to fill vacancies elsewhere in the MGM network. However, a few stayed on at the Poker Room to serve as “poker hosts,” explaining how the machines work and setting up accounts for new players.

Just weeks after the Excalibur’s introduction of PokerPro, Mike Sexton, noted author and host of the World Poker Tour, made a bold prediction. “I think it’s the wave of the future,” he said with confidence, “at least as far as low-stakes games are concerned. It just makes so much sense for the casinos and I think once the players get used to it, this is something that could be seen in poker rooms up and down the Strip.”

As it turned out, Sexton could not have been more wrong. From such an auspicious beginning, nobody could have predicted that the experiment would be terminated less than a year after its launch. On June 24, 2009, representatives of MGM and the Excalibur announced that all PokerPro tables would be removed from the Poker Room, starting on July 5th.

Casino executives later explained: “Even when the tables offer lower rake and players can save a few poker chips on tips, players are reluctant to use the automatic tables. They prefer live dealers and conventional tables rather than playing cards on a computer screen.”

The Excalibur went right back to basics. Today, its Poker Room features twelve live dealer tables, which are open for cash games 24/7 and offer four tournaments daily at 9am, 1pm, 5pm and 8pm. There is also a Saturday Night tournament at 9pm with a $50 buy-in and $500 guaranteed for First Place.

Meanwhile, PokerTek remains the only approved automated poker table supplier in Nevada. Although there are currently no PokerPro games available in Las Vegas, three units have been installed and are now operating at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in downtown Reno, where the non-smoking Poker Room opens at 6pm seven days a week.

There is also one other market where PokerPro has proven wildly successful—on the high seas. PokerTek’s automated tables can be found on the vessels of no fewer than eight major cruise lines–including Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean, to name a few.

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