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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Poker is a necessary annoyance for casino executives.
Televised tournaments and pop culture references have made poker a player favorite, but the games, in which players bet against one another, don't make much money for the house.
A startup company from North Carolina is trying to change that with electronic poker tables called PokerPros that don't require live dealers. These tables, which debuted in 2005 but aren't yet offered in Nevada, have big implications for the casino industry.
Because electronic tables play faster than traditional games, they can increase what the casino takes from the pot over time, yielding a profit that more resembles that of other, more lucrative table games. They save labor costs by replacing dealers with a computer that deals electronic cards to players on a flat screen much like Internet poker games. And these games don't require shuffling machines and aren't subject to human error.
Surprisingly, the tables - developed with input from poker pro and casino executive Lyle Berman - have been a hard sell for Nevada's profit-driven casinos.
That's because the table's advantages come at an uncomfortable time for Strip casinos. Empowered by a controversial tip-sharing policy at Wynn Las Vegas, dealers at other properties are organizing under the Transport Workers Union, or at least exploring that prospect.
Executives won't comment publicly about the union's influence, but they privately acknowledge that abandoning live dealers for electronic versions would inflame an already-skittish workforce.
Still, it's hard to imagine a poker room in Las Vegas without the mystique of sharply dressed dealers.
That prospect might be a few years away on the Strip but it's catching on elsewhere, PokerTek Chief Executive Christopher Halligan said.
"That people like to touch cards and interact with a dealer seems like a common sense assertion," said Halligan, who speaks rapidly, with the assertiveness of a young entrepreneur. "But it's false."
Unlike in, say, blackjack, poker players rarely interact with dealers, and many players - from the young ones familiar with online games to old-timers - prefer the speed and efficiency of electronic games to the paper and felt version, he said.
"It's kind of like saying that slot players liked interacting with the change girl and carrying around all those coins in a bucket," he said, referring to the industry's transition to slot machines that dispense paper tickets instead of coins.
While most dealers can deal from 25 to 30 hands per hour, the PokerPro table can deal about 40 hands per hour - potentially increasing casino revenue by 60 percent. It also offers side bets similar to those with other table games, which offer better returns for the house.
"This is one of the best things I've seen for a casino in a long time," said Anthony Curtis, a poker player and publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter for gamblers.
The game also eliminates the need to tip - an expense that can run in the thousands of dollars each year for serious players.
"There's a lot of pressure to tip, especially in poker," Curtis said.
Such games instill confidence by reducing the risk of mistakes or collusion by dealers or players, he said.
Over the past two years, PokerTek has deployed more than 130 electronic tables. Seven U.S. casinos, Carnival Cruise Lines cruise ships and even some Macau casinos have opted for the electronic tables, which are now undergoing testing with the state Gaming Control Board.
Most casinos will eventually transition to dealerless poker tables because of the cost savings and profit potential, Halligan believes.
Speaking at last week's Global Gaming Expo, the industry's premier trade show, Bellagio poker room director Doug Dalton called the games "the next future of poker."
But there will still be a place for dealers.
Halligan says casinos could charge a higher fee for the option of a live dealer similar to banks that have charged customers for using tellers instead of automated services such as ATMs.
BY THE NUMBERS
25 hands: Can be dealt per hour by most human dealers.
40 hands: Dealt per hour by the PokerPro table.
60 percent: Potential increase in revenue if casinos switch to the automated tables.
Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.