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When three competing casino equipment providers announced plans in June to jointly develop a player-tracking system for table games, Palms General Manager Jim Hughes had just two interests in the product's design -- accuracy and reliability.
"If it gives us a good accounting of what's going on and tells us the true value of our players, then that's the one we'll be buying," said Hughes, adding that he and the Palms casino managers have long looked into the components of different table game management systems.
Casinos have long sought a table-game management system, which would monitor customers' wagering habits, precisely record activity throughout the pit and at particular games, and protect against counterfeiting or cheating.
A table-game management system would also benefit gamblers. Slot-machine customers, for more than a decade, have benefited from technology upgrades, such as ticket in-ticket out, secondary bonus jackpots, and slot club rewards.
"One of our biggest expenses are the 'comps' we give guests based on play," said Station Casinos Senior Vice President of Operations Pat Kearns of the free restaurant vouchers, hotel rooms, retail merchandise and other awards customers receive for time on the game and amounts wagered. "What the casinos have needed for a long time is a system that help us more accurately reward table game players."
Representatives of Shuffle Master, International Game Technology and Progressive Gaming think the three companies have the components and development teams to offer casinos a table-game management system. Observers expect the companies to roll out a prototype in time for the Global Gaming Expo in September.
"Extending the slot machine technology into the table game area has been our goal and that of our partners," said IGT Chairman TJ Matthews in response to a question about the system during his company's quarterly conference call last week.
"Some of the components have already been created and it's a matter of establishing that system," Matthews said. "The table game area can benefit from this strategic alliance."
Under the agreement, Shuffle Master will provide automatic card shufflers, card-reading shoes, and card and chip sorters and verifiers.
IGT, through its Table Touch software, will offer back-end table game management systems, including player tracking, patron loyalty and rewards, and also bonusing applications.
Progressive Gaming will develop radio-frequency identification bet recognition, automated gaming-chip tracking and payoff recognition.
The combined product will be known as the Intelligent Table System; prices for the product are so far undetermined.
Several components of the system are already in use, such as RFID gaming chips at the Hard Rock Hotel and Wynn Las Vegas. Progressive Gaming Vice President of Marketing Tim Richards said tables can easily be modified for RFID capability. Readers can be placed underneath the betting surface to scan the chips, which have embedded RFID tags, he said.
"Most likely the IGT system would replace our display screen at the table," Richards said.
Automated card shufflers have been used by casino for more than a decade, while IGT's Table Touch system has also been slowly rolled out, and is now in use at Harrah's Las Vegas and the Rio.
"We've seen the benefits of using the system and we're looking forward to seeing how it is integrated with all the other components," said Harrah's Senior Vice President of Gaming Ken Weil. "In theory, this system should be a good thing for table games, which have been a huge growth segment."
Gamblers have become used to slot-club cards that track play from machines. A player-tracking card would also be work for the table games system. Casino operators envision eventually using the player-tracking card for both the table games and slot machine systems.
Gaming analysts said the table-games system, which will reach the market more quickly with three companies working together, is still at least 18 months to 36 away from the casino floor. Redesigns after the gaming show and regulatory approval will take up much of 2006.
The partnership between Shuffle Master, IGT and Progressive Gaming could hurt other competitors who are trying to bring a table games system to the industry.
The biggest loser, said one analyst who asked not to be named, is Alliance Gaming, which has been trying to sell MindPlay, a table management system, through its Bally Gaming subsidiary. Alliance, the analyst said, hasn't done a good job in marketing the product.
Other analysts said the partnership was smart.
"Overall, we believe this combination will create the pre-eminent product in table technology, while at the same time removing a likely overhang of competition between Shuffle Master and Progressive Gaming products," Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Marc Falcone said.
Susquehanna Financial Group gaming analyst Eric Hausler said the system may move table games into the 21st century.
"This is a smart strategic alliance for all three companies and it clears up a potential patent technology battle that could have kept the technology from proliferating," Hausler said.
Aimee Marcel, who follows gaming equipment manufacturers for Jefferies & Co., said the different products have been available previously and offering them as one system will help reduce casinos' costs.
"By far, this is the best idea these three companies have had," Marcel said. "This system could provide the companies a strong revenue stream."
To the casinos, the system's key feature will be recognizing wagers accurately; this will ensure customers are properly rewarded. Nowadays, wager tracking at table games is mostly guesswork.
Hughes said one Palms floor person may have to watch six games at once, which leads to some players being underrated while others are overrated.
"With our slot club, we know everything about a player, but at the table, it's just a crap shoot," Hughes said. "If the same thing can be done for the tables, then it's worth the cost."
Steve Mann, casino operations director at Station Casinos, said table game players want to be rated because they like being rewarded for good play. For a table-game management system to work, however, it can't slow the game, he said.
"It's exciting that we might finally have something because it's been frustrating the technology changes have been slow to come to the table games." Mann said. "The fact these guys are getting together may get this product out there quicker."
Some gaming companies may be slow to accept the system. For MGM Mirage, which operates 12 Strip casinos, adopting a new table game system is so far not a priority, spokesman Alan Feldman said.
Stan Roth, casino operations director for Boyd Gaming Corp., said his company would probably test the system in one or two properties before rolling it out companywide.
"We know the system could help treat customers equally and could tell us what's going on at the floor at any time," Roth said. "We're definitely going to look at the benefits."
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