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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Deal but no dealer

2 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A Las Vegas poker dealer, who for obvious reasons did not want to give his name, had conflicting reactions while trying out the new electronic poker tables at the Excalibur.

As a dealer, he hated the 10-player tables which are fully automated and do not require cards, chips or a dealer. In other words, one less casino job.

As a poker player participating in a low-limit cash game, though, he found the tables easy to maneuver and faster than live games.

"I played on these tables before on a cruise ship," the dealer commented. "They are very advantageous for the player. There are never any misdeals. I think we'll see a lot more of these games."

Excalibur became the first Strip resort to fully automate its poker room last month, installing 12 electronic tables provided by North Carolina-based PokerTek for a six-month exclusive run. About 40 dealer positions were eliminated but the room still employs a staff of 20 cashiers and poker hosts who have been trained on the system.

The casino, owned by MGM Mirage, is offering free roll tournaments every morning and low-limit cash games to build interest in the refurbished poker room. Excalibur officials said revenues from poker had been falling and interest in the game was waning.

Installing the electronic tables was a way to make live poker less intimidating to the resort's middle-market customer base.

"We are slowly bringing the room out," said Excalibur poker room manager Ed Malinowski, who also oversees the casino's race and sports book and keno operations. "We're getting a good initial response, which is what we were hoping for. Players are quickly getting comfortable with the tables."

Players sign in using an MGM Mirage Players Club Card, which makes the games cashless. The tables, which can be set for low-limit Texas hold 'em, Omaha and seven card stud, keep track of statistics and other game data.

The tables are electronic but poker players compete against other poker players in a live game. The tables have a feel that combines video poker with Internet poker in a poker room setting.

The tables have individual touch screens for each player and a 40-inch flat screen in the middle to display community cards, players' table stakes and the pot.

The individual screens show players their hole cards. Like live poker, the casino does not know the hole cards nor does the player have to show them after folding. The electronic machines keep a record of the action that could be used to settle disputes about collusion or other allegations.

"I'm a tournament player and I wasn't sure I would really like them at first," said Lorene Hicks of Las Vegas, who was waiting for a free roll tournament to begin. Hicks played at the Excalibur before the changeover from live dealers.

"The (electronic) tables have much faster hands and it's pretty easy to learn," Hicks said. "I brought some friends over today so they could try them out. I still plan on playing at live poker tables as well."

PokerTek received Nevada gaming regulators' approval in August to field-test the system. The company placed 12 games in the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City in June and has more than 230 machines worldwide. The company's largest automated poker room is at the Casino du Montreal, which has 25 tables.

Marie Claude and her boyfriend, Michael Leblanc of Quebec City, have played on the poker tables in several Canadian casinos. The couple, which makes frequent trips to Las Vegas, were surprised to find the games at Excalibur.

"They are very popular in Canada and you play a lot more hands," Claude said.

Not all poker players were happy with the new tables. Justin Tribble of Las Vegas, who was playing in an Excalibur free roll tournament, said he wouldn't return.

Tribble heard about the changeover and decided to give the tables a try.

"I want to feel chips and cards. I want to be able to say 'raise,'" Tribble said. "I miss having the dealers because they can keep control. These tables are not for me."

Malinowski said players who like to fumble with poker chips while trying to figure out their hands can purchase chips from the casino for that purpose.