Although the gaming manufacturing industry is dominated by a handful of corporate giants, there is some leeway for entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams with a pioneering spirit.
One of them is Ya Awada, whose Gaming Entertainment Inc. designs and produces table games for casinos in Nevada and beyond.
Though his company is relatively new, Awada is no newcomer. He has nearly 25 years of experience in the Nevada gaming industry, including 15 years with the Circus Circus group (now Mandalay Resorts), DP Stud and other manufacturers.
So far, Awada has created several games that have not only found their way to the casino floor, they’ve found favor with players. Among his table games are Play Four Poker, 3-5-7 Poker and High Tie blackjack.
One of the games, 3-5-7 Poker, appears headed for stardom. It debuted in 2002, got off to a somewhat slow start, but now has more than 50 tables installed in casinos in Nevada, California and Mississippi.
Like most successful games, 3-5-7 Poker is relatively easy to play. Players make three wagers and play a hand of three-card poker, five-card poker and seven-card poker against three separate pay tables.
"The goal is to tempt the customer into sitting down and making a bet," Awada said. "Of course, the math has to be right, for both the player and the house, but you have to think long term: Will the players keep coming back to the game?"
Unlike games such as blackjack and baccarat, Awada’s games have pay tables that offer keno-like payoffs for certain hands.
"You have to play to the lumberyard mentality, that is, provide something from which they can win a lumberyard by betting a toothpick," Awada said.
But, he added, you can’t pander to the casino’s desire for a high-hold game.
"The smart casino manager knows it’s the drop, not the hold, that’s most important," he said. "And if the game is too one-sided, players won’t play and there won’t be any drop. And that’s a loser for everyone."
Awada has been designing games long enough to know that, no matter how innovative a game can be, getting it to the casino floor isn’t easy.
"The regulatory process is a tedious one," Awada said. "Then you have to convince the casinos to take your game. That’s where you find most of the resistance."
As a small company, Awada can’t offer a casino 50 games from which to choose. So, he tries to craft his products and structure his deals that are win-win for everyone.
"The casino operator has to know what he’s facing down the line, whether it’s leasing or licensing fees or customer support," Awada said. "As a small company, we feel we can offer plenty of hands-on service."
He adds that creating a compelling game is only half the equation of producing winning products.
"Our pricing is consistent and surprisingly reasonable — less than half the cost of other manufacturers in some cases," he said. "Plus, we believe in quality of service and we’re small enough to provide it one-on-one."
While the business issues are important, designing the right game is crucial.
"To properly develop a new game, you have to know how to deal and play the games, and we have that experience," he said.
That’s quite an understatement. Not only does Awada deal and play the games, he’s a world-class poker player.
Last year, he won the Seven Card Stud championship and a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker, which he followed up with another six-figure win a few weeks later.
"My wife thinks I’m nuts for playing poker," the 45-year-old Awada said. "My kids don’t really say much, but when they see their dad on TV, they probably enjoy it and feel proud."
A native of Lebanon, Awada said he started playing poker when he was 12, and became proficient mostly through his own diligence and self-education.
"You hope that Lady Luck is behind you ”¦ but you have to be flexible sometimes and adjust your game," he said. "In the end, things will usually work out."