Casinos all-in for high-tech gadgets

Oct 4, 2005 6:02 AM

As if the house didn’t already have the upper hand, casinos are betting on new technology that lets them track players and every bet they make.

For instance, "intelligent" blackjack systems that track chips, cards and player’s idiosyncracies are already in use in some North American casinos.

Optical readers display every card that’s dealt on a monitor in the casino’s back office, while radio-frequency identification devices (RFIDs) embedded in casino chips record every chip bet or won and every folded hand.

All of that information is pumped into databases that reveal to casino managers just how well — or poorly — a gambler is doing.

"Every single player that plays gets profiled," Rich Soltys, senior vice president of Bally Gaming, said at last month’s G2E in Las Vegas, adding that 11 casinos nationwide use Bally’s electronic Table Management System.

"We track every card they take, every bet they make," he said. "We build a profile of every single player and now can report back to the casino for the first time exactly what their advantage is" over house dealers.

In a sense, the system allows casino managers to follow table players the way they track slot customers.

With slot machines, most of the tracking is tied to player cards that promise regular customers comps and other bonuses. In exchange, the casinos capture valuable information about the gamblers, such as how often they play, how often they win or lose and how much they typically spend.

With the high-tech card tables, casinos don’t necessarily know who’s actually sitting at a table. But the technology identifies whether that person is a winner or loser, or possibly a cheat.

Using technology to track player habits "is kind of a fine line to walk," said Jerry Markling, chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Commission. "Our major concern is whether a device is cheating or making it easier for someone to cheat."

Proponents of the new technology say they simply extend the monitoring that casinos already have with slot machines.

"All this is about bringing technology to the pit," said Paul Meyer of Shuffle Master at G2E, where he was showing off a table management system called the Bloodhound similar to Bally’s.

Though the systems can track play in real time, game play can’t be affected, Meyer said, adding that they just want the data to determine which players are "valuable."

"If a guy comes in and he’s an excellent player, winning hand after hand after hand, he’s probably not worth (as much as) a mediocre player" who might leave more cash on the table, said Attila Grauzer, vice president for engineering for Shuffle Master.

RFID technology was just the tip of the iceberg at G2E, where vendors showed off all sorts of play-tracking devices, from new types of player cards for slot machines to tiny surveillance cameras that give a bird’s-eye view of every card on a table.

At one of the panel discussions, Bally’s Soltys said the company is working on facial recognition software and even thermal imaging technology to help monitor players’ habits. A player who sweats a lot, for instance, might be a cheater or just have a bad hand.

"This new technology stuff is just exploding," the Gaming Commission’s Markling said, adding that he would have concerns about systems that can track players’ physical attributes.

For now, it’s the electronically enhanced card tables that are at the cutting edge for casinos.

Another device unveiled at G2E that might be of interest to slot supervisors is an ATM machine that prints out slot machine "tickets" rather than dispense cash.

Known as EDITHs — Electronic Debit Interactive Terminal Housing machines — the devices have already been approved by Nevada regulators and could be on casino floors by the end of the year.

Just like a regular ATM machine, customers use their debit or credit card to withdraw money from their account, except they receive a voucher similar to the ones spit out by slot machines.

EDITHs appear to be only one step away from connecting the customer’s bank card directly to the slot machine itself. That step can’t be too far behind.

In some tribal casinos in California, players can swipe their bankcards into a TODD — Ticket Out Debit Device — which is mounted directly onto the slot machine.