Electronic tables seek,
spot in poker’s future

Aug 7, 2006 3:13 AM

At a roundtable discussion last week, former World Series of Poker champions discussed the possibility of expediting play by using an electronic poker table — without chips to stack, cards to flip, or dealers to argue with.

Just a few days earlier, a company called PokerTek demonstrated its PokerPro electronic table at the WSOP’s Gaming Lifestyle Expo in the Rio Convention Center. Could this be the future of casino poker?

North Carolina-based PokerTek believes it is. PokerTek’s fully electronic tables already have won converts in cruise ships and Indian reservations.

But will players in tournaments such as the World Series or in Las Vegas poker rooms be willing to give up a felt table for a computer touchscreen?

"It’s two trends. It’s poker, which is really a huge hit right now, and it’s labor-saving technology, which is really popular with the casinos," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "It’s a great idea, and it’s an idea that’s in keeping with a lot of trends."

Place 10 players around one of the company’s PokerPro tables and the number of Texas Hold’em hands played per hour goes up by 50 percent over a dealer-run table, said PokerTek CEO Lou White.

That means an increased "rake" for the casino — the small percentage of each pot collected by the house — and eliminates the cost of a dealer’s salary and benefits.

PokerTek has collected endorsements from poker stars such as Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, but will have to win over players like Harold Schmidt, a 40-year-old from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who busted out of this year’s World Series of Poker on the first day of play.

"I like the chips and you know, I like to have people play with the chips and do tricks with the chips," Schmidt said last Friday. "Here, what are you going to do, tap your fingers on the screen?"

Sean Ward, 36, of Flagstaff, Arizona, also was dubious.

"Electronics kind of scare me," said Ward, a recreational poker player who was in Las Vegas with his wife. "Seeing the randomness coming out of a deck as opposed to computerized randomization — it’s a little bit more, I guess, visual. I don’t know about trustworthy, but at least you’re seeing it."

Not to mention the intimidation that comes from owning a big stack of chips.

"It gives you a little bit more feeling of dominance at the table," Ward said. "But if you don’t have anything in front of you and you’re just pushing a number, it’s just like playing online."

Casinos or poker rooms would like the concept because play moves quickly around a PokerPro table. The screen shows at a glance how much money is in a player’s stack. The hole cards appear face down in the lower right corner; tap lightly, and the cards peel up for a quick peek. A screen in the center of the table displays the current pot and the community cards.

Play is automated, leaving little room for error or confusion about whose turn it is to bet, raise, check or fold. The screen displays a player’s available options.

Rodney Dofort, vice president of casino operations for Miami-based Carnival Corp., installed a table on a Carnival cruise ship this spring.

"We were a little skeptical, because poker is essentially an interactive game," Dofort said. "We were quite pleasantly surprised by the almost immediate acceptance of it that first week." Last month, Carnival signed an agreement with PokerTek to put the tables on up to 30 ships over the next three years.

Another dozen PokerPro tables are in use on other cruise lines and at Indian casinos in Florida and Oklahoma, said White, who added PokerTek is seeking licenses from gaming commissions in Nevada, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi.

With so many players (about 75 percent) in this year’s WSOP descending from the Internet poker ranks, PokerPro may have a comfort level higher than most players realize.

But players who enjoy the live experience may be reluctant to give up their chip stacks and interactive dealer. Besides, who else will be there to answer questions and listening to bad beat stories?