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Hi-tech hits poker

Aug 19, 2008 7:02 PM

Road to the WSOP by Joe Awada | As we reported exclusively on our web site last week, Excalibur will become the first Nevada poker room to go fully automated when it installs electronic tables from PokerTek this week.

If you’re not familiar with PokerTek, it manufactures the PokerPro electronic table, a dealerless and card-free/chip-free table that relies on computer technology and video screens to play the game.

 The electronic tables coming to Excalibur are part of a 90-day field trial, marking PokerTek’s first foray into Nevada.

"We’re excited that PokerPro has received field trial authorization in Nevada," said Chris Halligan, PokerTek’s CEO. "We’ve worked hard to make PokerPro a highly secure and feature rich product, and look forward to introducing automated poker into this market for the first time."

Although the change at Excalibur caught many by surprise, it’s been brewing for the past several months.

In response to shrinking poker revenues – about a 37 percent decline since poker hit its peak in 2005 – the decision to go with PokerTek came after considering other options, including scrapping poker entirely and replacing the floor space with other games, according to Todd DeRemer, Excalibur vice president of casino operations.

"As the first ones in, we’ll be able to build that business, especially with the six-month exclusive from PokerTek," DeRemer said. "We think that after six months to a year, there’s a growth potential of 10 to 15 percent on the revenue we were getting, effectively reversing the declining trend of that piece of our business."

At the outset, the changeover at the Excalibur poker room will be "twelve for twelve," that is, replacing 12 standard tables with 12 automated tables.

The new room will be unveiled Friday night (Aug. 22), and players will be able to sample the new games through free-roll tournaments, designed to familiarize customers with the new technology.

In the upcoming weeks, the Excalibur will host special events to introduce the automated tables, along with celebrity appearances by poker pros such as Phil Laak, a spokesperson for PokerTek.

"We believe there’s enough demand for this product that it will turn into an advantage," DeRemer said. "There’s a percentage of people who won’t play ‘live’ poker but will play this type of product."

Indeed, there’s probably an untapped market out there for automated tables, especially among the low-limit players.

First, electronic tables make it easier for players to manage their money. The rake or amount earmarked for the house is less than at standard poker tables, and there’s no dealer to tip.

Moreover, the action moves at a faster pace, making the games more profitable, especially for the skilled player.

Changing over from live to automated poker reduced the Excalibur staff from about 55 to 15. DeRemer said most of the former poker staff has been relocated to other positions or other properties, with just a handful actually leaving the company or industry entirely.

With the new tables, the Excalibur poker room will no longer need its own cashier, and floor duties will be handled by a "performance manager," entrusted with overseeing and evaluating the games, and a poker host, who will assist customers and keep track of customer play, which is key to awarding comps and other benefits.

Overall, there’s an air of excitement at Excalibur in anticipation of the new room.

"We can do everything with this product," DeRemer said. "We can do free-rolls, $33 buy-in tournaments, all kinds of stuff – and it moves very fast. We should pick up, on average, an additional 50 hands an hour."

The Nevada field trial is 90 days, but Excalibur has a six-month exclusive to operate PokerTek tables on the Las Vegas Strip.

After that time, DeRemer said, other MGM MIRAGE properties may also add automated tables to their operations.

This is most likely a good move for Excalibur, and expanding automated tables is even a better move. There should be uniformity among poker rooms, especially at the low limit level.

Since poker’s peak, there’s been a need for something to kick-start the game, and electronic tables could be the catalyst.

Especially with the influence of the Internet, new players are younger and technology oriented. The time is now to tap into that expansive market.