Keeping count of cards, dice and chips (oh my!)

July 10, 2001 6:01 AM
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With the average lifespan of playing cards lasting just two hours, table games on the Strip move fast.

At New York-New York, dealers go through more than 200 fresh decks every 24 hours. Each day, Caesars Palace cracks open 288 decks just for baccarat. Last year, the Aladdin and the MGM Grand each bought 300,000 decks. Even the more cozy Castaways on the Boulder Strip deals 120 decks daily.

Cards, dice and chips ”” the essential tools of table wagering ”” comprise a multimillion-dollar trade for Las Vegas casinos and their vendors. And in pursuit of quality, durability and security, there’s a never-ending game to “build a better mousetrap,’’ says Stan Espensheid, of U.S. Playing Card Co., the leading casino card supplier in Nevada.

From new synthetic table materials to state-of-the-art prism peekers that tell dealers what their hole card is without lifting it, casinos are constantly looking for ways to improve the gaming experience ”” and save money. It’s a crucial campaign because table games are being squeezed relentlessly by slot machines.

“We’re fighting for space,’’ Espensheid acknowledges.

It’s not a nickel-and-dime fight. The Golden Nugget, for example, spends $20,000 a month just on cards. Many casinos recoup a portion of their costs by clipping the corners of used decks and reselling them in gift shops for around $2. New York-New York cards are said to be particularly coveted.

To increase longevity, most Strip resorts use shoes to extend card life as much as 24 hours. Automatic shufflers are also in play. But the slightest nick or dent sends cards out of commission. And manufacturers are continually devising new designs to thwart cheaters.

U.S. Playing Card’s Bee Brand recently introduced a white border with the back design shaded to the edge. Four small stingers appear in the corners, making the card subtly unique. Catering to superstitious Asian players, the ace of spades ”” a negative symbol ”” carries a beehive icon symbolizing good luck.

Even rock-hard dice have a surprisingly short life, lasting only a few hours. Caesars runs through a whopping 54 pair every day, reports spokesman Michael Coldwell. The MGM Grand, meantime, racks up 6,000 dice a year.

Most casinos purchase dice locally, but one operator who requested anonymity buys from Midwest Dice of Kansas City, Mo. “They use a harder cellulose and don’t wear down as fast,’’ he says. Since dice are made to exacting standards, within 0.0002 of an inch, every silly millimeter counts.

Table layouts only last two or three months before they must be replaced, and most casinos sport costly customized designs. Caesars changes the covers on its 80 tables every month. Likewise, the MGM makes replacements monthly, says Debi Nutton, vice president of casino operations. The Aladdin used more than 234 yards of felt to cover it tables.

“We’re always trying to improve the look and durability,’’ says Rory Hascall, executive director of casino operations for New York-New York, which installs 300 new layouts a year.

Chips ”” clay, plastic and a hybrid version — also are retired regularly. Players and dealers like the feel of the heavier clay chips, but these also wear out faster. So some casinos employ a clay-plastic hybrid.

To keep players challenged and entertained, resorts are making way for more specialty table games. Currently, there are some 2,800 units in operation here and worldwide. Even the old kids’ game War has been revived at the MGM.

These specialty games continue to breath life into an otherwise flat market segment. By some industry estimates, the 40 different specialty games are growing at a rate five times faster than table play in general.

Though these games generally have a house advantage ”” 2.5 to 3.5 percent, depending on the property ”” players like them because they offer a new twist and potentially bigger payoffs.

And keep those cards keep coming: Caesars consumes another 48 decks a day at its Pai Gow, Caribbean Stud and other specialty tables daily.

Random table game facts

”¡The London Club at Aladdin has the highest denomination gaming tokens in the world ”” $10 million and $5 million.

”¡The typical deck of cards costs a casino 93 cents. Gift shops re-sell cards, usually for about $2. Las Vegas-based T.J. Wholesale specializes in clipping used cards.

”¡U.S. Playing Card’s Bee Card has 30 percent rag content for strengthening. The company recently added Hoyle products to its line.

”¡Casinos usually customize jokers and aces.

”¡Prism peekers by Tech Art Inc. have widely replaced battery-powered card-reading units from Williams Gaming Systems.

”¡Most tables have green material because research has shown it’s easiest on the eyes.

”¡Dice sticks or “canes” at the Aladdin and elsewhere are made of rattan.

”¡For security reasons, Mirage Resorts has required that their vendors use specially sealed trucks to transport gaming supplies, with no stops allowed at other casinos.