Turning the tables on slots

Jun 15, 2004 6:25 AM

(This is the first in a two-part series on the gaming industry’s Top 10 proprietary table games.)

Everyone knows slot machines dominate most casino floors, but are table games actually in danger of making gaming’s endangered species list?

Not on your life — at least according to some casino experts, including New York-New York CEO Felix Rappaport, who last month predicted table games will make a resurgence in casinos.

Speaking at the Gaming Technology Summit in Las Vegas last month, Rappaport said the spreading popularity of poker has helped fuel interest in other table games such as roulette or blackjack.

Indeed, a TV producer recently announced he will air a celebrity blackjack program later this month, following the lead of celebrity poker shows on cable.

While the popularity of standard table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette has remained relatively constant over the past few years, new games such as Three Card Poker and Texas Shootout have piqued players’ interest.

These new games are called "proprietary" games because, unlike blackjack and craps, the casino must purchase or lease them from a manufacturer or patent holder.

Today, proprietary games take up about 20 percent of the gaming area in the pits — double what it was five years ago, which was double what it was five years before that.

And, according to casino insiders like Rappaport, don’t bet this trend will reverse any time soon, especially as many casinos tighten rules on games like blackjack, which now pays only 6-5 for a natural in many casinos.

Squeezing blackjack players by lowering the payoffs or hitting soft 17 or reshuffling early in the deck are all designed to increase the game’s "hold percentage," which usually runs about 12 percent of the table’s total handle.

By contrast, many of the newer table games have hold percentages in the mid- to upper-20 percent range, thus it’s no wonder casinos may want to seriously consider adding otherwise unknown games to the pit.

In this article and one to follow next week, GamingToday will take a closer look at the industry’s Top 10 proprietary games, which are ranked based on the number of units currently in play.

So, working from the bottom up, here are the what many consider the future of casino table games.

No. 10 — Crazy 4 Poker (Shuffle Master, debuted 2002, 30 games): This is the first of four games from market-leader Shuffle Master of Las Vegas. (The others are in the top five.) Crazy 4 Poker is a four-card poker game featuring head-to-head play against the dealer and two bonus bets. It’s a bit complex and designed for the true connoisseur, someone who’s familiar with other poker-style games.

But those willing to learn will uncover a game that’s high on hit frequency, short on house advantage, and loaded with risk-reward.

Players and the dealer receive five cards to make four-card poker hands. Got four clubs? That’s a flush. Got four sequential cards? That’s a straight. The betting structure is a bit complicated, not to mention expensive. Players make three bets to start the game, and once they get their cards, they may bet again, up to three times their ante. "Tripling down" is extremely advantageous to players: It’s a bet they win 91 percent of the time.

Crazy 4 Poker is available in California, Washington, Indiana, Mississippi and Nevada. Although there are only a dozen tables in Nevada, they are at some of the most popular casinos, including Bellagio, The Mirage, Treasure Island, The Rio and the Aladdin.

No. 9 — 3-5-7 Poker (Gaming Entertainment Inc., debuted 2002, 45 games installed): 3-5-7 Poker is exactly as advertised: It’s three-card poker, five-card poker and seven-card poker. Players make three bets and compete against three paytables — one for each stage of the game.

Once players bet, they receive three cards and play against the first paytable. This is identical to the Pair Plus bet in Shuffle Master’s Three Card Poker game. Players win if their three-card hand contains a pair or better; the top payout is 40-1 for a straight flush.

The dealer then reveals two community cards, which all players use to make a five-card poker hand. After that, they get two more cards — giving them a total of seven — to make their best five-card hand.

This game, like Boston 5, is easy to learn. There’s no decision making — save for the option of surrendering your seven-card bet after seeing your first three cards — so you are an expert the first time you sit down. Plus, a strong starting hand can really pay off as the game progresses through the five-card and seven-card stages.

The 3-5-7 game is offered in Nevada, California and Mississippi.

No. 8 — Super Fun 21 (Tech Art, debuted 2000, 60 games): Super Fun 21 is the first of two non-poker games on our countdown. Super Fun started the gaffed-up, single-deck blackjack phenomenon; its success paved the way for those ubiquitous 6-to-5 blackjack games in Las Vegas. Talk about irony. Since the 6-5s are public domain and therefore free, several casinos have installed them in place of Super Fun 21s.

This is single-deck blackjack with some wacky, liberal rules. You’ve seen most of the rules before, in places like the Las Vegas Club and Bob Stupak’s old Vegas World, and in games like Spanish 21 and pontoon. Players may surrender any time and double down after any number of cards. They may also re-split aces, something you’d never see in traditional single-deck 21. Super Fun also pays 2-1 when players get a blackjack in diamonds.

The game has one rule that takes it all back for the house: All other blackjacks pay even money.

Super Fun 21 is played in Nevada, particularly at the locals casinos, and in California and Mississippi.

No. 7 — Casino War (Shuffle Master, debuted 1996, 60 games): It can’t get much simpler than this. War, the game you probably played as a kid, has been kicking around table game pits for the past eight years.

In the casino version, players make a bet and receive one card face up. So does the dealer. If the player’s card is higher, he wins even money. If the dealer’s is higher the player loses. So not only is the game easy it’s fast. You can play about 200 hands per hour, compared to about 70 hands of blackjack.

The game’s house edge comes from its handling of ties: If your card matches the dealer’s you have a choice to surrender half your bet or go to war. If you do the latter, you must match your original bet. And then you start matching cards again.

Even though it sounds like it could get expensive, the player actually wins more hands (statistically!) than the dealer, about 50.25 percent of them.

War is popular in tourist casinos, including Bellagio, MGM Grand and Barona in Southern California. It is also played in Canada and Malaysia.

No. 6 — Texas Shootout (Galaxy Gaming, debuted 2002, 70 games): Texas Shootout is a hold ’em style game. It lets players compete against the dealer and against a bonus paytable. It also features "envy" bonuses, in which players win when someone else at the table has a premium hand.

This is the only poker-style game to use six decks. Players make a bet and receive four cards. They choose two to hold and discard the others. (In some casinos, players may split their four cards into two hands by making an additional bet.) The dealer does the same with his four cards and then he reveals five community cards (used by players and the dealer). Players win when they beat the dealer; they lose when they lose or tie.

Galaxy Gaming started Texas Shootout in Washington. From there, it spread quickly and is now offered in Nevada, Mississippi, California and Iowa. It has, no doubt, benefitted from the hold ’em craze ripping across the United States. Look for Shootout to get competition from similar offerings as Shuffle Master (Big Raise Hold ’em) and Lakes Gaming (World Poker Tour All-In Hold’em) have already jumped on the bandwagon. And word on the street is Mikohn Gaming has a similar hold ”˜em game in the works.

Don’t forget to catch the Top 5 proprietary table games in next week’s issue of GamingToday.