"Keep Summer Safe!"
[This review originally posted on my blog -- Brian]
On a recent cruise I spent a bunch of time in the casino, 'gaming' (The gambling industry's attempt to sound respectable). Thankfully the cruise had a poker table, and surprisingly ... it was automated.
So I figured I'd review it.
The table was a PokerPro, by PokerTek. Here's how it works. There's a main screen built into the center of the table. It shows each players stack (as a numeric value) the amount of chips in the pot (and rake), who still has cards, the dealer button, whose turn it is to act and (when the hand is done) displays the winning hand, moves the money around and redeals. Just to be clear, the players you are playing are sitting at the same table with you. (I assume the table could handle remote players, but the game is set up as "Face to Face, but computer moderated."
Each player has their own touchscreen. This shows the table (and gives you the first names of everyone), acts as your menu (Check/Call, Bet/Raise, Fold) and your cards. Your cards are face down, unless you touch them, at which point they curl up. You'll want to cup your hands around them so that others can't peek (just like real cards).
From my standpoint, there is a lot to like. No arguments about string bets. No folding out of turn. The rules are enforced by code. Presumably no mistakes in reading the winner or splitting chips, making change, and the like (I never saw any obvious ones). The table I was on only did no-limit hold-em, but even then the time savings were pretty significant (the computer pauses at the end of the hand to let you see the cards, but it still only takes about 10 seconds between one hand ending and the next hand's deal. You can review the prior hands results on your personal screen). In a game like Omaha Hi/Low, the time saved on split pots would be fairly significant.
Mechanically, the table seems rugged ... I witnessed two drinks spilled on the main LCD (and quickly wiped up ... no problems). The touchscreens are hard to operate with fingers, but the corner of your ID card works well. You have to double-tap a selection to bet/raise/fold, so accidental bets aren't a major problem. But it can occur. A player who was trying to 'clean' his screen by rubbing it with the corner of the card went all in once, and I witnessed several new players run out of time trying to enter the right bet amount, via a calculator interface. There are 'hot-key' standard bets (minimum, 2x blind, 4x blind, pot, all-in). There are a few places the GUI could be cleaner, but once our group had figured out the basics, almost no problems.
The rake was a bit higher than I remember (10%, going by 50 cent intervals, capped at $6), but I normally play limit and it may be configurable. I'm used to $1 increments capped at $4 or $5. On the other hand, with no dealer to tip that saves you the extra dollar (assuming you normally tip). The casino director indicated that they didn't buy the equipment ... PokerTek provided it in exchange for part of the rake.
Showing all of the players first names is a good idea, too. I imagine that cruise poker is more social than casino poker (since you play most the same people over the course of a week), but it's just nice to have the table act as introducer. Having an opponent named "Hung" is good for roughly 10 hours of jokes, FYI.
I was disappointed that there weren't multiple tables and I never got to see how the PokerPro ran a tournament. (The casino had plenty of blackjack/slot/bingo 'tournaments' I'd imagine a $20 or $50 fixed tournament would be a big way to get non-gamblers to pony up... but with only one table it was probably easier to just leave it set as a money game). I imagine you'd see real time savings there, as it automatically monitors tables (and breaks up smaller tables), adjusts blind structure, colors up, moves people around, etc. I find the claims of 30% speedup in tournaments easy to believe.
Casinos must love it — faster throughput (so, more money raked), no dealers to pay (and keep a close eye on, to prevent theft), automatic accounting (and real time reporting). Most everyone seemed wary at the start, but quickly got over it. I suppose the programmers could have put in backdoors for when they play, but I suspect I'm less likely to get jobbed than with a random dealer (who may have a friend or two). I do wonder what happens during a power outage, and how often (and redundantly) each player's balance is updated.
The cruise also didn't have the kiosk where you swipe your card to get on the waiting list and the software handles the wait list. It was handled by the players themselves, which works fine for a small group, but would be another big benefit for a large casino.
About the only downside is that players need cards (with a PIN) and buyin away from the table. That's usually only a five minute process, but it is easier to just walk up to a table and drop your money onto it. From the casino's POV, that's a feature, as they don't have to collect (and monitor) money from each table. The money is tied to an account, not a card, so if you lose your card you just cancel it (presumably by showing proof of ID), assuming that whoever got your card hasn't played it and lost all your money to their card ... but even if they did, I suspect they could trace it.
Probably those of you who go to Vegas more often have already seen these ... I'm told they've just started appearing on cruise ships in the last 6-12 months. These babies really are impressive, and I'd love to see them handling gaming in our sense of the word. Sadly there's not much money to be made there, as compared to poker. But they do show what could be done ...
Man I love touch screens. When I first saw ads for the Microsoft table, my first thought was playing Settlers on it, but when I heard the technology was mainly being implemented by casinos it seemed like a natural choice.
Interesting. Some of the casinos I frequent -- well, not so frequent, but "occasional" makes a crappy verb -- (including some who have had NO poker room up to now) have gone to these.
I've been hesitant. I kinda like the touchy-feely of handling the cards and chatting with the dealers, cheating's not a big issues at the fairly low limit tables I play at, and I participated in a test of the electronic roulette table which was AWFUL! (It was so counter-intuitive and hard to follow they needed two people instead of one to man it.) Plus I'm not that keen on seeing people lose jobs to electronic tables.
The speed is probably a big thing to people who play online a lot, where play is at light speed. I'm kind of happy with the leisurely pace of the hand-dealt game. I'm sure the casinos like 'em -- faster rake, no dealer to pay. Wondering how the pros & sharks feel -- no tip/faster play, vs. a whole set of tells gone.
Might give these a try next time in AC, just out of curiosity. Thanks for posting this!