Technology, new games, even creature comforts up the odds of a good time

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Are you a casino traditionalist?

Plenty of opportunities remain for you in modern casinos, where blackjack, craps, roulette and three-reel slots have thrived for generations.

But casinos live and breathe through change and innovation, and where there’s innovation, there are trends.

The hottest trend in gaming: expansion of slot machines.

Let’s take a look at slot expansion, and some of the other trends that are shaping the way we play in today’s casinos.

MORE SLOTS

Nationwide, casinos derive more than 80 percent of their gaming revenue from electronic gaming devices, which include video poker, video blackjack and video keno as well as slots.

To use Illinois as an example, 10 years ago the nine casinos in operation had 9,721 electronic games on their floors. Today, those casinos have 10,212 EGDs. The space for those slots has come from dropping a couple of table games. In 2003, there were 258 gaming tables. Today, 227 tables remain at those nine, a decline of 31. A 10th casino not in operation a decade ago brings Illinois’ totals up to 11,256 electronic games and 275 tables.

IN THE CARDS

Another attraction for gamers is an upsurge in poker-based table games.

A decade ago, 159 of Illinois’ 258 tables were for blackjack. Only five were for poker, plus 35 for the poker-based games Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker and pai-gow poker.

Today, there are 123 blackjack tables, and much of the difference has been made up in poker and poker-based games. In 2013, there are 40 poker tables, along with 43 for Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker, pai-gow poker, Texas Hold’Em Bonus Poker and Mississippi Stud.

That’s part of a nationwide trend. Casinos want you to be able to sit down and play immediately, with as small a learning curve as possible. Most players are familiar with the rankings of poker hands, and that makes it easy to pick up on newer games such as Mississippi Stud.

TOUGHER, BUT FUN

But the rules are getting touch for so-called “beatable” games. Meeting the ever-increasing demand for slots and adding plenty of easy-to-play poker-based tables has made casinos more user-friendly for casual players, but the opportunity for serious gamblers to play for a profit has decreased.

A prime opportunity for players seeking an edge — or at least to cut the house edge to the bone — has been blackjack. There have been adaptations to pad the house edge., including a nationwide shift to having dealers hit soft 17 instead of standing on all 17s.

A soft 17 is a hand such as Ace-6 or Ace-2-4 in which the Ace is counted as 11. Such a hand can’t be busted with a one-card hit, because the Ace could always be counted as 1 instead of having the dealer exceed 21. Even five years ago, the most common condition at tables using six or eight decks was to have the dealer stand on all 17s, including the soft totals. Today, nearly all blackjack tables in the United States have the dealer stand only on hard 17s, while hitting soft 17. That adds two-tenths of a percent to the house edge, bigger than it sounds at a game where the entire edge is only half a percent or so against players who know basic strategy.

In the Midwest, we’ve not yet seen a big shift toward casinos paying only 6-5 on blackjacks instead of the traditional 3-2. Such games are common in Nevada, and they’re tough on players.

EASIER ON YOU

Remember sitting on backless stools when playing the slots? Remember how your back felt at the end of the day?

There’s been an ergonomics revolution in the 2000s with furniture designed for player comfort. It costs more, but there’s a benefit to casinos in that comfortable players stay in their seats longer.

The old stools have made way for chairs by companies including Gasser and Gary Platt, with contoured foam and lumbar support. They work hand in hand with ergonomically designed slot cabinets with cutouts to enable the player to pull within optimal seating range of the screen, and with button panels placed to ease repetitive stress. Chicago slotmaker WMS Gaming has been a pioneer there with its Bluebird cabinet, introduced at the beginning of the 2000s, and the next generation Bluebird2 and Bluebird xD.

MANY REWARDS

Most of us use rewards cards whenever we play in a casino, sliding the card into a reader at electronic games or putting it on the table for the dealer or pit supervisor to pick up and log in for table play. Based on our play, the cards bring free play, meal comps, hotel room comps or discounts and other benefits.

One major trend in rewards cards has been to permit use in multiple rewards cards. If you have a Total Rewards card, you can use it to have your play rated at any Caesars Entertainment property in the United States. Boyd Gaming goes the multiproperty route with its B Connected card, and MGM Resorts does the same with M Life.

Within that trend there’s the beginning of another. Advanced information systems allow casinos not only to reward customers based on how much they play, but on how much they spend on the hotel, restaurants, gift shop, spa and other resort amenities. Analytics are in place to evaluate the player’s
total value to the resort, and to forecast future value. When you get a voucher for a return visit by direct mail or online, it could be based on more than how much you put into the slots on your last trip.

Technology itself is one more innovation that’s sparking a trend in the making.

— John Grochowski is a nationally syndicated gaming columnist and author. He can be contacted by email at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.