Electronic Poker Tables Are Not the Answer

Plaza PokerPro table – September 2013

Many ideas are floating around pertaining to how poker rooms can find a feasible way to operate in the COVID-19 environment. This includes shorthanded games, glass shields and electronic tables. Nevada regulations will require a maximum of four players at a poker table, a policy that will keep most poker rooms dark until it is eased. 

Las Vegas electronic poker room history

Las Vegas has been home to three electronic poker rooms. All are now history.

In 2008, Excalibur tried its luck with Pokertek’s PokerPro tables. It was a flop. The machines continued to operate in jurisdictions that did not permit live cards and cruise ships that did not want to house dealers. Some are still open. 

In 2013, PokerPro digital tables reappeared in the Las Vegas market. Plaza was the first relaunch for the games. Aliante Casino in North Las Vegas later added the machines.

Plaza PokerPro room – September 2013

Both casinos reported some success with the tables. However, the games were not on any serious level in terms of stakes. Both casinos spread small cash games and tournaments. The blinds were typically $0.50/$1 or $1/$2 for cash games. Tournaments ranged from $6 to $33.

Pokertek was sold in 2016. The new owner did not seem interested in obtaining a gaming license in Nevada. The machines were quickly removed from Plaza and Aliante and have not returned to Nevada since.

The Pokertek website seems abandoned. Its blog was converted into online casino promotion, which was last updated more than a year ago.

Digital poker games have some level of interest. It is like online poker with the ability to read other players. However, these devices are not conducive to becoming a live poker substitute.

Advantages of electronic poker rooms

There are some reasons players will like digital poker rooms. There are no chips or cards to touch. The games are faster. The rake is typically lower. There is no dealer to tip. It keeps the social element alive while eliminating some of the current live poker risks.

Disadvantages of electronic poker rooms

Electronic poker rooms have limitations that likely will not work on any large scale. It does not seem like many devices like this exist for immediate installation if it did.

Assuming a digital solution can race to the market, there are still limitations. Some players do not trust electronic machines, even if there is no evidence of random number generator issues.

One point of digital poker rooms is to eliminate labor. This creates a scenario where attendants are unable to watch every game. A digital poker room manager will need to handle players buying in and cashing out, as well as answering phones and accounting duties.

This leaves the door open for collusion. While honest table-talk mistakes may happen in small games, where these machines could find a permanent home, higher limit ones will not tolerate a situation where an objective employee like a live dealer can explain what just occurred to management if there is a dispute at a table. This creates easy opportunities for angleshooting.

If there is a solution to this, like assigning one employee per table, there are still manufacturing and distribution problems. A company developing this product would need to produce hundreds of these machines for the Las Vegas market, while at the same time meeting demand in other markets.

An event like the World Series of Poker would be nearly impossible to pull off with electronic poker machines. Not only is the ability to follow all games difficult, manufacturing enough machines for a six-week series is not feasible. The devices, that would likely run well over $100,000 each, would not be cost effective for such a use. Players would be unwilling to pay the rake required to cover this expense, especially when there are no dealers, cards or chips.

Leasing may be an option. However, this puts the burden on the manufacturer or distributor to keep the machines in action. This would be difficult to do as tournaments shuffle throughout the country, requiring constant installation, removal and shipping of the devices. Many of the machines needed to operate an event on the scale of the World Series of Poker would sit idle for long periods of time. 

It seems like a safe bet that demand for electronic poker tables will collapse when a treatment or vaccine is discovered for COVID-19. Experts believe we are a year or two from one or both of those solutions. That is not enough time to recoup the expenses involved in the mass production of a product like this. With little demand predicted after this milestone is reached, the required investment in the idea of electronic poker tables may not be possible, especially in this economic environment.

Legalize and regulate online poker

Online poker is a better solution to this problem. It is only legal in four states. Working towards expanding that to all states is the answer to the current poker landscape. It also solves the social distancing problem. 

There is a need for better regulation in the current four states. This would lead to better operations by the companies already in the market, which would in turn improve tax revenues that may motivate other governors and legislatures to legalize the game.

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