The case: Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino is preparing to go “all in” on a sensor-riddled blackjack table that will give the house perfect knowledge of how its customers play. It found that a relatively low-tech system of cameras is more sensible than RFID – and that customers will tolerate electronic surveillance if they believe it offers them benefits.
For a casino, the expenses and profits at blackjack tables are difficult to precisely pin down. What’s clear is that the aggregate numbers are staggeringly high: a typical blackjack table in Reno, NV, can see more than $6 million wagered monthly, with about 1 percent of that sum staying behind as the casino’s winnings. But gauging the performances of individual players has long been an inexact science. Clay gaming chips slide back and forth between human hands. Paper playing cards are dealt, collected, and shuffled. Players signal their desire for additional cards by tapping their fingers on the table and refuse hits by waving their hands. Some expend all their chips; others walk away with more than they brought.
Casinos hunger for a better understanding of players. In particular, they want information that will help them refine how often, and to whom, they dole out “comps” – a sort of casino currency redeemable for treats like free hotel rooms, dinners, and drinks. This calculation requires two primary pieces of information: how much a given player is wagering, and – for blackjack and some other card games – how skilled that player is.
Knowing how much players are wagering requires watching their chips closely, and judging their skill levels accurately requires observing each decision they make. Right now, the onus for keeping track of these things falls to a manager known as a pit boss, who is, famously, backed up by surveillance staff eyeballing video monitors in a back room. Like other casinos, Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, CT, thinks technology can help it track blackjack
players. “We have long been looking for a technology that would help us provide automated ratings of players at gaming tables,” says Dan Garrow, the chief information officer at Mohegan Sun. “If you spend $10,000, we will do something for you to keep coming back. It’s no different than any other business – how do you keep your customers coming back?”
But of course, gambling is different from any other business. While a casino does, as Garrow says, care about customer retention as much as any company, its relationship with its customers is adversarial: a casino wants its customers to lose. “Each player represents what we call a &lsquotheoretical win,’” says Garrow. “You would call that a loss.” That is what makes comping so important: it is the method by which casinos try to soften the edges of the hard reality of loss. And how comping is done matters greatly: the trick is to lavish the biggest gifts on the people who are most likely to not only place big bets but also make decisions that worsen their odds.
Casinos know that technology can help them identify those people. Garrow explored – but has rejected for now – prototype systems that use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags embedded in gaming chips. This technology gives each chip a unique identifying code; as a player buys chips (after first showing a player ID card to become eligible for comps), the chips are electronically associated with that player. At blackjack or other tables, a tag “reader” identifies each movement of each chip, registering how much has been bet, won, and lost. As a side benefit, such chips are nearly impossible for employees to steal or players to counterfeit.
While a few casinos are testing prototype RFID-chip systems, none has yet implemented them, says John Kendall, president of one RFID-gaming chip maker, Chipco International of Raymond, ME. When Garrow investigated RFID chips, he concluded they were too costly, though he acknowledges that prices have since come down. (The newest versions add about 50 cents to the 80-cent price of a traditional casino chip, Kendall says.) Moreover, while RFID technology provides detailed information about players’ betting patterns, it reveals nothing about the cards they base their bets on, and therefore nothing about their skill at blackjack.
While searching for alternatives, Garrow courted lone inventors proposing technology for blackjack tables. At one point he and his staff found themselves in the 13th-floor Manhattan apartment of an inventor who had rigged a blackjack table with computers and sensors to track all aspects of play. While the technology showed promise, the vendor was essentially looking for Mohegan Sun to provide his venture capital and expand his business – something Garrow was unwilling to do.
Then came MindPlay. Garrow was aware that a couple of casinos in Nevada had been trying out a system from MindPlay, a small, Bellevue, WA-based company that has since been bought by Bally Gaming and Systems. MindPlay builds blackjack tables with small cameras tucked into a slightly raised dealer platform facing the players. The accompanying gaming chips bear simple line patterns on their edges; these are read by the system’s pattern-recognition software. Special playing cards also bear line patterns that identify them; the patterns are on the faces of the cards and are read by a camera pointing up through the table at the mouth of the “shoe” – the box containing cards.