Delaware casinos take a spin at roulette

The tables of blackjack players and poker fans have been bluffing and betting at Delaware’s racetrack „racinos“ for more than a year. It’s a welcome boost to the state’s coffers and a new venue for eager gamers.

But it still isn’t a royal flush for casinos.

Sustained success for the computerized versions of the dealer card games will require Delaware’s gaming industry to step up with even more new offerings. That’s why the state’s three racetrack casinos are adding automated roulette tables, hoping to gain an edge in the face of increased regional competition.

„We’re trying to make it as close as you would experience if you went to Vegas or Atlantic City,“ said Ed Sutor, president and CEO at Dover Downs Casino & Slots.

Once seen as an innovative novelty, the current table games aren’t quite inspiring the same buzz as when they were unveiled — as is typical with most games, officials said. At Dover, the games make up 4 percent of seats, and generate 10 percent of volume, but statewide, their profitability is about on par with slot machines, the Delaware Lottery Office said.

With roulette, officials see a fresh chance to reinvigorate regular players‘ curiosity, while simultaneously attracting the demographic that shows little interest in traditional slot machines — namely young males. Officials hope to choose a machine vendor by June, and introduce the game by fall. The ultimate number of tables at each casino has not been determined, but they hope to start with eight to 10 between them, each seating from six to eight players.

Delaware Lottery Director Wayne Lemons said the venture into table games has met the state’s expectations. „Not everyone’s attracted to the games, but many people are,“ he said. „Yes, it’s been a very good addition to the variety of games that we have.“

Judging by net proceeds, the games seem most successful at Harrington Raceway and Slots, where each seat averaged USD 290 in December, compared with USD 272 for all gaming seats combined. Dover Downs took in just USD 162 per seat at the table games in December, compared with USD 248 for all games. Delaware Park was USD 216 vs. USD 235.

No matter their relative success, table games have never been seen as the ultimate counterpunch to Delaware’s cross-border rivals. In 2007, even with the table games running, slots industry revenue was down nearly USD 9 million in nine months compared with 2006, according to a report by the Video Lottery Advisory Council. Blaming Pennsylvania gaming operations for this „substantial negative blow,“ the council says legalized sports betting should be an urgent priority, noting that it will take 18 months to get the system up and running once legislation is passed.

Until then, casino officials say, the Legislature should act to loosen alcohol regulations at the casinos, and allow them to open before noon on Sundays. Among the players, the solutions to Delaware’s challenge are more basic. Many still grumble about what seems to be poor odds of winning, and say the casinos have done a poor job keeping pace with the latest slots games.

„They’re all the same,“ said Delaware Park Racetrack & Slots patron Chris Adams of Howard County, Md., „all just a bunch of stupid cartoon characters.“

Meanwhile, the clouds of competition are darkening. West Virginia is raking in profits since live table gaming started late last year, and Pennsylvania legislators have urged a similar move. In nine months, voters in Maryland will decided whether to legalize slots, potentially putting 15,000 machines in five jurisdictions. In New Jersey, the Legislature is moving to win voter approval for sports betting, despite a federal law that forbids it there.

In Delaware, sports betting would be legal under federal law, but possibly not popular among citizens. In October 2007, a poll found that 54 percent of Delawareans are opposed to more gaming locations or games, while 37 percent were in favor.

So for the time being, hope for fresh flair rests with the simple game of roulette, widely considered one of the least intimidating and most accessible on the casino floor. Because it uses a real ball and wheel, roulette would also help counter the lingering suspicion of computer-based games, Sutor said. „They understand that a ball bouncing around could land any way,“ he said. „So it adds that element of chance.“

Patrons say the idea of roulette is vaguely appealing, but it’s hard to judge before the games hit the floor. Part of the recipe for table-game popularity is the visual action — „you can look at your money move around,“ as one patron put it“ — but much of it will clearly depend on the payoff.

For patron Adams, the games‘ appeal is certainly not the animated video of the „virtual“ dealers who preside over table games now. „They’re weird,“ she said. „I want a real person. It’s bad enough you can’t make a phone call and get a real person.“

Gaming experts say roulette will bring one positive dynamic — players who fear embarrassment at the blackjack or poker tables are often more inclined to choose roulette. On the less upbeat side, they say, gamblers actually might be a greater risk of losing more of their stake by playing the spinning wheel.

That’s because electronic roulette is likely to allow even more „plays“ per hour than other table games, said Mark Pilarski, a nationally syndicated gaming columnist from Michigan. „It’s very important to know that speed kills in the casino environment,“ he said.

What’s more, roulette is regarded as a game that’s even more skewed toward a house advantage. „Even if you play stupid, the house advantage is 2, 3 percent“ overall, he said. „In roulette, it’s 5.62 percent, no matter what bet you play on that table.“

Delaware’s roulette tables would pay out the same percentage as slots — 82 percent to 95 percent — as required by law, Lemons said. Unlike poker and blackjack, a key physical aspect of the live table game would remain in the electronic version of roulette — each table’s wheel and ball would be real. While the bidding process has begun, the process of acquiring qualified machines could prove more complex than with blackjack and poker tables, which are made by a Nevada manufacturer.

„Most of the manufacturers are in Europe, and that presents a more elaborate type of arrangement,“ especially when it comes to domestic support, Lemons said.

Once they are installed, the roulette tables are likely to replicate the popularity curve of poker and blackjack, Lemons said — higher in the beginning, then gradually leveling off. „The net proceeds per seat [at table games] is now in the range of the average machine that’s on a casino floor,“ or about USD 200 per day, he said.

„That’s not to say were disappointed,“ Sutor said. „We’re happy with the level of it — otherwise, we’d take the machines out.“

Not all of the new table games tried by casinos have worked out well. Dover brought in the baccarat table game last year, then soon showed it the door. „It was slow, so we let it go,“ Sutor said.

The blackjack and poker tables did bring one key gain, he added. „Immediately, we saw that it was attracting males,“ especially remarkable in a casino where slots players are 58 percent female, with an average age in the 50s.

„What we saw was younger males in their 30s, so this was a market we never saw attracted before,“ he said.

Just north of the Delaware border, four of the roulette tables are already in play at Harrah’s Chester, said spokesman Jason Birney. „We’ve had them since mid-December,“ he said. „The public reaction has been fantastic.“

If Delaware does find increased success with roulette and subsequent table games, some sentiment remains that they could never replace traditional slots.

In a recent survey of gaming industry executives, the American Gaming Association found that half believe they will always have a place with certain customers, while only 10 percent think they have a limited future. The rest believe slots will be relegated to smaller markets or lower-end properties as time wears on.

By all accounts, whether electronic or live, roulette’s no game for those who hope to find the logic of poker, or the inside strategy of blackjack. As Albert Einstein is said to have declared, „You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal money from it.“

Or, as gambling expert Pilarski put it: „There is no winning strategy. None.“