Would unionization of dealers push casinos to automation?

Technology is sweeping the casino floor.

Sophisticated slot machines are providing flashier graphics to keep players glued to their seats as video components turn the play into a better entertainment experience.

More and more casinos will install systems that will connect their machines to a single server so slot-floor managers will be able to make changes from a keyboard, minimizing the labor-intensive process of changing individual machines.

Some casinos are looking to increase play by offering devices that operate in restaurants, lounges and at poolside. They work just like portable video games.

In the race and sports books, video screens have gotten bigger and better and nearly every high-profile game is presented as it happens.

One place where technology hasn’t come full throttle is at the table games.

Sure, we’ve seen automatic card-shuffling machines that can handle multiple decks at the tables and card scanners that enable blackjack dealers to determine if they have 21 without looking at the cards.

Probably the most obvious place for automation at the tables is with the dealers themselves.

Would that ever happen?

The dealerless blackjack table was a part of the discussion in a panel at the recent Raving Consulting Co.’s first-ever Table Games Conference.

A panel on the aftermath of efforts to unionize dealers determined it’s possible continued union drives could be countered by management buying more machines that use video of attractive dealers to interact with players instead of human beings.

But panelist Jesse Guest, a table games dealer at Wynn Las Vegas, which went through its own unionization drive, said the personality most dealers bring to the floor may make it more difficult for casino management to dump live dealers for technology.

The Transport Workers Union was elected to represent dealers after a headline-making controversy erupted over whether dealers should be required to share tips with pit supervisors who weren’t making as much money as the dealers. The crux of the issue was whether the dealers could be forced to share their tips or if the company should just pay the supervisors more so that the workers weren’t earning more than their boss.

The big question was: Would the Wynn policy spread to other casinos?

Guest said the unionization never would have occurred had Wynn not touched the tips.

„Trust and control were the big issues,“ Guest said. „The bottom line is we trusted this guy.“

But would casinos really pull the plug on live dealers and plug in machines to do the job?

More evidence was presented in a later panel on whether casinos should fear table game advantage players – those alert people who win more by paying attention to abundant comps, drawings and giveaways as well as casino weaknesses to win more than the average player.

Panelists talked about teams like those depicted in the recent film „21“ as well as sloppy dealing practices that present advantage opportunities for players.

But how important is the issue of being wary of advantage players? Panelist Willy Allison, president of World Game Protection Inc., said a dealer survey listed the top five issues in table games and the results were surprising.

Of 115 dealers and pit bosses surveyed, only 3 percent listed advantage play as a key issue. Cheating and theft was listed by 14 percent; dealer errors, 17 percent; and overcomping, 18 percent. The biggest issue, listed by 49 percent of those surveyed: slow game pace.

That tells me that the union push may not be the only reason why casinos could someday look at further automating the table game pits.

Don’t think it could happen? Check out the poker room at the Excalibur. In August, it was converted to PokerPro electronic tables, which takes the dealer out of the action. PokerTek, the maker of the new machines, says the system is capable of dealing 50 percent more hands for Texas hold ‚em and 100 percent more hands for Omaha games since the „cards“ are all video images.

Manufacturers are doing more and more with table-game technology, and it’s likely that more of it will be unveiled in November at the next Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

Machines can work faster and they’ll never unionize.

But they’ll never exude the personality of card dealers.