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What do you do when you can’t find the games you want for your casino? Simple: invent them yourself! Matt Broughton talks to casino owner turned inventor, Mark Slotkin.
You could say with some certainty (and quite some understatement) that casino owner Mark Slotkin has been gambling for most of his life. He’s happy to admit he’s been a gambler since the age of ten, wagering on anything from sports betting to rain drops on the window. However, being a bright spark it didn’t take Slotkin long to realize that he might be on the wrong side of the felt: “I looked for an opportunity to get on the House’s side,” explains Mark. “I found a ship in Florida that needed some work but was fairly new, and I bought it. I remodeled it to what it is now with a smoking and non-smoking deck, a virtual sports book and full Las Vegas action, and called it Jacks or Better.”
Mark had been a big poker fan since his five-card draw days and enjoyed the challenge of playing against better players (“They always seem to read my hands!”) but as the casino ship was too small to run a poker room he looked to bring poker table games to the ship. “I’ve always loved poker, and because it’s so hot I wanted to have it on board. I knew my casino needed a stimulus and revisited all the carnival games available.”
Mark set off for a 48-hour crash course to find poker games in Las Vegas, playing every game available that had a poker format regardless of how diluted they were from Texas Hold‘em. “I spent the weekend casino hopping, deciding which game I wanted to bring to the ship,” explains Mark. “Perhaps it was the length of time I spent with each game, but I couldn’t believe how boring they were and how badly I wanted to change to the next game. They lacked the competitive spirit, and of course a bet after the river was never involved.”
“Three-card poker is immensely successful because the card values that are inherent in poker are not lost. It works because it’s simple with not a lot of options and the player just hoping for better cards than the dealer. The edge to the house is high and if optimal strategy is not played the take is very high. There’s nothing wrong with that, except players will soon wise up. It’s been around now for a good amount of time and perhaps its popularity is waning.”
Even with the more complex poker table games such as Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Bonus Texas Hold’em and World Poker Tour 3X Texas Hold’em, Mark still felt they all lacked the punch he was looking for – very specifically in that none offered the player a chance to bet the river. “In Ultimate Texas Hold’em both the turn and the river are simultaneously revealed; this is not poker!” exclaims Mark. “In WPT the house develops its edge with a Qualifier; the player must bet 3x his ante or fold. Bonus Texas Hold’em is the most interesting format to play but it’s trending down and isn’t available in many of the LV casinos. It presents a formidable obstacle in that the ante is not paid if the player does not have a straight or better. I guess there has to be a house edge somewhere!”
Heading back to his room after a disappointing tour, Mark pulled out some cards and chips and set about designing the game he had begun to sketch while playing Bonus Texas Hold’em. “The casinos didn’t like me drawing at their tables; little did they know that they might see the real thing soon enough! The idea of Player vs. Player came to me when I watched each game ending anti-climatically. The reward that comes with a great hand was never realized in any of the table games offered in the casinos, and a bluff was not possible.”
Finding himself a sudden and unexpected inventor, Mark had no rules and no checklist. “The idea of Player vs. Player started out as a Best Hand bet and developed in action after the river because that’s what poker’s all about. To leave it at just the best hand taking the bets from other players without fulfilling the final sporting goal of post river action where betting, raising, and check-raising abounds would be like eating your food without swallowing it.” From these designs Mark created two games, Shootout Poker and Lo-Ball Showdown.
At the time Mark didn’t appreciate that he’d come up with a unique idea: “It seemed so logical to me. Subsequently the mathematician who calculated the house edge and all the permutations told me that my concept was simply overlooked. Unbelievable but true! Player action against each other, while concurrently betting against the house, was simply non-existent.”
Once happy with his concept, Mark ran the ideas past three different WPT bracelet holders. All understood the concept immediately. Mark explains: “They liked it, but table games are not in their purview so they passed me along to influential people who work in LV Hotels who we re now arranging trials with. There has not been one casino that didn’t like the idea.”
Before long Mark was showing the game to Caesars, Bellagio, Wynn, and The M casino in Las Vegas, playing on Slotkin’s demonstration felt in the most lavish of setting - the private high-limit Baccarat or Blackjack rooms where Mark himself had previously gambled. “Two of the table directors knew me from past experience. I walked away from these demos fully knowing that what I had invented was going to be a runaway train.”
The next step for Mark was running real trials in his casino with customers, and Shootout Poker was unofficially launched at Jacks or Better in July of 2011. There were several surprising reactions – all of which improved the game – along with the establishment of dealer protocols. “The house has been holding 30% including the 10% casino rake, explains Mark. “Players don’t mind the commission because they are used to rake in a poker game. The action after the river is much larger than against the house. The only issue on our boat was getting enough players to sit down together and play it. Obviously, the Player vs. Player works much better with a six-handed game.”
Once satisfied his games were running well, Mark then started the tough task of getting it out into an industry that seemed reluctant to hear about his new games. “Most table game directors are not open to new ideas; in fact most won’t even return calls or emails. Frankly, it seems that most of them are afraid to do a trial; they just keep the status quo for fear of losing their jobs if they make a wrong move.”
Undeterred, Mark continues to exhibit at gaming expos as well as talk to casinos and give personal demonstrations where possible. “Nevada, the Mecca of gambling, has a different set of rules,” says Mark. “Whereas casinos in other states allow a trial and then seek a letter of approval from the casino which will get you state approval, Nevada insists on getting the letter from the casino first before they will even submit the application. Most casinos in Nevada do not like this procedure and suggest you go elsewhere to get the trial and will take the game when it’s approved. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. Nevada is holding back progress.”
Mark does however have some trials running with tribal casinos, and is also showing at the NIGA show in San Diego in April. “We expect to place it in many casinos when they visit us as the Indian casinos showed much interest at G2E in Las Vegas. They are much more open-minded then the large operations in Nevada. It seems that we will probably take a back door approach first and do the other states before Nevada.”
Though both games were shown at ICE, Mark gave far fewer demos that he had hoped to due to the booth location: “They didn’t know we were there… but the casinos that did see it gave very good reactions. It’s now my impression that it will be easier and less costly to place it in the USA first and then go global when we are more recognized.”
Mark is already in contact with developers to produce an online version he can take to casinos that bank table games. “Online will be particularly good for our Lo-Ball Showdown game as it deals seven cards to each player. The live version takes a little longer than casinos might like, but of course the rake makes up for that.” Apart from online technology making for a much faster and neater game, the Player vs. Player function also looks to be very effective online as the amount of players can be increased to ten rather than the traditional six at a table game.
Though now a fully-fledged inventor, Mark knows he has his plate full for the foreseeable future: “These two games will represent an annuity for the rest of my life. There is no point in developing another game until I get these two games placed.”
Like all good games, both Shootout Poker and Lo-Ball Showdown are far easier to simply play than to describe in words… so I’m not going to try! If you’d like to see the online demonstrations of both games, head to www.creativecasinogames.us to watch the games in action. Suffice to say that both are very close to the original card games in question (i.e. Texas Hold’em and 7-card lowball) but with the added bonus of playing not only against the house in a table game format, but with added elements of betting that allow players to wager against each other – adding a new side to table games rarely seen.