My very first hand of poker was in a live home setting in which I learned the game over a $0.05-$0.10 no limit holdem table. Eventually this caused me to open online accounts on several sites and given the faster nature of the virtual felt, I played many hands in a quick amount of time. But as I lived in Los Angeles at the time I would still continue to play live in rooms at the Bike and Hollywood Park. Eventually this would lead me to move to Las Vegas, where I had the privilege of playing professionally for five years. I still maintained my routine of playing both live and online but in my mind they were almost two separate worlds. This is what made what happened at the Excalibur Casino in 2009 so interesting as they laid off the entirety of their 40 person dealing staff, moved out all of their poker tables and replaced them with 12 electronic poker gaming tables. It was a bold experiment by the Excalibur to say the least and as such it garnered much attention. But most of it was negative and the tables did not last very long, not even 6 months. The casino failed to recognize the main reason why these tables would come to fail, namely that live poker is an experience and that electronic tables cannot possibly replace nor mimic this aspect. In the end everything returned to “normal” as nearly every dealer was hired back and all tables returned to the poker room and the phenomenon of the electronic poker table has hardly been heard from since.
My very first experience with electronic tables at the Excalibur was at the beginning of their experiment when they hosted a slew of promotions to promote their new tables. One such promotion was a $100 satellite for events into the World Series of Poker (WSOP). They held these satellites for several events and it presented itself as an inexpensive way of entering the prestigious tournament. When my friend told me about these tourneys I felt as if I had to play one right away. Unfortunately the satellite occurring on that evening was the one for Omaha, a game I had very little experience in at the time. But feeling impulsive and seeing as how it was only $100, we decided to try our luck. They limited the field to 30 players for each satellite to be played over 3 electronic tables. My friend got knocked out relatively early but somehow my chip stack kept growing. Once it was down to five players it seemed like a realistic possibility that I may win this thing. It got down to 3 players and someone suggested a deal, but the chip leader at the time wanted the seat which I also coveted so we could not come to an agreement. But then he got knocked out 30 minutes later and it was down to heads up. Once again a deal was discussed but the woman sitting across from me was the chip leader and wanted the seat so we played on. A few hands later I took a healthy portion of her stack and then on the very next hand I would claim the seat in an all in when my KT98 double suited connected with the flop for two pair. I would go on to play in the Pot Limit Omaha $1,500 buy-in event at the WSOP in what is still my only event played in that tournament. I did not fare well in the actual tourney as I was busted by Chip Jett before the first break when his pocket kings held up against my KQT9 single suited. But what this experience did accomplish was that it gave me a favorable impression of the electronic poker tables, on which I would frequently play over the next few months.
Before we delve into all of the negatives, I should first discuss how the tables worked and some of their positive aspects. Each player had a tablet like screen in front of them where their two hole cards were dealt. They were dealt face down and once the player placed his hand on the screen the cards would peel up to show their value. One could easily place their hands in a manner to cover them so it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a player sitting in the next seat to see someone else’s cards. Then there was a bigger monitor in the middle of the table where the community cards were dealt. Players could assign their bet amounts on their individual screens and that would be displayed on the larger monitor for other players to see. Here is the only video (with no sound) I could find on YouTube of the original tables I played on initially:
As previously mentioned there were positive aspects to these tables and they were not insignificant:
No matter what criticisms people had of these tables, the software was very well developed. In the hundreds of hours I played I cannot recall a single glitch; everyone always got two hole cards, the flop always came out correctly, there was never a delay and the pot was always pushed to the right player. All of this is to basically say that there was never a misdeal nor a mistake made by the software. This leads into my next few points which all have to do with the lack of a dealer on the table, to which there were some benefits. To say that these tables were fast is an understatement. In my experience of managing poker rooms the fastest live dealer I have ever clocked comes in at 25 hands in a 30 minute down, while the average was around 19 to 21 hands. The electronic tables would often put out 50 hands in a 30 minute segment, while never making a mistake. This was very attractive for obvious reasons, especially for those playing for a living and needing to maximize their winnings on the table. Secondly, without a dealer on the table there was hardly a need to tip anyone in the poker room. Granted I would throw the floor manager a red bird ($5 chip) every few days, but that did not compare to the countless number of chips I had to tip to live dealers in other rooms. And I use the phrase “had to” as while tipping was theoretically optional, players that did not practice this custom were universally hated by both players and dealers and basically became pariahs. I have discussed in past blog articles how in a typical $1-$3 NLH game a regular player pays over $20K per year in rake. But that does not even include the thousands of dollars that one would have to pay just giving out $10 per session in tips. The final feature that I personally found attractive was the house bank. As the chips employed in these games were virtual, they did not have to be cashed out at the end of each session. Players could keep their money as recorded on an electronic ledger with the casino, much like how the Bellagio does it with their private boxes for high stakes players. It added a certain premier feel to the experience and made myself feel like a VIP.
One other benefit that I did not mention is that the electronic tables were very attractive to new players. For gamblers that were not familiar with poker, these tables looked like any other electronic table or slot machine on the casino floor and thus were able to lure them to try a new game. These would create very social games with players who did not necessarily care about losing money. And with certain celebrity players who had shares in the company that made the tables often dropping by to play, the outlook seemed positive for this new experiment. But in the end it was this very appeal and the previously mentioned lack of dealers that would cause the downfall of these new tables. While the new players injected life and a high level of softness to the games at the Excalibur, they also did not know any of the rules. This led to much table talk, often of the variety that was not allowed, and the game would slow to a snail’s pace. And with no dealers at the table to govern the action, there was no remedy in sight. The floor managers did the best they could to stem the tide, but in the end gave way to the sea of chaoticness that would come to run these games. And eventually with so many new players on the tables, the games were often kept small as the Excalibur was not exactly known for their high stakes clientele. Initially games started out as $1-$2 and $2-$5, but eventually gave way to stakes as low as $0.50-$1 to appeal to this new crowd.
With games being so small the Excalibur just could not attract the right clientele to run bigger games and generate more revenue. While well known players did initially come out in support, none of them wanted to play in micro-stakes games and eventually stopped coming. And without them the tables had no chance of succeeding as the experiment already faced an uphill battle. Back in 2009 Las Vegas was still very much old school, not in the take cheaters into the back room and cut their hands off kind of way, but much more than it is now in the age of the internet and technology. Online poker was still a relatively new phenomenon for most back then and live poker still ruled the scene with an older crowd of players that had an inherent distrust of technology. I knew several players who would not play on these tables out of principle and in fact my own roommate at the time, who also played professionally, never came to play with me even once at the Excalibur. Another force in play was the unspoken alliance between players and dealers. As a local player living in Las Vegas, one spends a lot of time with dealers with whom they even become friends. This certainly was the case in my life as well as some of the closest friends I had in town were dealers. These tables presented a threat to the livelihood of those in the dealing profession and the players were squarely in their corner against the electronic tables. Below is the only clip I could find of news coverage concerning the Excalibur experiment and one can readily see even in this short segment how the primary concern is over such a threat:
But perhaps the most significant factor in the downfall of the electronic tables was something that I did not fully realize until recently. I have not played much live poker in the past couple of years as I primarily play online. As an online poker agent I often make photo and video posts on social media of my sessions in order to promote my agency. I can track how many looks such posts receive in order to measure what types of posts perform well and which ones do not. Recently I had the urge to play live for the first time in a while and so I went and sat in a local $5-$10 PLO game. I bought in for $1,000, ended up doubling up to $2,000 and posted a photo of my stack as a story on both Facebook and Instagram. To my surprise the photo got a significant increase in the amount of looks it received over similar pictures I had posted from online sessions. I play smaller online in terms of blinds but my winnings are more stable over a longer sample size vs were I to play live exclusively. But no matter how good an upward trending poker graph looks, it does not compare to the tangible nature of a photo depicting stacks and stacks of physical chips. In the movie Rounders, Worm talks about “stacks and towers of checks I can’t even see over” as what cheers him up and not a huge balance on a computer screen. There is a certain level of romanticism concerning this game that is much better represented by live poker and this is the very factor that the Excalibur ignored or could not reproduce when attempting their electronic experiment. While there were benefits to these tables, in the end they could not reproduce the experience and sentiment that is attached to the live game.
Eventually the Excalibur would return to their live format and the electronic tables have not been tried in another casino since. And while the Excalibur would continue to run their poker room for several more years, this is all somewhat moot as currently they have yet to reopen their room after the corona related closures of casinos in Las Vegas. In fact only 21 poker rooms have opened at the time of this writing and live poker faces a very uncertain future. Although I have written of its demise in the past, I do secretly hope that I am wrong and that the game bounces back. As the game has shifted more towards the online realm in the past decade, even pre-corona, it is no coincidence that the game has lost much of its luster and appeal with the general public. And while I personally prefer online play and find it to be more profitable, ironically I recognize how important the live game is to the survival of poker overall. In the end nostalgia and sentiment will always win out over hard numbers and data, especially when attempting to appeal to the general public that could potentially serve as the new lifeblood of this great game. If this cannot be achieved, poker players then face the prospect of a game cannibalized from within in which they are only playing against one another. If the sentiments connected with the live game cannot somehow be reproduced by online players, it is imperative that live poker not only survive but thrive in order to attract new players.