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Finding the right mix of open tables for players, casinos

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 9:19 p.m.
Players check their hands at the Blackjack table.
Players check their hands at the Blackjack table.

Low-limit blackjack players know the frustration of the hunt for an affordable table.

They circle the game pits, hopefully looking for an open seat with a $5 or $10 minimum bet. Often, they find those tables packed, while tables with $25 and $50 minimums sit empty or have only one or two players.

The search begs questions: How do casinos decide which tables to open and what the minimums should be? Wouldn't it be more profitable to change that empty $50 table to a $10 table so the dealer wouldn't be just standing there looking bored? Why isn't my money as good as that high roller's?

For years, casino officials relied on experience and gut feelings in deciding when to open games and where to set the minimum. Now, many are introducing the data-heavy “yield-management” concept, common in the airline and hotel industries, to the table game pit.

Basically, yield management allows a business to get the most from its products by knowing its customers and varying the price for items in limited supply, such as a hotel room, flight ticket or blackjack seat.

In casinos, a yield-management approach examines a variety of factors about players, including the average bet, time at the table and number of hands played per hour.

Tangam Systems, a Canadian company that sells yield-management software designed for casinos, studied how long players stay at a table with various occupancy levels. It found that most higher-limit players like to play with only one or two others at the table, while lower-limit players tend to like more people in the game.

Lance Young, table-games director at The Meadows Casino in North Strabane, says the optimum occupancy, for player and casino, is five people at a blackjack table with a $5 minimum bet; four at a $10 table; 3 12 at $15; three at $25; 2 12 at $50; and 1 12 at $100 and above.

“Basically, the higher the denomination player, the less crowded they want the table,” he says. “They're more likely to play longer given less people at the table.”

Meadows installed Tangam's yield-management system in September 2011. The software tracks, in real time, the number of open tables and players, along with the buy-in, current bet and average bet for each person. Using that data along with the casino's theoretical winning percentage for each game and its overhead costs — everything from dealer pay to the tax rate — the program alerts supervisors when a table should be opened or closed, a minimum bet raised or lowered.

Young gives the example of a blackjack game with one player betting $25 per hand who is joined by a second player who bets $500 per hand. With just the two players, the casino's theoretical win is $785.40 per hour, he says; if a third player sits down and bets $25 per hand, the casino's theoretical drops to $598.94.

Theoretical win is an estimate of what the casino expects to win based on players' average bets, the number of hands per hour and the casino's advantage in a game. For blackjack, the standard theoretical house edge is figured at 1.25 percent, Young says.

Pennsylvania's blackjack rules yield a house edge of just under 0.4 percent for a player using basic strategy perfectly, according to However, few people do that.

Also, theoretical win means is not guaranteed. While it's a good estimate for the long run, what happens in an individual session could be wildly different. The players could win or lose thousands of dollars, depending on how the cards come out.

Young says a casino doesn't make money at a table with everyone betting $5.

“If all six players are playing $5, I can't pay the dealer, the floor, the surveillance,” he says.

Tangam's analysis says Meadows' best approach for its $5 tables is to aim for five players.

“That's where you lose the least amount of money, and get the most play out of the players,” Young says. He adds that Meadows always has two $5 tables — one in the smoking area, one in nonsmoking.

And it almost always has at least one $100 table with nobody playing. Because those players like heads-up action, or maybe one other person at the table, Young says, he routinely opens an empty table available.

Poker OK will ‘take luck'

Federal legalization of online poker during the post-election session of Congress will “take a little bit of gambler's luck,” the head of the American Gaming Association said this week in Las Vegas.

According to news accounts at the opening of the Global Gaming Expo this week, Association President Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said Congress has several other issues it might address in November, which might make it difficult for Internet poker legislation to be discussed. He also noted that several key backers of the move are retiring.

Money trail

Slot players lost $200.5 million in Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during September, a small increase from September 2011, when only 10 casinos were open, the Gaming Control Board reported this week.

The board said an average of 26,420 slot machines were on the floors of the 11 casinos last month, slightly less than the 26,441 in September 2011, before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state gets 55 percent of the gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' bets after payouts are made.

Statewide, slots have a payout rate of 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started in July; for every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Highest rate: 90.65 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest rate: 89.29 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers; September slot revenue was $22.34 million, down by 4.34 percent from the September 2011 total of $23.35 million.


Meadows; September slot revenue was $21.5 million, up by 3.3 percent from the September 2011 total of $20.81 million.


Presque Isle in Erie; September slot revenue was $12.75 million, down by 11.6 percent from the September 2011 total of $14.43 million.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or

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