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Player's Advantage: Game inventors can reap big profits from casinos

| Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Roger Snow, senior vice president of table and utility products at Bally Technologies Inc.
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Roger Snow, senior vice president of table and utility products at Bally Technologies Inc.

Winning a game isn't the only way to make money in a casino. Inventing one can be even more profitable.

The popularity of “specialty” or “proprietary” games such as Three Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em is growing year after year, and such games are taking space away from blackjack.

Casinos pay as much as $2,000 per table per month to game owners. Blackjack side bets, the most common form of proprietary games, typically get $30 to $50 per month per table, with a few reaping $300 per month.

But anyone with an idea for the next hot game should steel themselves for rejection, says the inventor of some of the most popular specialty games in the industry.

“Ninety-nine percent of these games don't make it,” says Roger Snow, the wizard behind Four Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em and holder of more than 40 patents on games and casino products. “It's a brutal business. If you don't like failure, don't be a game developer.”

The first specialty game, Caribbean Stud, appeared in the late 1980s. Its descendants now take up about 25 percent of the table game space in U.S. casinos, Snow tells Player's Advantage.

The games have become so popular that they are the subject of political correctness. For years, they were lumped together as “carnival games” because they were outside the traditional offerings of blackjack, craps and roulette. Because “carnival game” carries a negative connotation, “proprietary” and “specialty” have become more accepted descriptions, Snow says.

Many games come from established companies, including Bally, but Snow says the company signs deals with a handful of individual inventors each year.

The main thing a new game has to offer is the chance for players to win money.

“When you create a game, the most important element is the ability, or maybe even the illusion, that a player can win money ,” says Snow, senior vice president of table and utility products at Bally Technologies..

“You have to inject enough mathematical volatility in the game to allow the player to win money in the short run and walk away up. That ability to win money trumps everything else.”

Snow says the flip side of winning a lot of money quickly is losing just as fast, but people tend to focus on their victories.

Developers should stick to blackjack and poker variations because people are familiar with the base game, he advises. Three Card Poker, the current champ of proprietary games, will mark its 20th anniversary next year. Snow predicts that one of his inventions, Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, eventually will knock Three Card Poker from the top perch.

New games have lots of competition. On Nov. 25, casino executives attending the Cutting Edge Table Games Conference in Las Vegas reviewed 25 potential new games and picked three as potential hits. Two are blackjack variations, and the other is based on poker.

Of course, a casino won't offer a game unless it has a house advantage that guarantees the casino will win in the long run.

“It's a bit of sleight of hand,” Snow says. “You have to come up with rules that players really like — I get to double down and split (at blackjack) for free; I get to bet four times on my hand — and then you have to come up with rules on the other side that give the house advantage back.”

A side bet with little or no strategy can have a house edge of 8 percent or higher, Snow says, while a game with a high degree of strategy can have a house edge of less than 1 percent. That means the house would win less than $1 of every $100 bet with perfect play. The twist is that perfect play is virtually impossible to learn, unlike basic strategy at blackjack. Snow says that not even he can play Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em well enough to get to its theoretical house edge of 0.8 percent.

Roger Snow

Title: Senior Vice President of Table and Utility Products at Bally Technologies in Las Vegas

Games invented: Four Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, Dragon Bonus Baccarat, Crazy 4 Poker, House Money side bet for blackjack, various House Money derivatives

Inspiration to become game developer: While working at the Mirage in Las Vegas, he saw invoices showing the casino paid Shuffle Master Inc. $2,000 per table per month for its Let It Ride game.

Notable job: While with Shuffle Master, Snow's official title was executive vice president, chief product officer and wizard

Quote: “You want to make sure the house makes a reasonable amount of money, but … the average player can walk up and have a winning experience at the table. It's a very delicate balance, and in that balance are where success and failure are determined.”

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

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