Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Edmund P. Pillsbury, Curator at Kimbell, Dies at 66

I never intended this blog to be used for obituaries, but I feel this news deserves to be noted.

I just happened to catch a New York Times article Edmund P. Pillsbury... dies at 66, in the arts section. This is noteworthy news for readers of this blog because Mr. Pillsbury is the man that acquired Caravaggio's masterpiece, The Cardsharps, for the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas, where it is currently part of the museum's permanent collection.

Amongst paintings depicting gamblers, and more specifically card cheats, The Cardsharps is the most influential one of them all. This painting was missing for about 100 years after it had been stolen by art thieves. After the masterpiece was recovered Mr. Pillsbury had the good fortune to acquire it for the Kimbell Art Museum. It is, in my opinion, the most important work of art that the museum owns.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The "Bee" Electronic Baccarat Dealing Shoe

In an earlier blog post I described the Angel Eye electronic baccarat dealing shoe. The Angel Eye shoe was the first of its kind, i.e. the first "smart shoe" ever made, and it was designed specifically for the Asian market. The shoe was quickly embraced by all the casinos in Asia and become the industry standard. The Angel Eye shoe didn't only put an end to card switching scams, it also inspired other companies to develop their own smart shoes. One such company was the US Playing Card Company [USPCC], which "developed" their own electronic shoe that they decided to call the "Bee" baccarat shoe. Not a bad name, but I regret to say that the "Bee" shoe is nothing but a copycat "invention."

I am sure that the USPCC will not be thrilled by this review, but the truth is, when a company of their caliber comes up with a significant new product there will be opinions. And the opinion expressed in the following review is not just my own.

The USPCC is one of the leading manufacturers of playing cards in the world. As such, the company should never put itself in a position to be called a copycat. After all, they have no tolerance for counterfeit Bee cards that are mass produced in Asia, so they should abide by these same standards and not copy products that were developed by other companies. Ironically, copies and counterfeits are usually made in Asia, not the other way around. But the USPCC seems to be the first American manufacturer that is copying a product that was originally developed and produced in Asia.

It should be noted that the USPCC is not the only company that came up with their own electronic baccarat shoe, after Angel Eye. So, one may ask, why am I criticizing them?

The reason is simple, those other electronic shoes may have been inspired by Angel Eye, but they weren't copies of it. For example, in early 2008 ShuffleMaster introduced their i-Shoe, which works on the principle of visual recognition. By comparison, the Angel Eye shoe uses special playing cards that bear bar codes printed in invisible UV ink; so the Angel Eye shoe works more or less like a bar code scanner in the supermarket. British maker TCS JohnHuxley developed their AccuPLAY™ electronic shoe, in the same year as ShuffleMaster, which also works on the principle of visual recognition. In both cases, ordinary playing cards can be used, because the visual recognition shoes are just pointing a camera at the pips of the cards. But the USPCC didn't develop or come up with anything new. They simply copied the Angel Eye shoe and called it their own invention. Quite pathetic, I regret to say. But what is even more pathetic is how the USPCC went about introducing their "invention."

The USPCC first introduced their "Bee" shoe in June 2008, at a trade show in Macau. Normally when a company brings a new product to a trade show they want to show it off so that everybody knows about it. That's kind of the whole point of bringing a new product to a trade show. But that's not how the "Bee" shoe was introduced. Instead of spotlighting the shoe, trying to attract crowds, the USPCC kept their shoe literally covered-up with a cloth. If you happened to walk by their stand and asked what lay beneath the cloth you were told that it was a brand new product they were not yet allowed to show. Dude, the product is either patented (in which case you can show it around), or not (in which case you'd be crazy to bring it anywhere near a public trade show swarming with competitors), or patent pending (in which case it's the same as patented). And what's the point of bringing it to a show if you don't want to show it? But you'd be told that this had been brought to the show only to be shown to "special clients" (I guess that meant high-ranking casino executives with buying power). But if that was the case, why put the shoe up front and cover it with a cloth, instead of keeping it locked-up in the back and arranging to show it by special invitation, only? The whole thing made no sense.

Although the shoe was kept under a cover one would still catch occasional glimpses of it and therefore know that what lay beneath the cover was an electronic dealing shoe. Basically, they would occasionally allow some promising prospects to have a quick peek at the new product, so if one happened to walk by at that time, one would be fortunate enough to see that it was an electronic dealing shoe. I happened to walk by on a couple of such occasions, so I did catch a glimpse of this shoe, and I also happened to overhear a couple of conversations.

According to the USPCC rep, this was a "new kind of shoe," independently developed by the USPCC. When asked about the similarities with the Angel Eye shoe, the rep explained that their shoe used a "totally different technology." That this was something brand new. When asked if the shoe used cards printed with UV bar codes, the rep said he couldn't talk about it and insisted that this was something brand new, never before seen. When asked if it worked on visual recognition, the answer was, no, and that it was, once again, something totally new.

The company rep basically explained that they weren't showing the shoe, at this time, because (as people were lead to believe) they feared others would copy their idea. But the shoe would soon became available. The whole mysterious approach failed to keep the news under wraps, because if you walked around the show you'd hear people talk about it. That's basic psychology, actually. When you place a product in plain sight, only a few people will notice it. But when you put a cover over it and tell people this is a big secret, all you manage to achieve is get everyone's attention. But supposedly, the USPCC didn't want others to copy their idea; after all this trade show was taking place in Asia. But from the very beginning I had a feeling that there was a much simpler explanation for all that secrecy. I had a feeling the "Bee" shoe was just a knock-off of the good old Angel Eye.

If you think about it, the "Bee" shoe could not have been using any new technology. If it wasn't a visual recognition shoe, i.e. if the damn shoe can't "figure out" what the cards are by "looking" at the pips, it could only work with a bar code. And if the bar code is not visible it can only mean it's printed with invisible ink. In other words, just like the cards for the Angel Eye shoe. There's really no other option (unless perhaps RFID playing cards, which would be ludicrous and wouldn't even work too good).

Also, the whole secrecy didn't make any sense. The "protection" explanation simply failed to be convincing. If they wanted to protect an invention, the USPCC could easily afford a worldwide patent and really protect themselves from copycats. In fact, even without a patent, this is a product geared towards a very small industry; not exactly the same as selling knock-off Rubik cubes, fake Rolex watches, or counterfeit Bee cards on the street stands of New York's Chinatown. Casinos don't buy counterfeit Bee cards because they only buy from suppliers they do business with. There's really not much chance that a casino could ever be duped into buying a knock-off product that an established casino supplier claims credit to. That's probably the main reason why "Bee" shoes are not exactly selling out.

While the USPCC claimed that the reason for secrecy was to protect their idea from copycats, there's a much simpler and more logical explanation. I think they didn't want to show-off their "invention" simply because they were dealing with guilt and potential embarrassment.

When one copies a product, one is not exactly proud of their achievement. So, if the USPCC copied the Angel Eye shoe they would not really know how to present it. Deep inside they'd know they were just copying an existing product and that's not exactly a good feeling. What's even worse is that they'd basically (literally) have to lie to their own customers, when saying that their shoe is different. Sooner or later their customers would realize that they were told a bunch of lies. The USPCC knew they were unethical and they just didn't know how to go about selling their product. What the hell were they thinking?

So, why did they do it?

I actually happen to have a theory about that, that happens to be the only theory that makes sense.

My guess is that the USPCC saw a great opportunity to get in on a hot product and simply couldn't forgive themselves for not being the first to think of it. By getting a casino to purchase an expensive piece of equipment that requires special playing cards, the USPCC would ensure that these casinos would have to keep buying their playing cards, too, in the future. And the USPCC is exactly in the business of selling playing cards. So, what better way to ensure that your casino clients don't start buying playing cards from your competitors than to marry them to a product that is dependent on your playing cards?

It's also important to note where all this took place, and when.

The trade show took place in the convention center of the newly built Venetian Casino in Macau. This was the biggest casino ever built, and right in the heart of the Asian gambling mecca that is Macau. The USPCC already knew that all the other casinos in Macau were using Angel Eye shoes, which also meant that they were also buying bar-coded Angel playing cards. That's a hard thing to swallow for a company that wants to be the #1 supplier of playing cards to casinos around the world. The Asian casinos, i.e. the highest consumer of playing cards in the world, would no longer be buying USPCC Bee playing cards, because they've all started using the damn Angel Eye shoe. And that was not something that made the USPCC happy. So, they simply decided to approach the problem by introducing the exact same model that got Asian casinos "hooked" on Angel playing cards. But the problem was, there was really nothing left to be invented. So the only thing they could do was to copy an existing invention. And that's exactly what they did.

Next time I had the chance to see this shoe was about seven or eight months later. The company was still not promoting the damn shoe as any other company would promote a new product. They still didn't allow anyone to take pictures of the damn shoe, although they were handing out catalogs (which I scanned for this review).

Another thing that happened is that the USPCC simply dumped this shoe on Fournier. Fournier is a manufacturer of playing cards from Spain. The company had recently been bought by the USPCC, so they now had a new daddy. So, possibly to avoid direct embarrassment, the USPCC decided to dump the shoe on Fournier and in that year the shoe was no longer called the "Bee" shoe, but the Fournier shoe (with the Fournier name printed on the top of the shoe). While this would be a privilege in any other case, in this case it was quite the opposite. But I don't think anyone ever pointed any fingers at Fournier telling the world they copied the Angel product. The world already knew the shoe was a USPCC product. And the USPCC knew that, which might be the reason why they decided to put the "Bee" name back on the shoe; although Fournier is still distributing it.

So, this is the story of the "Bee" baccarat shoe. Now I have to tell you why the original Angel Eye shoe is still better than the newer "Bee" model. But since this post is already longer than I had hoped I'll just do a follow up post in a few days.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Russian Roulette "Joke" Ends Tragically

I'm sure most would agree that Russian Roulette is the ultimate gambling game. The exact origins of this game are not known, but it is generally believed that it had originated in Russian prisons, when sadistic guards forced the prisoners to play the game while betting on their lives.

One thing that is not generally known is that tragic incidents involving people playing Russian Roulette are more common than most people would expect. People apparently play this game, I guess to prove a point. Statistically speaking the incidents are more common amongst younger males with some alcohol content in their blood (duh!). I guess the mix of alcohol and testosterone, while having access to a firearm is a recipe for disaster.

A few days ago one incident involving an "innocent joke" with a gun was captured by a home video camera, at a wedding.

Russian Roulette "Joke" Ends Tragically

The news article was published on March 23, 2010 by several online outlets and YouTube is already flooded with these videos.

Apparently the guy is Chechen and currently in police custody. The authorities are probably waiting for the alcohol content to wear off, so they can ask him a few questions. But the gist of the story is that he says he was just kidding, thinking the gun was empty, pulled the trigger on himself then offered to the gun to his friends asking, who else wants to try his luck.

The most obvious detail in this video is that the gun used for this occasion was a semi-automatic. It's actually not even possible to play Russian Roulette with a semi (only a revolver can be used). One YouTube commentary said, "...yes, its not a revolver, but the first guy only un-cocked the gun, making a loud click. The second guy actually pulled the trigger, and no one knew it was loaded..."

I'm not sure I understand how one un-cocks a gun, making a loud click, but if you look at the video closely you can see that the first guy does not put his index finger on the trigger. I guess he does something with his thumb to produce the noise. Then, right before the other guy pulls the trigger, the first guy seems to rush towards his friend, probably noticing that he put his index finger on the trigger. I don't really want to spend any time investigating this event, but it is possible that the first guy assumed that the other guy would know how to produce the click without pulling the trigger, and then suddenly realized that he assumed wrong. Then it all happened too fast and the other guy was shot.

Apparently the gun contained rubber bullets, but when you discharge the gun right against your skull, I don't think it makes a big difference what material the bullets are made of. One detail that is unclear to me is, how does the first guy manage to cock the gun two times? I don't really know much about guns but I believe that every time you cock a gun, the action propels a bullet into the chamber. So, if there is a bullet already in the chamber it has to clear to allow the next bullet to get into the chamber. And the only way it can clear is by getting thrown out of the chamber, in the same way an empty slug would get thrown out while shooting. So, I don't really know, but I guess it's up to the authorities to figure out what happened, and what happens next.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rapid Craps

Rapid Craps is one of the latest electronic versions of the casino craps game. I've already talked about an electronic craps game in the Touch-Screen Electronic Craps Table blog post, but unlike the touch screen craps game, which has been designed for gaming centers, Rapid Craps is made for real casinos.

To be perfectly honest, Rapid Craps is not exactly breaking news. The game was first introduced in November 2006. The game was developed by ShuffleMaster.

As you can see in the photos Rapid Craps is basically a traditional craps table that has been fitted with electronic betting terminals. So, you will not see players wagering stacks of chips all over the layout. Instead, the players simply enter their wagers on touch screen terminals.

Of course, this game was designed to offer some advantages over the traditional craps table. So, let's talk about what some of the advantages may be.

As the name implies, Rapid Craps has mainly been designed to speed up the pace of the game. It's not exactly as if anyone ever thought craps was a slow game, actually. But even so, the traditional format of the game will always be slower than an electronic version, simply because the dealers have to spend some time collecting the losing bets and paying the winning ones. And those minutes add up to hour, and the hours eventually add up to days and weeks. At the end of the year the casino is spending a lot of time collecting and paying wagers. Of course, casinos are precisely in the business of collecting and paying wagers, but still, if this process can be sped up, the casino basically plays more rounds per hour. And casinos make their money in the long run, precisely by making players wager more often. So, that's pretty much the first advantage of Rapid Craps. However, having said that I also have to say that I actually don't have access to any statistics gathered by independent studies that tell us how "rapidly" the game performs in the long run, in a casino. Most of the times such studies are conducted solely by the actual developers of the games, and they are in the business of presenting statistics that will make their customers want to purchase their products.

Another advantage of having a casino game fitted with electronic betting terminals is that it eliminates the traditional cheating strategies that are done by physically manipulating the wagers. There is no more pastposting, no more overpaying, no chip snatching, no chip cups, etc. In this game the players can no longer wager after the dealer deactivates the betting cycle and the wagers are settled as soon as the dealer enters the results of a roll.

This brings me to a point. It should be noted that in this game, unlike the touch-screen version, the results of the rolls are not automatically read by the system. So, a dealer still has to manually enter the results of all the rolls. There are may be a few reasons for that, but the main one has to do with technical limitations.

Unlike in the touch-screen version where the dice are shaken inside of a glass dome, in this game the players still shoot the dice as if they were playing at a traditional craps table. This means that the dice can (and do) end up anywhere. To fit a craps table with an electronic reader the table would have to be enclosed in a cage that holds several cameras, each pointing at a different area of the table. Some people may think that the use of a cage is unnecessary, after all, we all know that casinos already have CCTV cameras above every table. Couldn't the system just utilize the feed from the cameras that are already there? Actually, no.

The reason why not is because in most casinos (at least in those that know their business) surveillance departments are completely separate entities. It would be a huge breach in security should any of the CCTV lines be intercepted, even by the casino itself, even for reasons justified by procedures. In short, no, the casino floor cannot utilize the feeds from surveillance cameras.

That's it in a nutshell. Now we may be interested in examining the game under a microscope and figuring out of the new format opens up some new possibilities for cheating. As we all know, most casino innovations that are designed to protect the casinos against cheating are known to open up new possibilities for cheating. This game is no exception.

First of all, the complete absence of chips on the layout makes it a nice and smooth surface for controlled dice shots. Are there people that can control dice shots on a casino craps table? Yes and no. That really all depends on how well the casino folks are trained. And that's exactly where a lot of casinos put themselves in trouble. They purchase the latest gadget and this is the ultimate solution. So, armed with a false sense of security they often neglect many of the procedures they should be enforcing. They end up training dealers poorly, thinking they are saving money by hiring a good-looking bimbo that just has to press a button, and paying her cheap, and they watch the game less closely, thinking that the machine took over most of the work. In addition, an electronic craps table needs to be attended by one dealer, only. So, if you are in the business of bribing casino dealers (historically, bribing dealers is the most usual scam), you will only have one person to bribe.

I don't want to talk about controlled dice shots, in this blog post, but I just wanted to mention that this is a possibility. The shooter will control one of the dice, while letting the other bounce naturally. Technically speaking, such rolls should not be approved, but if the casinos are clueless (which is certainly the direction some of the joints are headed towards) they may simply not suspect that the shooter is in fact doing controlled shots. And controlling one of the two dice is a massive advantage. Of course, a good shooter doesn't really care if there are stacks of chips all over the layout. My point is that the absence of chips from the layout is a small advantage for some shooters, the fact that there is only one dealer attending is yet another advantage, and the fact that some casinos may rely to much on the false sense of security is also an advantage in the favor of the folks that are in the business of cheating casinos. So, if we wish to talk about what kind of new risks this new casino gadget may bring, this is the short list. What I am definitely not saying is that this new gadgets makes it easy to cheat the casinos. But what I am saying is that casinos should not rely on these kinds of gadgets too much.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blackjack Parallel Deal

Note: This blog post was edited from a post that I published on the CARDSHARK Online Bulletin Board, on Mar. 03, 2008.

In the near future there may be a new format of blackjack games. It is called Blackjack Parallel Deal.

This game is being introduced in various European casinos, I believe mostly in Malta. The idea is to have an online game that is actually interfaced with a live game at an actual casino. So, any number of players can play online, while the dealer is dealing actual cards from an actual shoe, and live players are also simultaneously playing at the casino. The total number of players can be unlimited, but the games are currently developed for a maximum of 250 players at a time. Of course, that doesn't mean that the blackjack layout has 250 betting spots. Instead the players are playing with community cards, somewhat reminiscent of Hold'em.

Let me explain how the game works, but first let's have a look at some pictures.

As you can see in the first two pictures, the layout is not the same as in a standard blackjack game. Instead of the usual seven player positions, all the players receive the same two cards, dealt in the spot marked "Initial Deal". The dealer receives an up card in the spot marked "Dealer's Hands" (I do not know why it is plural... probably a mistake). In Euro games, there is no hole card, but in the American version the hole card would be dealt face down beside the up card. This is of course a huge security flaw, but the company developing this game was not too interested in what I had to say about that. This is good news for all you casino cheats and advantage players out there. Anyway...

I actually think this game is quite clever and I am sure it is just a matter of time when they will fix all the security flaws (and I found many). But this post is not about gaming security, but rather about the game itself. So let me explain how this game actually works.

The live players, at the casino, play through electronic betting terminals. The table shown in the photos is equipped with six betting terminals, but there are other tables with less or more betting terminals around the table. The casino can also have remote betting terminals at the bar or anywhere else. Then the live game is connected to a web server and online players can play remotely at the same time.

So, everyone receives the same starting hand. Now players make hit and stand decisions (as well as double down, split...etc) and the dealer waits for the computer to prompt for the next card. Any player that takes longer than a predetermined time limit to make a decision is automatically forced to stand. The dealer then deals the next card into the area marked "Subsequent Deal". This card could be a player's hit card, or another player's double down card, or if a player decided to stand it counts as the dealer's hit card.

As you can see on the two pictures showing the betting terminals, the 4♢ is the first player's hit card, but for the second player it counts as the dealer's hit card. That's because the first player decided to hit but the second player decided to stand.

All the wagers are handled electronically (which brings to question why the dealer needs a chip tray). The dealer does not actually pay any attention to what the players are doing and also doesn't bother adding up any totals. The computer just prompts the dealer when to deal the next card into the "Subsequent Deal" area and eventually tells the dealer when the round is over.

Online players see the computer generated cards as well as a live video feed of the live dealer. The cards are read by a special optical-recognition shoe so that the computer knows what cards are being dealt as they come out of the shoe.

The game pictured here is a Euro style game, i.e. the dealer does not receive a hit card. In the American version the dealer deals a card face down next to the up card. The part that is confusing is when the dealer is supposed to show the dealer's hole card, as some players are taking hits while others may decide to stand.

As I already said, I think this is a clever idea for a game. However, at this time it is still not fully developed and I found many flaws.

When I made my initial post of the Blackjack Parallel Deal I've also posted a review of the TCS JohnHuxley optical recognition blackjack dealing shoe. That separate post is relevant to this one, since this game happens to be using that particular shoe (as can be seen from the photos above).

So, as I was just saying, this new game has some serious weaknesses, from a game security standpoint.

One serious weakness is already described separately, in the post entitled Casino Innovations by the Clueless: TCS/JH Optical Dealing Shoe. In a nutshell, the optical reader mechanism is built in such way that the faces of the cards are being flashed at the rear of the shoe, as the cards are dealt out. This weakness is only affecting the American version of the game that utilized a dealer hole card. Since the company does in fact offer an American version of BJ Parallel Deal, I find it that this is a legitimate "concern" or "discovery" - depending whom you ask.

The other serious weakness also pertains to the American format of this game. So, you guessed it, it has something to do with hole cards. And before you read the following description please make sure you are not consuming food or beverages, as I do not want to be held responsible if you happen to choke while reading.

As in any American blackjack game, the dealer deals out two cards for the house in addition to the players' cards. In this game, however, there is only one (communal) players' hand. But we are interested in the dealer's hand, so let's have a closer look at that, shall we. First of all let's have another look at one of the pictures that shows the layout.

As you can see the layout has a wide space for the dealer's hand. In this picture a Euro game is being dealt, but if this was their American version there would be a face-down hole-card laying inside that wide space, right next to the up-card.

As I'm sure readers of this blog are well aware (even our European friends) the American blackjack game procedures require the dealer to place the hole-card underneath the up-card. The reason for this is simply to protect the game (as best as possible) from the use of marked cards. In fact, the threat of marked cards is precisely the reason why Euro-style games are dealt without hole-cards. It would seem that the designers of Blackjack Parallel Deal have forgotten this "minor detail" while designing the procedures for the American version.

But there's more... and that's the good part...

While I was observing a dealer deal this game I noticed something that blew my socks off. First of all, it is important to note that the optical shoe used in this game does not work on the same principle as the Angel Eye shoe, so it sometimes misses some cards. To briefly clarify, the Angel Eye shoe uses specially-marked cards that have an invisible barcode on the faces. When the card passes over the reader, the shoe reads the barcode in the same way as the UPC barcode is registered in a supermarket. However, this new optical shoe uses an ordinary video camera and optical recognition technology. So, since the cards pass over the camera lens quite fast, the camera sometimes (quite often) fails to recognize the image because of motion blur (an naturally-occurring effect in any motion picture camera).

So, what happens when the shoe fails to read the value of the card? Well, the company developed procedures for this occurrence. They seem to have thought of everything, so casinos that purchase this game only have to "open the box" and start playing with their new toy. I guess, this is what is commonly known as a turn-key solution.

Let's have a look at these procedures.

With face-up cards the procedure is rather simple. In the event that one of the cards has not been registered by the optical reader, the dealer just has to note the card(s) in question and simply enter the value(s) into the computer. But the procedure for the hole-card is what I am getting at.

If the shoe fails to read the value of the hole-card, the dealer is required to manually peek at the card and enter the value in the computer. Yes, you read this correctly. The dealer will actually bend the face-down card to facilitate identification, in the same exact way as it used to be done several decades ago when high-roller would arrive to a casino via horse and carriage instead of the now-common stretch limo.

First of all, current procedures in the US make it impossible for the dealer to even know the value of the hole card, unless it is a 10-value card (and only if an Ace is the up card) or an Ace (if a 10-value is the up card). Thanks to sound procedures and the card reader which is the industry standard in any US casino, the dealer will never have any premature knowledge of the hole card. These procedures have become industry standard a few decades ago, but it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the younger casino folks don't even know (or at least don't fully understand) why these procedures have been implemented. It would be interesting to see if any US casinos (with less experienced staff) would simply embrace the new Blackjack Parallel Deal procedure and completely overlook the sore thumb.

But it gets better. If you are a casino cheat you don't even have to bribe the dealer to signal hole cards, in this case. The computer into which the dealer enters the values of the cards is a touch screen computer that is mounted on a stand, at eye level, next to the dealer. In the photos above you can see the touch screen flush-mounted on the table, but this is not how they designed the American version. In the American version the touch screen in mounted onto a high stand.

So, in a typical pit set-up there would be other gaming tables behind the dealer dealing this game, and there would be other players at those tables. Those players would obviously have a clear view of the touch screen.

I know, some may be thinking that this procedure is not really a big threat, in a practical sense, because, after all, how many times can one expect that the hole-card will fail to read? And in the meantime, one must be gambling without any hole-card knowledge. But there's more. And this is the part that I'm afraid might make you choke... So put your food and drink away while you read the next two paragraphs.

The best part of the procedures occurs when a dealer has an Ace or a 10-value card showing. You may already be sensing what I am getting at...

In the event of an Ace or 10 showing (which occurs far more often than the shoe failing to read the hole-card) the dealer is required to manually peek at the hole card and note if the house has a natural. The utter stupidity of this procedure lays in the fact that this game utilizes a "state of the art" gizmo, known as an optical shoe, which happens to be the centerpiece of what this company happens to be promotion at this time. In any blackjack game, if the house happens to catch a natural, the game is over. Period. And since the game uses an optical shoe the computer should already know the game should be over; except that it had not been programmed in such way that it would light-up a sign that says "GAME OVER", which would be the most logical way to do it. Instead the dealer is required to manually peek at the hole-card and manually enter a "game over" command on the touch-screen.

Forget about the fact that the dealer knows the exact value of the hole-card every time there is an Ace or 10 showing. Just think how much money the casino is losing in the long run by having the dealer manually enter a "game over" command, instead of moving on to the next round.

With optical recognition technology the company that developed this game could have easily installed a secondary camera reader flush-mounted onto the table. The dealer would place the hole-card under the up card, as standard procedure dictates, and the double card would be placed onto the secondary reader, whether or not the shoe failed to read the hole-card. In the event that the shoe did fail to read the hole-card, the secondary reader would automatically read it and the information would automatically be entered in the computer... and the game would continue without any pause.

It is a known fact that whenever there is a new game there are some weaknesses that cheats and advantage players can exploit. If US casinos ever introduce this game (US online gambling laws would have to change first) I really doubt they would just follow the "turn-key" solution and follow the recommended procedures developed by the manufacturer of this game. But there are other countries where hole-card BJ games can be found, and those are more likely to acquire this new game, mostly due to the fact that this game is better suited for smaller casinos that want to expand onto the internet. Many of these casinos already have weaker procedures and less experienced staff. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that such casinos would just "open the box" and start dealing this game as per instructions in the user manual.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Casino Innovations by the Clueless: TCS/JH Optical Dealing Shoe

Note: This blog post was edited from a post that I published on the CARDSHARK Online Bulletin Board, on Mar. 15, 2008.

Here is a new optical dealing shoe, by TCS JohnHuxley. This shoe was developed for some of the new electronically assisted casino games, such as Blackjack Parallel Deal. You can view the product description, along with some product shots, on the company's official web site: (Please note, the company keeps changing their URLs, so there is no guarantee that the URL provided here will hold up).

Now let's take a look at some pictures that I took. First, here is a straightforward picture of the shoe.

At first glance this may appear like a decent product (after all, this equipment was made by one of the leading makers of casino equipment and our subjective opinion may lead us to believe that this is actually a good product). The shoe is definitely inspired by the more popular Angel Eye shoe, except that this one is made for blackjack, therefore there are no lights at the back of the shoe that would display results (banker, player, tie).

Furthermore, the optical reader is developed specifically for the John Huxley shoe, which is more or less one of the industry standards in Europe. So, the idea is that a casino can just buy the reader and then just fit their existing JH shoes on it. So far so good.

Now let's have a closer look.

First of all, the reader is constructed in such way that you have to cut-off the front of the shoe to facilitate mounting the shoe into the reader. Yes, that's right, you have to take a perfectly healthy shoe, place it onto a circular saw table, and cut the damn front right off. If you are in the casino business you probably don't have a circular saw laying around the casino floor, so you'll just have to manage somehow. Also, whoever will help you in this task will soon discover that the circular saw should be fitted with a special carbide-tip blade, to even stand a chance at cutting through plexiglas. I am not sure if this detail is mentioned in the user's manual.

So much for convenience.

But there is another rather interesting detail. Let's take a closer look at the reader mechanism.

As you can clearly see, the shoe is mounted onto the metal contraption. But wait a minute... Did you happen to notice the distance between the table surface and the lip of the shoe reader?

To better understand what I mean let's take a look at a card being dealt out of the shoe.

It is quite obvious that the face of the card hovers above the table surface after it passes through the reader and before it actually hits the table. The gap is rather large. I believe I could easily put an entire finger into that gap.

I don't really think anyone is interested in putting their fingers into that gap, but some may be interested in pointing a camera at the face of the card, from the other side of the shoe. So, let's have a look at that picture.

Now, I didn't have a proper camera and I also didn't have enough time to set up a good shot. So you can't really see the value of the card that is being dealt. But you can clearly see that a large part of the card's face is exposed from the rear of the shoe; basically, from the players seated in first base position.

It is a documented fact that casino cheats have managed to get a better image of a card being dealt out of shoes that produce a much smaller gap when the cards are dealt out. So, with a proper low-light camera one would clearly get a workable image of the card. Also, the camera that I used has the lens mounted in the middle of the camera body, so I was not able to bring the lens all the way down to the table surface. But I'm sure you get the idea.

So, overall, I think this is a great product as it facilitates easy identification of the cards... as long as one is equipped with the proper accessories...

It should be noted, however, that JH sells mostly to European casinos. This is an important detail as Euro-style blackjack games are dealt without dealer hole cards. But in any event, I still think that people in the business of designing casino equipment should know better.

Interestingly enough, I've already blogged about some other products developed by TCS JohnHuxley in Casino Innovations by The Clueless: Sic Bo and in Casino Innovations by the Clueless: Blackjack Layouts. Interestingly, both of these previous posts, as well as this one, are titled Casino Innovations by The Clueless... There is a pattern. And TCS JohnHuxley just happens to be one of the leading manufacturers of casino equipment in the world. Interesting!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

World Series of Mahjong

We all know that Texas Hold'em Poker became a sensation, virtually overnight. And that it's all thanks to the fact that the World Series Of Poker [WSOP] became a televised event.

TV folks have a long tradition of mass-producing cliché shows, based on proven performance. The cookie-cutter approach makes a lot of sense, actually. After all, TV shows are nothing but a product for the masses. And when producing for the masses, mass production is always the "best" approach.

When the televised WSOP tournaments proved to be a hit other producers have jumped and came up with similar shows of their own. They were generally successful. But then it became obvious that there's just so many "varieties" of poker shows that "creative minds" can come up with. So, once the ideas for poker shows have been exhausted, they started developing similar shows, featuring other games, such as blackjack, dominoes and... now mahjong.

First it was baseball, then Texas Hold'em poker, and now Mahjong is the next to hold an annual World Series to find the best players and offer them a platform to showcase their skills and talents.

Mahjong is one of the most popular social/gambling games in China. For the Chinese market it makes a lot of sense to produce televised mahjong tournaments. Unlike Texas Hold'em that was virtually unknown to the general public, until TV made the game into a hit, mahjong has always been a household name in China. There is already a big industry around it (see my earlier blog post Crooked Mahjong Set). So, here comes the World Series Of Mahjong [WSOM].

Just like the WSOP, the WSOM hosts a circuit event, offering cash prizes to top place winners. Also following the WSOP model, the WSOM tournament culminates with the "Main Event" - the second branch of the WSOM - in which a prize pool of over $1M USD is rewarded.

The next WSOM will take place from August 19-22, 2010 at the Venetian Resort, in Macau (see Mahjong News: WSOM 2010 is a Go).

So, is Mahjong the new Hold'em?

First of all, at this point in time the buy-in for the WSOM is $625 USD, which makes it much more affordable than most of the big poker tournaments. So, at this time, at least from a financial point of view, the WSOM still has some catching up to do to get to the level of the WSOP. There are of course some other differences.

Mahjong is a 4-player game. So, the final table in a mahjong tournament is not quite as the final table in poker. What makes the final table in a poker tournament exiting for the viewers is how it all plays out. In poker a group of chip leaders are sent to the final table for the ultimate test (although it could be argued what is actually being tested, but that's for another post...). After a few rounds the number of players gets reduced, as the blinds escalate, until there are only two left standing. The highly anticipated heads up match is a delight to watch (I guess) and the outcome depends on the turn of a card. Now, mahjong doesn't play quite like that.

The main difference between mahjong and Texas Hold'em (or poker in general) is that mahjong is a true game of skill, whereas poker can be played by virtually anyone pretending to know the game. Actually, at least in theory, even an absent player can win a poker tournament, without even bothering to show up at the event. Yes, that empty seat will need some unbelievable luck, but at least it can be said that it is at least theoretically possible. The same cannot be said for a mahjong tournament.

So, due to the skill factor, I think mahjong does not stand the chance to become the next poker. Let's face it, there's no shortage of pretenders and delusional gamblers in poker. The element of chance is precisely what makes poker such a great game of the masses to get hooked on. And that's what made poker what it is today. So, in my humble opinion, mahjong does not stand the chance to compete with the popularity of poker. But we shall see. In the meantime, enjoy the show.

Like wine, and like the WSOP, the WSOM has a good chance to improve with age.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Pre-Castro Cuban Lottery Tickets

In one of my earlier blog posts, titled Only a Sucker Can Be a Lottery Winner, I pretty much express my opinion about people that spend money on lottery tickets. But what I didn't tell you is that I also recently purchased some lottery tickets, and those has absolutely zero chance of winning. So, if one has to be a sucker to buy a lottery ticket in the first place, what kind of a sucker would buy expired lottery tickets?

These lottery tickets are different, however. They are from 1929, issued by the National Lottery of the Republic of Cuba. We're talking pre-Castro Cuba, of course.

I picked up these tickets on one of my recent trips to the Caribbean Islands. Unfortunately, I didn't go to Cuba (although I'd love to see this country before it changes) but I did find a few Cuban artifacts in some of the antique shops. I paid $40 for a sheet containing six lottery tickets and I also picked up a hand-written letter, from 1852, addressed to someone in Havana. The letter is a treat for the eyes.

I don't really know anything about these lottery tickets, so I can't really write up an informative blog post. I wish I had found some artifacts from the old Cuban casinos, but unfortunately I had no such luck this time.