Copyright © John Bloom
This article originally appeared in
Playboy Magazine, August 2004 issue, page 73. This article
contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not been
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On the night I met Henry Lo I was hanging out
on the slummy end of the Las Vegas Strip, at the Sahara. With
its camel sculptures and vaguely Arabic signage, it's a legendary
part of old Vegas that has become the ultimate low-roller
joint. Instead of the Rat Pack cavorting in the lounge until
five A.M., the best you can hope to see today are occasional winners
celebrating at the $5 craps table.
As I killed time playing blackjack, I was also
watching a lonely table by the bar, where a bored dealer named Uten
had her cards fanned across the felt and her arms akimbo, facing the
empty chairs but looking as if she might start filing her nails at
any moment. She was attractive -- as all dealers should be, in
my opinion -- so after an hour had passed with nobody hitting the
table, I wondered over and noticed that the game was called 7 Card
"I've never played 7 Card Thrill," I
said to Uten, who I later found out is from Thailand, "but I'll
give it a crack if you'll tell me the rules." This wasn't
so easy, as Uten had never dealt 7 Card Thrill before. She had
learned it just that day, and I was to be her first player.
She motioned to her pit boss -- a pleasant, boyish sort in a
Wrangler cowboy shirt -- and he came over to explain the rules.
The next thing I knew, four hours had passed
and I was still playing 7 Card Thrill. It's a great game, like
pai gow poker on fast-forward. It seems complex at first, but
once you learn it you can knock out 40 or 50 hands in an hour and
feel in total control of the strategy. It's a single-deck game
in which players are dealt seven cards and try to make the best
five-card poker hand from among them to beat the house. Other
rules include a time-and-a-half payout for twin aces anywhere on the
table and an optional side bet whereby players can wager that
they'll have a pair of aces or better from among their seven
cards. Faster than blackjack and pai gow but with elements of
both, it's a wild game of streaks, surprises and moments of
unbearable tension when the dealer reveals her hand.
After I'd broken the ice with Uten, a few more
degenerates joined me at the 7 Card Thrill table, and soon we were
getting raucous. Unlike in blackjack, players can't
bust. Everyone has a sporting chance against the dealer until
the last moment, which results in high-five camaraderie whenever the
entire table wins.
And that's where Henry Lo came in. For a
brief period in the second or third hour, the chairs at the table
were all taken, but when one opened up a guy slid into the mix just
to observe and cheer for the rest of us.
I didn't notice him right away, despite the
oversize glasses and bowl haircut, but after I revealed on
particular hand, he burst out, "Cool! You beat her with the
When Uten tried to claim the bet, he said,
"No, that pays the player. It's just like pai gow."
The pit boss was called over to confirm the cheerleader's assertion,
and suddenly I was $10 richer.
"I guess I should thank you," I said.
"No problem," he replied, grinning
When I finally cashed in my chips, the guy
asked, "Do you like this game?"
"I love it," I told him.
"Do you ever play it?"
"I Invented it," he said.
It turned out I'd never encountered 7 Card
Thrill before because this was the only table in the world where it
was being played. Henry Lo, my new friend, was an accounting
school dropout from south Philadelphia with a heavy Vietnamese
accent and an affable manner. He was so bright-faced and
rapid-fire, in fact, that he seemed to be starring in his own
private infomercial. He had concocted the game three years
earlier, he explained over a drink that he barely touched, and then
tested it briefly at Sunset Station casino in Henderson,
Nevada. After going through several versions and $50,000 for
lawyers, patents, table designs and fees for the independent game
analyst required by the gaming commission, he'd finally talked the
Sahara into taking a flier. "But the table is open only
on weekends," he said. "And look where it is --
behind the bar, where there's no traffic."
Still, he was excited to get a shot, however
limited. "First I was a blackjack player," he told
me, "but that game makes me nervous. It's stressful,
there are a lot of decisions, and a bad player at the table can
screw up your hand." He grimaced and threw up his hands,
as though the painful memories of Atlantic City yahoos splitting
face cards were too numerous to recount. "I was always
mad when I played that. So I switched to pai gow, where nobody
can screw up my cards. It takes forever to play one hand,
though. I hate the commission, and a tie goes to the dealer,
so I decided to make my own game -- like blackjack but not so
nerve-racking, and faster than pai gow. My game is more
relaxing." Lo beamed and his pupils enlarged as he raved
on, a man possessed.
That was three years ago; for one night we had
made 7 Card Thrill the hip game at the Sahara. But when I
returned the following night, Uten was standing there again, staring
into space, her cards fanned and untouched. Lo was there too,
passing out his 7 Card Thrill rules, which read SIMPLE! EXCITING!
RELAXING! ENJOYABLE! It was all true, but Lo was having
flashbacks: Somebody was screwing up his hand again.
I guess I had always known that
someone has to invent casino games, but I'd always assumed it was
some 17th century Frenchman at the court of Versailles. Lo was
my first introduction to a fascinating new breed of gambler fostered
by the casino boom of the past 15 years -- a gambler who bets not
just his money but with his career. The casino-game inventor,
a profession that didn't exist two decades ago, is strictly a
long-shot player. The odds of his game breaking through are
incredibly slim, perhaps 1,000 to one. But the payoff can be
enormous -- $10 million a year.
And just as there are good poker
players and bad poker players, so there are successful game
inventors and spectacularly unsuccessful ones. It's a
veritable gold rush, with every dealer, player and casino hustler
who's ever had a smidgen of an idea for a new game heading to the
patent office, trying to strike it rich. Most of them are only
tinkering with an idea, but others, such as Lo, have an unsettling
gleam in their eye, like Walter Huston's in The Treasure of the
There are good reasons to be
optimistic about the future of card games, even in slot-crazy
American casinos. One recent weekend I motored to Atlantic
City, where the Borgata, one of the newer, more lavish resorts on
the Boardwalk, is rewriting history by loading the floor with table
games. "It's the most exciting place I've ever
worked," Says Jim Rigot, the Borgata's vice president of casino
operations. He is a 29-year casino veteran who oversees 139
tables and more than 1,000 gaming positions -- an heard-of number in
a town known for catering to little old ladies from Scranton.
"We're actually taking out slot machines to put in more tables
-- just the opposite of what everyone else is doing. The
demand is clearly there."
"What we discovered,"
says Larry Mullin, the Borgata's executive vice president, "is
that table games declinded in Atlantic City in the past 10 years
because players were so discriminating that they left here and went
to Connecticut or Vegas. We started catering to them, and they
came back. If you sit down at a table at the Borgata, you'll
get a premium import beer in a bottle. It may sound like a
small thing but not if you're accustomed to getting an Old Milwaukee
in a cup. The table-games player has more money, is younger
and expects a lot more."
The economics are not that hard to
figure out. The average bus customer to Atlantic City has a
$40 gambling budget. If he can find a $10 blackjack table --
and he won't on weekends at the Borgata, which has $25-minimum
tables because of the bigger crowds -- he can lose it all in four
bets. He's going to head for the nickel slots instead.
The table-games players arrives by car and tends to be good for $500
or more. It's the difference between fans in the bleachers and
season ticket holders in box seats. And the Borgata has
captured the box-seats market.
The problem for people like Lo is
that casinos have captured that market so completely, they don't
need any new games. The Borgata's table mix is 69 blackjack,
17 roulette, 14 craps, 11 Three Card Poker, five mini-baccarat, four
pai go poker, four Spanish 21, four Let It Ride, four Caribbean Stud
Poker, three pai gow tiles, two baccarat, one big six and only one
new game: Four Card Poker; recently launched by Shuffle Master
Gaming. "I'm very much interested in any new product that
comes along," says Rigot when asked about the paucity of new
games. "My office is full of files bulging with new
games. The problem, from our point of view, is that table
games are just so labor intensive. For each new product we
have to train the dealers, the supervisors, the pit managers, the
shift managers, the surveillance guys and the gaming-commission
staff. The training can take 12 weeks. Is it worth my
time, the effort, all those resources? Especially when,
conversely, a new slot machine requires no training at all."
"But new table games are the
future," counters Barry Morris, executive vice president at
Caesars Indiana, the largest riverboat casino in the world.
"If we don't constantly create new table games, casinos as we
know them will die."
To find out who the true king of
table-game inventors is, I went to Morris, because he is an
exception among casino execs. He's British, and the Brits love
cards. Morris retired from a punk band in the late 1970s
("I had a safety pin through my nose, a chain attached to my
ear and bright orange hair -- 25 years ago I would have been
spitting on you!) to become a baccarat and blackjack dealer at
"seedy sawdust joints" in the U.K. He then became a
casino host at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, looking after
jet-setters for Merv Griffin's Resorts International. In 1993
he jumped to Mississippi after gambling opened up there and quickly
helped turn the state into the leading laboratory for new table
games in America.
The 20th century saw so few new
games in part because the four that were popular in Nevada in 1931
-- the year that gambling was legalized there -- are the same four
games that form the core of all American casino pits today:
blackjack, craps, roulette and baccarat. Las Vegas had no
reason to change because most of its customers were tourists who
visited infrequently and were unlikely to get burned out on any
particular game. But by 1995 almost every American lived
within half a day's drive of a casino and the market was becoming
saturated. The time was ripe for new sensations.
Barry Morris's big score: Three
Card Poker, introduced at the Grand Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi
when he was vice president of table games there. It is now the
fastest-growing proprietary game in the world. "Derek
Webb invented that game, and Derek and I made that game
happen," says Morris. "Derek Webb is your man."
I'm in a barn-shaped casino set
amid the bleak cotton fields of northern Mississippi, trying to hunt
down Derek Webb. I eventually find him banging on the door of
the Bally's Casino steakhouse, irritated that it hasn't opened on
time. He's been working nonstop on his latest game, something
called 2-2-1, and he's doing it in a place about as far from Vegas
or Atlantic City as you can get -- Tunica, Mississippi, home to 10
riverboat casinos. The one Webb has chosen is small even by
Tunica standards. Most of its patrons are elderly players who
graze at the buffet and then while away a few hours at the slots
before climbing back into their RV or boarding a bust to West
"We do it here," says
Webb, "so that if we fail nobody knows about it."
The king of table games turns out t be remarkably
unprepossessing. He could blend easily into any crowd, with
his delicate accountant's glasses, middle-class Midlands accent
(he's from Derby, U.K., where his trade-unionist father worked in
the Rolls-Royce factory) and prominent ears on a frank, slightly
frowning face that reminds one of a character in a Hogarth
print. He looks like the guy sitting next to you at the
blackjack table who is polite, efficient and sociable but who just
might be a card counter.
As he moves among the day-trippers
and retirees, usually accompanied by his elegant wife, Hannah
O'Donnell, he could pass for just another tourist waiting for the
early-bird buffet. No one would ever know that his income this
year from Three Card Poker royalties in the U.K. alone will be about
Webb introduces himself to a crew
of overworked dealers who have gathered at a converted blackjack
table even though most of them have just come off an eight-hour
shift and would rather be heading for their cars than chugging more
caffeine to stay alert. Webb is in the dealer's position, and
the dealers are in the player's seats.
"We have a new game for
you!" Webb says, and they nod and smile agreeably.
"It's called Triple-Hand Poker on the sign, but we call it
2-2-1. I represent the same company that brought you Three
Card Poker and 21 + 3, so we've already had two winners for you, and
we think you'll make this another one for us."
Webb is being either modest or
cagey in using the royal we. When he takes a break
later in the day, a corpulent dealer sidles up to him and asks,
"So who did you say invented Three Card Poker?"
Webb flashes a sheepish grin.
"You did? You did it
yourself?" The dealer rises from his chair and extends
his hand. "You da man!"
Webb learned his trade in the
smoky chaos of British card casinos, which tend to be so skanky that
most women won't even go inside. There's no such thing as a
social gambler in a British casino; everyone is there for greed and
greed alone, and poker players are especially mercenary types.
Webb made his living in places like that for 15 years. "I
wasn't a great poker player," he says, "but I was a
goodish player. It's all a matter of what the competition is,
and I was better than the opposition in Derby. I could play
three times a week with a $50 buy-in and make $8000 a night.
When I started playing in the States it was harder. The higher
the stakes, the higher the level of competence and the less
potential for things happening -- the chance to outplay somebody is
not available as often."
Webb is a throwback, one of those
professional gamblers from the days of Nick the Greek and Amarillo
Slim, who never had a real job and spent most of his life working
his way from table to table, seeking the ultimate game in which the
players were soft and the money was huge. From 1979 to 1994
Webb played seven-card stud, hold 'em and Omaha in Derby, London,
Las Vegas and other international gambling centers. Then he
had the epiphany that all card players talk about. He was
playing hold 'em at the old Binion's Horseshoe in Vegas; in a
two-man showdown with an Irishman he'd known from way back, he lost
the $50,000 pot on a single hand. It wasn't the largest he'd
ever lost, but professional poker players, like athletes, tend to
age quickly. He decided it was time to try something
easier. "That same day somebody told me how much the
owners of Caribbean Stud were making," Webb says. "I
became an inventor."
He began brainstorming game
ideas. He'd played in so many dealer's-choice games over the
years that he already had some idea that he was talented in this
area -- pro poker players like to invent games with deceptively
wacky rules to gain an edge -- and within a year he had registered
his first patent: a three-card variant of poker with a number of
options. That game, launched in 1995, eventually became Three
Card Poker and established Webb as the man with the magic
touch. Now, with Three Card Poker spreading worldwide, two new
games starting to prove themselves, several more waiting in the
wings and 30 patents registered or pending, Webb has become the Bill
Gates of table-game inventors.
For two days we discuss cards --
games theory, games politics, games patent law, games mathematics
("I can't do the math on my own games; I hire two guys to run
computer programs") -- and the cutthroat competition to get new
games into casinos. "There are 300 approved table games
in Nevada, but only 30 to 40 are available at any time," Webb
says. "Of the rest, 200 will never make it to the casino
floor." The reason? Operators are not
interested. They have a resistance to proprietary games: 'We
spent all this money to build and market this hotel. You tell
me I have to pay you for your game? Screw you.' You can
introduce a game in Vegas or Atlantic City and have it taken off the
floor a month later. And when that happens, the game is
tainted. It requires five successes to overcome on defeat like
that. In Nevada they don't really understand building a game
for longevity. That's why we test in Mississippi, where they
are willing to change, to try something new."
And that's why Webb and his wife
-- who have homes in Derby and Las Vegas -- spend half their lives
on the road, training the dealers themselves, schmoozing the casino
bosses and making sure every new table is positioned, advertised and
promoted. On opening day for a new game, the pair stands by
the table, buttonholing gamblers and sweet-talking them into giving
the game a try. All the while Webb keeps an eye on his cell
phone (other casino managers might need him) and the dealer (to make
sure no mistakes are being made) while calculating which virgin
casino he needs to approach next. "We're very
hands-on," he says. "I launch the games one at a
time, and it's a very slow process. You have to run a gauntlet
of regulators, table-games executives, general managers, shift
managers. Then we have to sell it to the dealers. The
dealers sell it to the players. A lot of games are introduces
at G2E, the global gaming trade show. But I don't
network. Player demand will make the game break through."
Invented games -- proprietary
games, as they're called -- have a short history. Only three
have broken through in a big way in the past 15 years. The
first was Caribbean Stud, which was patented in 1989 and quickly
became a cruise ship staple. It achieved popularity partly
because it was the first poker game banked by the house: Winning
bets are paid from a preset pay table, as in video poker.
"It's to make the ladies
comfortable," Webb says. "With traditional table
games, ladies are not comfortable. But you see a lot of them
playing the newer games.' The new games are easier for them to
play than real poker or even blackjack, where they may be regarded
as unserious players. They don't want to upset anybody."
In 1993 another house-banked poker
variation called Let It Ride was introduced by Shuffle Master, the
manufacturer of a casino shuffling machine, in an attempt to get
more single-deck games into casinos. (If a game requires a
single deck of cards, a machine is needed so that time is not wasted
with constant hand shuffles.) Webb's Three Card Poker came
along in 1995, and by 1998 these three games represented nearly 80
percent of the proprietary market. And it's a lucrative
market: Caribbean Stud earns its owners $10 million to $12 million a
year, Let It Ride brings in about $10 million, and Three Card Poker
-- the most widely available, with over 1,000 tables -- grosses more
than $10 million a year in the U.S. alone, with additional profits
coming from overseas.
Webb's games are designed, as all
casinos games must be, so that the longer a gambler plays, the more
he or she is likely to lose. Yet games in casinos weren't
always this way. Prior to 1986 casinos gave the gambler
virtually even odds to beat the house. Some games not found in
Las Vegas today are faro, lansquenette, rouge et noir, monte, rondo,
Chinese fantan, red white and blue, Diana and ziginette -- all of
which are legal, all of which are specifically authorized by statute
and many of which are still played in foreign gambling halls.
They disappeared because, quite simply, there were fair. The
only way casinos could make money off them was to cheat. In
1986, when the last big Vegas mobster as found buried in an
Indiana cornfield, the era of house cheating was over. Wall
Street dates Vegas history from 1989, when gambling mogul Steve Wynn
opened the Mirage with Michael Milken-backed junk bonds.
That's why the first thing Webb
does after he invents a game is send it to a professional gaming
analyst -- a mathematician who runs computer simulations of several
million hands, determining the precise advantage for the
casino. Ideally, a new game should give the house a 20 percent
hold or profit. Creating a game with an excessively high hold
or house edge -- the house advantage on Caribbean Stud is 5.3
percent, but one expert estimates a 50 percent hold on the
progressive bet -- can get your game into the casinos but will
frustrate players, who will gradually get burned out and start to
drift away. A game with a low house edge has the potential to
last a long time, but casinos will be reluctant to use it. An
exception is blackjack, which gives the house only a 12 to 13
percent hold. (Technically, the house advantage for blackjack
is as low as 1.2 percent, but bad players make up the difference.)
Webb's cardinal rule is to keep
the new games simple. First, they have to be variations of
games players are already familiar with. ("Every new game
that makes it will be a type of blackjack or poker," he
says.) They have to fit on a standard blackjack table.
("Casinos aren't going to tolerate a lot of new equipment or
give you a lot of space. If craps or roulette were invented
today, they wouldn't make it to the first tryout.") And
they have to give the player some, but not too much, control over
"If you're a serious
gambler," says Webb, "play poker. These are games
for people who want to relax. You need to give the player
decisions but not arcane decisions. Most people who come to a
casino aren't trying to change their life. They're trying to
spend a few hassle-free hours."
The game Webb was pushing in
Tunica, 2-2-1, is a simplified version of pai gow poker, a one-deck
game played against the dealer. Pai gow poker, a cards version
of an Asian dominos game, took off in the 1980s, when American
casinos became popular destinations for Japanese and Chinese
tourists. The first time I saw 2-2-1, the game had the look of
a winner; while it appears complicated, it can be learned in about
20 minutes, and it rewards skill. Three hands are played at a
time -- with three equal bets -- and because it's rare to lose all
three hands, players' money doesn't quickly disappear. It also
has the potential to be a highly social game, since the players are
allowed to show one another their cards and discuss how to play
them. The only downside I could see is that all the possible
combinations begin repeating themselves -- but then, repetition is a
trademark of blackjack, and that game has never suffered in
Twenty years ago it would have
been impossible for a guy like Webb to make money on a card
game. Before Caribbean Stud, card games could be copyrighted,
not patented, and the only reward for the inventor was the chance to
name the game after himself. Hearts According to Scarne, for
example, was named for John Scarne, the legendary casino consultant
and gambling authority. In the 1980s the development of
computer software changed U.S. intellectual-property law.
Business methods and concepts had become proprietary, and games,
like software, could be patented. It's now possible to own a
20-year patent on a casino-game concept that has numerous
variations. "When I designed Three Card Poker," says
Webb, "I didn't say a word about it to anyone. You can'
talk about it until your patent is secure."
His principal theory is that
casual gamblers, creatures of habit that they are, like games in
which they have some perceived control over their betting.
"Why is roulette popular?" Webb asks. "That's
60 percent of the business in Britain. If you had never seen
roulette before and somebody tried to sell it to you, you would say,
'Why do I need this giant table? Why do I need this giant
wheel? Why do I need so many numbers on the table?'
Because you can generate those numbers and allow people to bet on
them without having this giant layout. Well, you need all the
numbers because people feel they have a system when they play.
Actually placing the markers on the numbers allows players to feel
in control of a game that is really pure chance. There must be
choices in the game, even though the choice between betting on 23
and betting on seven is not really a choice at all. So you
need apparent choices, limited choices. You can have a system
only if you have a choice."
Webb launched Three Card Poker in
spring 1995 at the Jackpot, a membership card club in Dublin, and it
did well enough to get approved for trial at the tine Isle of Man
casino that summer. When it outperformed the British version
of Caribbean Stud in its first two weeks, Webb knew it was
viable. But major casinos in Britain didn't want the game
until it had succeeded in America, so Webb tried Vegas.
Bally's agreed to offer it but canceled at the last minute, so Webb
switched to the Stardust. "The dealers weren't trained
adequately there, and as a result the game was pulled," Webb
says. Trump Plaza in Atlantic City also pulled out of a deal
to try the game, and Webb ended up at the tiny Sands, where the game
lasted a month before failing. "That's when I discovered
how valuable Mississippi is," Webb says. "Three Card
Poker was a volatile game, and it was subject to dealer error.
In Mississippi they worked with us, and the performance was
excellent. It was outperforming Caribbean Stud and Let It
By 1997 Webb had slipped into
Colorado, northern Nevada and other small gambling jurisdictions,
and by March 1998 he had an impressive 100 tables nationwide,
including ones in Vegas and Atlantic City, where the game was picked
up after it had proved itself elsewhere. But with success came
litigation. Just as Webb was about to realize the fruits of
his invention, he was hit with a lawsuit by the then owner of
Caribbean Stud, Progressive Games, Inc., which claimed he had
infringed on its patent. Webb calls it sham litigation,
brought on because he was challenging the market dominance of its
game. Mikohn Gaming Corporation, which had acquired PGI, tried
to buy Three Card Poker from Webb even as PGI was suing him.
Eventually Webb sold his game to Shuffle Master because he couldn't
handle the costs of the lawsuit. In December 2002 he filed his
own suit, accusing PGI and Mikohn, the current owner of Caribbean
Stud, of anti-trust violations that essentially caused Webb to sell
the American rights to his game at the bargain-basement price of $3
million with no profit participation.
As his case slots through the
courts, Webb lives off his $1.75 million in royalties. Three
Card Poker has continued to gain popularity worldwide, but the more
than $10 million a year from its more than 1,000 tables in North
America currently goes to Shuffle Master. He has tested, along
with 21 + 3 and 2-2-1, two other games -- Play Bacc (a version of
baccarat) and Yes Dice (simplified craps) -- and is working on
Jack-Black (a reverse blackjack game in which players share a hand
against the casino), Way To Go (a red dog variation), Nu Faro (a
faro adaptation) and Show Me Poker (a house-banked poker
game). His hottest untested property is called Hit & Win,
a rendition of blackjack that offers various odds on different
blackjack combinations. "This one will make it," he
When a new game is introduced for
a trial run, the first thing a casino wants to know is if the
players will accept it. "This is more important than the
economics -- more important than the hold, more important than win
per unit," says Rigot of the Borgata. "And if they
do gravitate toward the game, the second thing you want to know is,
Will they come back? Will they play it more than once?
And the key is giving the customer a value for the experience.
The game can't be too strong. I'll give you an example.
There was a game in the casinos for a while called red dog, also
called in between and acey-deucey. It's gone. You won't
find it anywhere. The consumer rejected the game because it
was too strong. It pressed the player too much."
Translation: The game can't take the player's money too fast.
And the game can't take the
casino's money too fast, either. A few months after Tunica I
go in search of Henry Lo again. His number has changed, and he
is hard to locate. It turns out that since I last saw him, 7
Card Thrill has failed in three more casino trials. Lo has run
out of money and is driving a junker. He has borrowed money
from his mother, sister and brother. He can't pay his rent, he
says, and he can't leave Vegas to promote the game because he has no
way to travel. He says all this with absolute delight.
in fact, he bustles right over to the modest Boardwalk casino to
meet me, and his first words are, "You want to play 7 Card
Thrill? I have the layout, the cards, the ..."
He motions to the big black case
in his right hand. He could set up the game anywhere, he
says. My hotel room, maybe? He has a new pay table and a
new bonus bet, and he is looking for investors. I calm him
down, and we go for drinks in the lounge instead.
He tells his tales of defeat in
the way the Duke of Wellington must have described the battles
before Waterloo -- as mere learning stages. The Sahara
terminated 7 Card Thrill after four and a half months because there
was "not enough volume." Yet Lo knew that the shift
manager frequently kept the game closed even on weekends.
("How can I get volume when the players show up and the game is
closed?") Next he got a shot at Harrah's in the dusty
resort town of Laughlin, on the Arizona border, where the mostly
elderly tourists said they liked the game but didn't want to play it
because it had no bonus bet; they wanted to be paid jackpots for
royal flushes, four of a kinds and the like. So management
took the game out, saying, "When you have a bonus bet, we'll
take another look."
Lo cooled his heels for
eight months, waiting for the Nevada gaming authorities to
approve his bonus bet. When they did, he got a tryout at the
Fiesta Rancho, a Vegas locals joint with light traffic. The
game was cancelled after two months because of
From there he went to the Fiesta
Henderson, and this time he was determined to "baby sit"
the game every moment it was open. "The players play
longer when I hang around," Lo says. "And if the
casino knows I'm there, it's more likely to keep the table
He ended up spending $4,000 of his
own money making bets for the dealers and players. The game
started well for the casino, averaging a 20 percent hold for the
first 29 days of the first month. But on day 30 several
gamblers won big, and the total hold for the month dropped to 13
percent. The second month was better, with 19 percent.
In the third month a familiar pattern emerged: The table
wasn't open that often. "If you're a new game," Lo
says, "you're the last to open and the first to close.
There have to be a lot of people in the casino to open the game, and
there weren't a lot of people in that casino."
The new version of 7 Card Thrill
was finally done in by high rollers. The game pays $5,000 for
a hand with five aces -- four aces and a joker -- and two players
hit it in the third month. "It wouldn't matter over the
long run," says Lo, "because the house advantage takes
over. But if you have low volume and the general manager is
seeing $5,000 payouts, there's no time to recover that money."
One afternoon in October 2003 a
high roller came into the casino and started playing two hands at a
time with $500 chips. He won $7,000 for the day. He
returned the next day and lost $6,000 before winning it back plus
another $8,000. It was the last straw for the Fiesta
Henderson. The game closed. "Henry, I'm
sorry," the table-games manager said, "but I can't lose my
Meanwhile, Derek Webb was happily
fine-tuning his game. His experience testing 2-2-1 in
Mississippi had inspired some improvements, and he planned to
re-launch at his old friend Barry Morris's casino, Caesars
Indiana. He also changed some of the rules to bring the house
edge down from 2.3 percent to 1.2 percent. "We can do
this because players don't play anywhere close to the true house
advantage," he says.
I'd never really asked Webb what
his ultimate motivation is. After all, he has more than enough money
from the games he's already invented. A life spent hanging out
in casinos can't be that stimulating when you've done it as long as
he has, and he had mentioned more than once that his wife was
getting a little tired of traveling. So what's the attraction?
"You can become a
multimillionaire -- that's the attraction," he says.
"And there's more to it than that. I obsess about it
because I know how flawed the other games are. There are
terrible games on the casino floor -- terrible intellectually,
mathematically and operationally."
He thinks for a minute and then
comes to the point. "There's no respect for what someone
like me does," he says. "The inventors of blackjack,
roulette and craps are all forgotten. The only reason the
state can license games is because someone invented them. You
should respect the inventor."
Then his face brightens: "If
you want to drive out to the airport with me...." He had
yet another invention: the ViDiceo slot machine. Webb,
apparently in an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em mood, had figured
out how to take the elements of a table game and put them inside a
slot machine. It was ready and waiting in a storage
facility. Webb had already shown it to all the slot-machine
manufacturers, but none wanted to market it. "So it's
something else I'm going to do by myself," he says. I can
already see the wheels turning.
Two weeks later Webb was on the
road again, launching the improved 2-2-1 in Indiana. I spoke
to him on the phone and heard a lilt in his voice. It was
working even better this time. He wasn't yet ready to call it
a success, because that would be like betting too heavily on pocket
aces and letting everyone know what he was doing. The thing
about gamblers is that you don't know they've won until the end of
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