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Game Masters

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 specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Jacobson Gaming is making this material available in a manner we believe constitutes  'fair use' as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.  In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this article is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.


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 Thrill.

"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 ace-low straight!"

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 broadly.

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 Sierra Madre.

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 Memphis, Arkansas.

"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 $1.4 million.

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 the outcome.

"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 popularity.

*

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 Ride."

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 insists.

*

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 "downsizing."

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 open."

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 job."

*

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 the game.

 


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