Casinos are apparently only looking at the 'bottom line'
When the Canadian province of Ontario reopened casinos, with capacity limits, near the end of July, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation by gamblers who were anxious to play their favorite slot machines and table games. The casinos had been closed since March 20th, 2020, and the Pickering Casino, which was slated to commence operations in April of 2020, never had the opportunity to open its doors at all. All Ontario casinos made it clear they "are not fully open" as there are still capacity limits and restrictions in place like mandatory mask wearing and limits on food and beverage options, but for the most part it has been business as usual. The excitement, however, was quashed when people started entering the casinos. What was hoped for and what is reality are two different things.
"I went to play the slots at Woodbine Casino and was disgusted with the lines and unavailability of machines," a woman from Toronto said to me. "Every other machine was closed, and the popular games were just simply inaccessible. Out of a bank of 10 games, 3 may have been open and it seemed the people at those machines when I arrived simply stayed the whole time. All penny machines were being played and only the dollar machines seemed to have any availability. I don’t have that kind of money to play $50 a spin on a slot machine with 50 lines so I just left. I drove to the casino in Innisfil instead, but it was no better. I guess I’ll have to wait until capacity is 100% before I can play at a casino again."
While the slot availability was a concern, the table games were far worse. The only games available at almost all Ontario casinos have been blackjack and baccarat and the minimum bets by all accounts are $50 during weekdays and $100 in the evenings and on weekends. In fact, I was told that the minimum bet at Fallsview Casino was $200 on any day and when I called the casino to confirm if that was true, they acknowledged that it indeed was.
"Our minimum bet was $200, but we only had 2 to 3 tables open. We expect it to come down when capacity expands but right now it’s just not feasible on a business level to open more tables or lower minimum limits," a guest services representative told me on the phone.
On-site casino investigation
I decided to check out the situation myself, so I went to three Toronto Area casinos, Woodbine, Pickering, and Great Blue Heron and discovered what players were telling me was a fact. The following was the sequence of events for entering each casino.
Upon arriving at each casino, I was asked if I had any symptoms of Covid-19. When I said no, I then had to provide my name and phone number to a person who apparently had the information for contact tracing purposes and then I was asked to stand in a designated place, remove my mask and my picture was taken. I was then asked to put back on the mask and enter the casino. I assume the picture was more to help ensure that I was not banned from playing at a casino, and with a mask on cameras would not be able to make a positive identification.
First, I checked out the slot machines and noticed the machines were pretty much full, although there were some penny and two cent machines available (more so at Pickering and Great Blue Heron than Woodbine). As the reader said there were a lot of empty $1 and $5 machines. I then went to check out the tables and they were more or less empty. The lower limits were $50 at both Pickering and Great Blue Heron and $100 at Woodbine. And, as I suspected, only blackjack and baccarat were available. There was one Casino War game open at the Pickering casino. I couldn't help but notice a whole bank of tables at Pickering Casino with signs that said $5 minimum, $5 maximum and included all the popular games like Let it Ride, Flush, Caribbean Stud, 4 Card Poker, 3 Card Poker, Pai Gow Poker etc., but they were all closed and clearly there was not a plan to use them. My hunch is they were there as training tools for new dealers later. At Pickering I counted 7 tables open outside of the high limit area and only two had someone playing $50 blackjack. The other five tables were empty and had dealers waiting for someone to play. I asked the table game manager what the story was and why they would have all these empty tables when they could probably get more traffic if they opened some $10 and $15 tables and he agreed that it would make sense, but said it was out of his control.
"I understand the business sense, since a casino makes more from one person playing $100 a hand of blackjack than 5 people playing $25 due to the speed of cards dealt, but it pisses people off. I can’t do anything about it though as I report to others who make those corporate decisions," the table manager said to me. He also said it was a provincial rule of which games could be offered, which only included table games where players do not touch the cards, but upon checking the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGC) website there doesn’t seem to be any such rule in place. It is bizarre that the casinos or government have no issue with players handling chips, but do with cards. Regardless that still doesn’t explain why games like Mississippi Stud or 4 card poker aren’t available, in addition to blackjack and baccarat.
I wrote to Great Canadian Gaming, which operates all of the aforementioned casinos, asking for a reasoning for the high lower limits and lack of table game options, but I never received a response.
Perhaps the most negative letter I received was from a regular reader who said he went to the Pickering Casino with $300 in his pocket and walked out.
"I was so excited to be able to go back to a casino and was shocked at the limits. I generally take $300 with me and play flush and let it ride, but at the limits they had, it would be three hands and none of my games were available. I asked the table manager and he said he agreed it's ridiculous but said it was a corporate decision and out of his hands. You would think that with a new casino they would want to bring people in and get both high roller and casual business, but I just walked out since I don't play slots and I noticed several people followed me out without playing anything. I guess I'll just wait until the borders reopen so I can play games with reasonable limits."
U.S. casinos follow suit
After reading that letter, I decided to see if he was right about the United States and hoped that by showing a different philosophy south of the border, I could provide some reasoning to the casino for why they should lower limits. After calling numerous casinos in different states, however, and after having some colleagues check out casinos in the states they live in, it appears that it's really not that different after all.
I called the Bellagio in Las Vegas, who said their table limits were about the same as the Ontario casinos and calls to Caesars Palace and the Venetian received the same response. I figured I would call an independent casino, but it is hard to find any since almost all have been bought out by corporate entities, but I did get in touch with someone at Westgate (formerly Las Vegas Hilton), which is now owned by Paragon Gaming, and is as close to an independent casino one will find.
The person at Westgate told me that the limits for blackjack was $50 to $100 if you wanted to play 3/2 blackjack but you could find a $15 table if you were willing to take 6/5 on a blackjack. The fact they had different limits depending on the odds one was willing to take was strange. but 6/5 blackjack adds 1.4% to the house edge over 3/2 blackjack. Apparently to justify the lower odds, Westgate offers fewer decks with 6/5 blackjack, but they are also reshuffled often to stop card counting. When I asked about games like Pai Gow Poker, Let it Ride and High Card Flush the table manager didn’t even know what those were. "We may have offered them years ago, but we don't have them now," she said.
I called casinos in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, and Baton Rouge as well and it seems the limits were about the same on weekends, although $15 tables were the absolute minimum at any time. And tables for games like Let it Ride and Pai Gow Poker were few and far between.
The customer service representative I spoke to at Harrah's Atlantic City acknowledged those games are popular with players, but they are generally avoided. He also admitted that the reason casinos hate them is the same reason players love them, namely they are slow moving and end up most often with the players winning about half the time. With Pai Gow Poker for example, the only dealer advantage is if the dealer matches the player hand exactly, which is rare. And almost 2/3 the time the games end in a push. Add to that the time it takes to allow players to arrange their hands and the dealer to set their hands and the casinos view it as a loss leader since in the time it takes to play one game of Pai Gow poker, three hands of blackjack can be dealt and there won’t be a push in the end as a rule. I also asked whether they had any $5 tables and he laughed "probably in the electronic area" he replied.
I checked at the two casinos in the Toronto area and indeed there were some $5 games at the electronic area. These are done in two different ways.
One version is simply a slot machine type game with cards dealt randomly and everyone at their machine plays against the electronic hand, and the other type are stadium games where a live dealer is dealing out the cards on a platform and multiple players play against the dealer from their electronic machine. The casinos hope that players will accept them as real games and not slot machines since they see the cards being played and dealt by the dealer, but most players at the machines told me it’s just not the same since the interaction, excitement, and ability to see the other cards easily just isn’t there. The casinos love it because numerous games can be dealt from the same area, and it doesn’t take up nearly as much space as actual tables and more people can play against the dealer from machines than at a physical table. Casinos also believe the lower limits far offset the issues many players have about interaction and that they are doing players a favor by offering low limit games at all.
Comps have disappeared too
As someone who has been around a while, I still recall the days of playing at casinos like the Dunes, Westward Ho and Riviera in Las Vegas and being offered a free room, buffet and even show tickets for playing for several hours in a row even at $5 to $10 a hand. There were no player rewards cards, but rather just a pit boss or two watching you and grateful for your business and loyalty. Nowadays almost all the casinos are corporate entities and the lack of human interaction at the tables between players and the pit crew are taken out. A manager enters your player card in the system and if you lose enough money, you may be lucky enough to accumulate enough points on your card for say $10 off a meal. And long, long gone are the days of 99 cent buffets or $7.99 steak dinners. And while I realize the casinos are in this to maximize profit, it doesn't change the fact that the lack of personal connection between the dealers and players will turn off a generation. Few 20 or 30 somethings will be able to afford $50 or $100 a hand so they simply won't go to a casino to experience the excitement first-hand and it will also likely turn them off real casinos altogether, when they reach an age where they have more money and can gamble more. The younger crowd at casinos today hang out at the hotel pool and bars and avoid the casinos. As for comps, Sheldon Adelson can be thanked for the change in philosophy regarding interaction and comps at casinos. In 2010 at a company gathering he told executives:
"We've essentially cut all of our comps except our most highly-rated players," he said. "No more comped rooms, no (free) food and beverage and no showroom credits. We're selling rooms.”
It made sense to Adelson since the Venetian and Palazzo were high-end hotels, but it wasn’t long before every other casino owned by the likes of MGM, Caesars, Wynn, and other major corporate entities in Vegas followed suit. And in the rest of North America comps are now all connected to player cards whether the hotel is run by one of the big players or even small Indian casinos in places like Iowa or Oklahoma.
The big question is whether this new way of business is right or whether casinos are so focused on immediate profit they could be killing the long-term viability. That is almost exactly what happened in the horse racing industry. In the old days racetracks tried to make the experience a family outing and would have hayrides, amusement games with prizes and areas for the kids to enjoy themselves while the parents watched the races. And most often the kids would come out to watch the horses run and see the excitement of their parents as their horse closed ground in the stretch.
But in the last three decades, these activities for kids went away and with racetracks putting in casinos, they actually discouraged families from bringing children to the track. The result is that most racetracks today are filled with older bettors, who were the kids of the past generation. Unfortunately, no children or future clientele can be found anywhere at a racetrack today.
Perhaps it's nostalgia or frustration or maybe it is just a reality check, but if casinos will only offer games that play quickly with higher profit margins and if minimum bets stay ridiculously high, they may rue the day when these decisions were made, seeing table games at land-based casinos virtually empty.