Blackjack Technology Evolution

The high cost of personnel and facilities has put a squeeze on the low end of live blackjack in recent years. Casinos simply cannot afford to pay dealers to cater to players who want to wager minimums of $1, $2 or $3 a hand. But there is still plenty of demand among beginners and low rollers for inexpensive ways to play, so video poker and slot manufacturers have began taking up the slack. One after another, blackjack machines have begun showing up around pit areas, offering a low-cost alternative to live dealers, and they look nothing like the stand-alone video units of yore.

Multiplayer Blackjack Machines

Take, for example, the Las Vegas Strip property known as “Slots A Fun.” For decades it catered to fun-seeking tourists with shallow pockets, offering cheap thrills at live craps, roulette and blackjack tables. But no more. All of the gaming tables have been replaced by automation. There are now three five-seat Shuffle Master blackjack machines—two “Royal Match 21” units and one “Bet Set 21”—with minimum bets starting at just $1. The games feature virtual dealers as well as side bets designed to tease more cash out of the players.

Competing with Shuffle Master, game-maker Aruze has created “Dealers Angels Blackjack” with seating for five and a lovely cyber dealer appearing on a huge video screen. Meanwhile, InterBlock has introduced a line-up of electro-mechanical “21” products called “Organic Blackjack” that actually shuffles and deals from eight real decks. The basic game seats up to seven players and offers a “Lucky Aces” side bet with wagers starting at just 50¢.

What all of these electronic blackjack inventions have in common is reduced labor costs. They also afford the casinos such benefits as ease of tracking every wager made by customers using players club cards, elimination of dealer error in making payouts, and more hands played per hour, which translates into greater profitability. Additionally, the machines allow more complex bonus options to be introduced, such as lottery-type drawings with entries awarded for each natural blackjack.

Robots to the Rescue?

At the Automate 2013 trade show held in Chicago in January, Yaskawa Motoman Robotics of Ohio introduced its SDA10F “Dexter Bot” to the world—the first blackjack-dealing robot. Attached to its rotating torso, the semi-anthropomorphic machine has two arms and bulb-like “hands” with suction cups to move the cards from one place to another. Each arm has seven axes of rotation, capable of moving at one-half to one rotation per second, giving it fast and flexible motion beyond human capability. Besides dealing, Dexter uses a vision recognition camera and software to read the cards dealt.

Although critics have noted that “a large part of the fun of playing in a casino is the human interaction with the dealer, and the novelty of a robotic dealer is likely to wear off very quickly,” Dexter has certainly proven that robot dealers are no longer a theoretical possibility. The prototype two-armed bandit can accommodate three players at once, and it never tires or needs a break. Players might even enjoy its unusual House rules—no splits or double downs, but the dealer stands on all 17s and the player wins all ties.

Again, the move toward replacing live dealers is driven by economics, and as the cost of technology declines, even greater innovations can be expected. Some believe the next step may be 3-D holographic imaging. Others say helmet-like devices could create “virtual reality” blackjack games. It is unlikely that high-limit salons will get rid of live dealers any time soon, but players should keep an eye out for change on the fringes of the pit area, as game makers continue to vie for the very lucrative mass market.