LAS VEGAS REPORT: FEAR AND LOATHING AT THE G2E
by Stu D. Hoss
Stu D. Hoss is a recently retired Air Force officer and aviator. He has visited and served in over 40 countries including flying combat missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa. Most of it under the guise of keeping the world safe for democracy, better blackjack, and for a few other personal reasons. He has been playing blackjack for 20 years, and cut his teeth on the tables of South Lake Tahoe during flight training in Northern CA. Mr. Hoss uses basic strategy and the HiLo count method to give himself a chance against the house edge. He currently resides in NV and is weighing his options for a second career.
Thanks to a friend of a friend, I had the opportunity to attend the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas in early October. This was my first opportunity to attend this event. For those of you who arenít familiar, G2E is the premier trade show and conference event for the global gaming industry. In this article, Iíll attempt to capture the exhibit-hall experience, as well as, share some of my adventures, observations, and things I learned. Read on and perhaps by the end, youíll want to attend G2E next year or at some time in the near future.
By the Industry and for the Industry
Organized by the American Gaming Association (AGA) and Reed Exhibitions, G2E made its debut in fall 2001. The AGA represents the commercial casino-entertainment industry by addressing federal legislative and regulatory issues. The association also serves as a clearinghouse for information; develops educational and advocacy programs; and provides leadership on industry-related issues of public concern. Apparently, 6:5 paybacks for blackjacks, diminishing comps, and short-pay video poker schedules arenít areas of "public concern."
The 2012 version of G2E was the largest in several years according to multiple sources. Over 25,000 gaming industry professionals from around the world attended it. One of the Expoís stated goals is to provide gaming professionals with access to cutting-edge products and technologies, valuable networking opportunities, and unmatched educational programming. There were approximately 120 first-time exhibitors from 16 countries, including Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Taiwan, the U.K., and the U.S. In all, 413 companies representing 65 countries were expected to attend.
I was well aware that the U.S. didnít have a monopoly on gaming. Iíve played blackjack and visited casinos in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and South Korea myself during the 1990ís. However, the international presence in the exhibit hall couldnít be ignored. This was one of my lessons - the industry is growing, especially in the international realm. I wonít turn this into a business school treatise, but suffice it to say 65 countries being represented is a far cry from Macau, the European Union, and the United States. I was surprised to see a decent amount of Latin American representation. This is probably something to watch in coming years, as there might be playing opportunities for those with large bankrolls, as well as, direct competition for the U.S. market.
Bright Shiny Objects
After picking up my registration badge Tuesday afternoon, I grabbed an exhibit bag and raided the free publication binds outside the exhibit hall. I was familiar with a few industry publications, but who knew there were so many? I filled my bag with titles such as Casino Enterprise Management, Casino Life, Casino Player, Gaming and Leisure, iGaming Business, Mississippi Gaming News, and Strictly Slots. Another lesson learned Ė grab a bag on the way in, but only pick up copies of publications you know you will read; save the rest for on your way out!
After studying the exhibit floor map, I decided to just dive in. I knew immediately that Iíd want to come back the next day. In fact, I ended up visiting the exhibit hall all three afternoons for 12 or 13 hours total.
Attend any industry trade show and youíll probably find pretty girls, fancy product displays with all the bells and whistles, drawings, and promotions; all designed to grab your attention, your contact information, and your business Ė collectively, I call them bright shiny objects. G2E was no different. There were slot machines, table games pits, and aisles and aisles of company booths, displaying everything from playing cards and casino chip washers to computer motherboards and surveillance software. Brand ambassadors (a Vegas convention term that generally means attractive, scantily clad ladies) passed out samples of 5-hr energy-drink pink lemonade, tobacco-free cigarettes, drink coupons at Vegas nightspots, and lured you in to press the buttons on the latest themed slot machines. Much like visiting a busy Las Vegas casino on a Saturday night, it was an attack on the senses Ė bright lights, noises, people, music, and more!
Iím not really interested in slots as a player, but the technology is interesting and the ubiquitous themes are compelling. Apparently, youíre nothing in the post-modern age if you donít have a slot machine based on you, your company, or product. G2E is the place where companies like Ballyís and IGT introduce their new machines.
A Tarzan and Jane themed bank of slots from Aristocrat caught my eye. Or maybe it was the friendly brand ambassador representing Jane decked out in safari gear. She was a yoga instructor, part-time model, and lived in London for a few years before visiting Las Vegas for the first time and never getting around to leaving. To her credit, "Jane" was aware that 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughsí creation of the Tarzan character. A good college buddy of mine recently wrote a book (Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration) on that topic and she suggested I take a picture of her and the game to send to him. I had to bring my camera the second day and we did get that pic. I didnít think to get Supergirl, who was next door, to take a pic of us together. Lesson learned: bring a camera-phone or camera. There were plenty of things that were photo-worthy. Oh yeah, the slots are preloaded with credits and I actually "won" on several I tried out. Funny thing, I could never get the cash out function to work properly on any of them.
Parlor Games and Other Magic Tricks
During the second and third days, I checked out some of the many table games that were on display. One was called Celo and its inventors were from Brooklyn. The game was similar to craps, but used three dice and a small table. I canít begin to explain it, or the payouts, but listening to the promoter explain it to me while I watched his buddies run the game reminded me of the Chappelleís Showís "World Series of Dice" skit several years ago Ė funny stuff.
I did find a couple of games that blackjack players might find interesting. The first was from a company called ToKe Gaming Corp and was called BJ-BAC. Itís a fusion of Blackjack and Baccarat. In this game, there is a head-to-head game between a single player hand and the dealerís hand. Like Baccarat, players bet on the dealer (banker) or the player hand. They can also bet on a push or tie. The dealer makes all the playing decisions for both hands according "Basic Strategy Blackjack Rules." For example, if the player hand is dealt a pair of 7ís (14 total) and the dealer shows a 10-count up card, basic strategy calls for the player to take a hit. The dealer then deals a card to that hand. If the card causes the player to bust, the dealer/banker wins. Suppose in this example, the player is dealt a 5 for 19; the dealer then reveals their hole card. The above is one of my hands. She had an 8 in the hole for an 18. The player wins. I think this was the only hand I won betting the player. Very short sample, but did get me thinking about some things. There were some side bet options and doubles and split options that I didnít fully comprehend and wonít begin to try to explain.
The BJ-BAC booth was slow when I visited, so after a few hands, the dealer introduced me to the companyís founder. He asked me what I thought about his game. My response was something along the lines of, "it might be kinda fun to play with family and friends over drinks in the parlor, but no way would I want to see it in a casino."
I asked him what he was thinking when he invented this game. "My game is a social game. Itís for people that want to gamble and visit with friends, but might be too intimidated by handling cards and making player decisions. Not to mention, in my game there is no need to learn basic strategy or any strategy."
The ToKe gentleman seemed like a nice enough fella and honestly, I could see his game catching on. However, Iíd rather pick up a copy at Toys "R" Us or have Santa deliver it under my tree, than see it take up space in lieu of old-fashioned blackjack on any casino floor.
I donít recall the name of the other game I mentioned above, but it is the product of a small Las Vegas business and the idea came from a former blackjack dealer. Itís basic blackjack, but with side-bet options on whether the dealer will bust their hand. The payouts are based on the dealerís up card. Payouts are higher for higher count dealer up-cards; lower payouts for lower count up-cards. I played a few hands while studying the payouts. The one I focused on was the dealerís 4, 5, and 6 that paid 2.5:1. Thatís the only time I anted up the side bet. After many hands, he asked me what I thought. As you might imagine, my response was, "Iíd never play it."
When the dealer asked why not, I explained the payouts are prohibitive. I told him the 5 and 6 need to pay 4:1 to make it even worth thinking about (my thinking being that a dealer will bust a 5- or 6-count up card about 42% of the time). He commented that I knew my math. I told him that I went to class a few times growing up. He knew his blackjack math too and we ended up discussing the probabilities of various hands. I told him that I rarely played blackjack and didnít know much about the game.
"Yeah, right," he laughed. "Youíre smart enough to understand the math and percentages of those payouts. Most people never even think about it, they just want to bet. Even if they did stop and think, they donít know or canít figure out why those are bad bets."
Also of note, SHFL Entertainment (SHFL on the NASDAQ), the former Shuffle Master, had a full-blown table games pit set up. They were displaying some of their more recently released games like Fortune Pai Gow Poker Progressive, Mississippi Stud, and Ultimate Texas HoldíEm.
SHFL is also responsible for Free Bet Blackjack. Here the player has the opportunity to get certain splits and double downs for free, the dealer matches the playerís bet. However, all dealer 22 counts push. I wrote about this game in the October issue of Blackjack Insider Newsletter.
The takeaway from this section is that game developers and casino executives think weíre all stupid and lazy. Letís quit fostering this perception, people. Learn some strategy and donít play games where the odds are so highly stacked against the player. It just encourages them. If you wonít do it for yourself, do it for your fellow man!
Race Cars and the Rabbit: Marketing Meets Celebrity
There were celebrities and impersonators at G2E. NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer made an appearance at the Ballyís very large exhibit area, along with a race car, and models dressed like pit crew to promote a NASCAR themed slot game and a virtual race-community bonus feature complete with sound and video. Races were held at regular intervals and you had to sign up for positions. The brand ambassador said everyone was a winner. I couldnít say "no" and she signed me up. Players select one of eight famous NASCAR drivers. I picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. We finished in last place, but it was fun and I went home with a matchbox-size race car!
Ballyís also hosted an appearance by Jaclyn Swedberg, 2012 Playboy Playmate of the Year. Iíve meet Playmates before, but I did make an effort to meet Ms. Swedberg. Never pass on a chance to meet any of Hefís girls. Itís just a good rule to live by!
After waiting for a small group of folks to clear out, I was able to chat with the former Miss April for about five minutes. I congratulated her on her recent success and we briefly discussed what I do (writing this article among other things), and used to do in trying to "keep the world safe for democracy." By coincidence, I had watched a Playboy documentary on the History channel the night before and mentioned it. She said she watched it also in her hotel room the night before and we chatted about that. A lady nearby offered to take our picture with my camera (see lessons above) and then Jaclyn signed one of her promotional pictures for her new "favorite struggliní writer" Stu D. Hoss and that was that.
In case you are wondering, Ms. Swedberg was wearing the iconic Playboy Bunny costume. Nice girl, great smile, and wants to go into broadcast journalism at some point. She told me she is getting great experience with her work on Playboy TV. The lesson here is Playboy Playmates are people too. Remember that should you ever meet one.
Did I mention I saw David Hasselhoff, too? I didnít talk to him. What can you really say to the guy - "Thanks for Bay Watch?" For the record, somewhere in a Scandinavian country or in the Eurozone, someone is watching Baywatch reruns on television as you read this. My military adventures had me in Europe more than once in the mid- and late-Nineties and there were always Baywatch reruns on television. It became a running joke. Sometimes they were in English; sometimes with subtitles; sometimes you had to make up your own dialogue. Maybe I shouldíve talked to Dave after all.
Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention that I witnessed little people versions of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe singing show tunes? Only in Vegas, kid!
Food and Beverage
One thing that G2E stressed to me was the reality that the gaming industry is so much more than just blackjack and slot machines. Sysco, not the networking giant Cisco but the food services one, sponsored a huge area for food vendors to pass out their wares. Imagine table after table snaking along, back-and-forth like the letter ĎSí for a good 75 yards, filled with finger food and bite-sized samples that included Tyson chicken tenders, six different sweet potato products (French fries to potato chips), sausages, cheeses, salsa, salads, cookies, and cobbler. Throw in some bottled water available in strategically placed coolers and that pretty much describes it. This was an early dinner the last two days!
I also got plenty of Diet Coke and water at the "bars" at the Ballyís exhibit area. Their whole operation was by far the most impressive in my eyes. If you are going to attend an event like G2E, figure out where the free beverages are. You donít want to be dehydrated!
To conclude this section, let me mention that I caught the tail end of a runway show for cocktail waitress uniforms, a Led Zeppelin cover band, and talked with a couple of industry jobs recruiters. Not surprisingly, both said they arenít placing anyone in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. This belies the story that the industry isnít Vegas-centric anymore. I wonít even get into e-gaming, a major topic outside the exhibit hall this year.
There you have it, my maiden voyage to G2E. Itís long, but unbelievably, I left a lot out! I hope this gives you some idea of what G2E is all about. Thanks for reading and hopefully youíll be better prepared to have fun and maximize your G2E experience in the future. Make your plans to head to Las Vegas for the 2013 Global Gaming Expo. The event is scheduled for 24-26 September, 2013 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
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