Casinos hope to replace surveillance and pit personnel with the MindPlay casino games management system at $15k a crack. But the MindPlay system is easy for card counters and other professional gamblers to fool.
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The MindPlay Table Games Management System: A High Tech Casino Job Killer

 
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Bye Bye Pit Boss: Here Comes MindPlay

By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XXIII #1, Spring 2003)
© 2003 Blackjack Forum Online

Once there was a time when the pit boss was king. He knew the games better than anyone, and his value to the house was immense. He truly was “the boss.” His decisions were final; his word was law.

The pit boss was the only man with the “power of the pen.” If you wanted a comp, you had to ask the boss. You didn’t talk to a host, or a marketing exec, or plead your case at the “VIP lounge.” There was no VIP lounge. There was no computer program that estimated your average bet, your hours of play, your expected loss.

If you wanted show tickets, or a room compliments of the house, you asked the boss. Period. The surveillance guys were lackeys of the boss. They did what they were told, watched who he said to watch, and looked for the moves he told them to look for. He was the protector of the games. The guys on the catwalks worked for him, did as they were told.

Over the years, these functions have been taken away from the pit bosses. No boss can give you a room for the night anymore. He’s lost the power of the pen. Most bosses don’t understand the games anymore. Surveillance protects the games. The once all-powerful boss has been reduced to a bookkeeper. He records totals, counts chips, watches payouts, calls the cage when a table needs a fill.

Says one exec who has watched this change through the years, “They’re not really bosses over anything any more. They’re just clerks. The old timers remember the power the bosses used to have. It was all-encompassing. If you wanted a job in the casino, the fastest way to get it was through the boss. They had the juice. They could hire and fire dealers at whim. In some joints, the cocktail waitresses were like their private harems.

"These days, nobody thinks of them as ‘bosses’ any more. It’s a title, but it’s an anachronism. They’re ‘pit clerks,’ and they know it. They’re grossly overpaid for what they do, and they know that too. For all the talent and knowledge they need for the job they do, they could be check-out clerks at Seven-Eleven.”

Is MindPlay the End of the Pit Boss?

Now, it appears, the days of the boss are numbered.

“This Changes Everything…”

That’s the advertising slogan for the new MindPlay system.

Remember SafeJack? (Blackjack Forum, Summer 1997)

Remember SmartShoe21? (Blackjack Forum, Summer 2000)

MindPlay appears to be the evil offspring of SafeJack and SmartShoe21, a technological attempt at identifying and eliminating the threat of card counters. MindPlay is owned and distributed, appropriately, by Bally/Alliance Gaming, the same company that dominates the slot machine industry.

The prototype MindPlay tables have been in testing at Eldorado in Reno for about a year now. A few months ago, the Las Vegas Hilton also opened some MindPlay tables. Based on the successful tests at Eldorado and the LV Hilton’s experience with the system, Nevada Gaming Control approved the MindPlay system for widespread casino distribution in Nevada.

Both the (now defunct) SafeJack system, as well as the (now defunct) SmartShoe21, were supposedly fully-integrated high-tech systems for keeping track of the cards, the bets, the players, the wins, the losses, etc., so that the casinos could instantly identify and eliminate card counters and other advantage players. Both systems had numerous bugs and technical problems that never got worked out. But many in the industry believe that MindPlay is the fruition of this idea, and a version of the vision that will work.

I picked up a copy of the MindPlay brochure at the last Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, and at first glance, this is how MindPlay struck me. Just another computer system for trying to find card counters.

The system itself costs an arm and a leg. This is not a system for your average Mom’n’Pop casino. Each MindPlay table costs about $15,000, and the casino using the system would also be required to purchase a maintenance contract from Bally/Alliance for a couple hundred thousand per year more. That means if a big Strip casino wants to install MindPlay tables, it will probably cost them $2 to $3 million just to set up the initial operation.

How can this possibly be cost effective? Are the inventors just dreamers who think they can convince the casinos that card counters are taking this much out of the house? The ratio of cost to value seems so disproportionate that I cannot even imagine any casino considering using the system. Why do they even bother wasting their time testing it?

As I was wandering the aisles at the Gaming Expo, scratching my head as I read the flashy brochure, I ran into a casino exec, a longtime VP with one of the major property groups. Let’s call him “John.” I asked him if he’d seen the MindPlay demo. He had. I asked him what he thought of it.

“Honestly?” he said, “I’m not one of the proponents of the system. I think it will prove to be an expensive flop. But I believe I’m in the minority with that opinion.”

“So most casino execs think this system will eliminate card counters?” I asked.

“That’s probably something that they hope for, Arnold, but that’s not the main reason why they want it. You’re being shortsighted about it.”

I waved the brochure at him. “Shortsighted? That’s all this thing talks about—how the system can count the cards, evaluate the skill of players, keep track of their bets, wins, losses. This is just an automatic counter catcher. Another SafeJack.”

He took the brochure from me and opened it. He pointed to a line of text. “Read that,” he said.

A High-Tech Casino Jobs Killer

I read the paragraph he was pointing to: “And then there is the costly staffing of too many pit clerks and supervisory personnel, all of which manually collect the kind of information that more modern gaming systems, such as slots, can produce automatically.”

“What are you driving at?” I asked.

“For the people who will make the purchase decision on MindPlay, the primary purpose of the system is not to eliminate card counters, but to eliminate pit bosses, floor persons, surveillance personnel, and a good portion of marketing people, namely the small army of hosts that every casino employs. If gaming tables can automatically oversee the games, what do we need bosses for?

Do you have any idea what the annual payroll is for pit personnel in a big Strip casino? Much more than the cost of MindPlay. Most floor personnel are no longer involved in game protection. All they do is monitor the buy-ins, make sure there are no payout errors, watch the check trays to visually verify the transactions. The only thing they do is count the checks and count the money.

With MindPlay, the table counts the checks and the money. The table verifies correct payouts. The table even alerts the cage when a check tray is low and needs a fill.”

“So, you’re saying there will be no more bosses?”

“How many bosses do you see in the slot department, Arnold? All you see are change girls and an occasional security guard. The pay scale for these employees is not comparable to what pit bosses make.

The dream with MindPlay, as the top execs envision it, is that the only supervisory casino employee needed will be a shift manager. And his job will pretty much be a function of accounting. It will not be the same high-paid position it is today. There will be no reason to pay that much, as the job will not entail much more than looking at the numbers and signing off on the daily totals.”

“But don’t big players need to be coddled and comped and wined and dined?” I asked.

“That’s marketing’s job. 99 percent of players don’t need a boss or a host. Look how it works for slot players. Their slot card keeps the records and tells the house how many points they’ve earned. There’s no fudging. MindPlay does that for table games. Either your player card says you’ve earned the comp, or you didn’t.

"The few really big players will still have hosts. But MindPlay will eliminate all of the bosses, half the surveillance department, and most of the hosts. A big Strip casino like Mirage or Venetian, Caesars, or Bellagio, is paying a few million per year in salaries just to the pit personnel. MindPlay looks like a bargain to those at the top, assuming it works.

If you can replace a hundred executive positions with a couple dozen change girls and cashiers, you are looking at a huge increase in profits. It makes no difference if MindPlay can’t catch a card counter. Most pit bosses can’t recognize advantage players any more. Their only game protection function anymore is to make a phone call upstairs if they’re suspicious about a player. Now, MindPlay makes the phone call. And it will probably be more accurate in recognizing a threat than most bosses or surveillance monitors.”

“So, why aren’t you a proponent of the system?” I asked. “What’s the downside?”

“I’m a realist, Arnold,” he said. “There are some things computers and machines can do, and some things they cannot do. In this business, with this cash flow, it’s just crazy to try to foist a job this important onto a machine. This thing is dangerous. It is so complex and so far-reaching, it will be a fiasco of major proportions in this industry.”

“Won’t the casino personnel themselves be opposed to this thing?” I asked. “Why would the pit and surveillance personnel cooperate with upper management to install a system that’s going to eliminate them if it works? This whole idea sounds doomed.”

“That’s not how it will be presented to them,” he said. “It’s all in the spin. The idea will be sold to players as a technological solution to payout errors and making sure that all the cards are being used. It will also be described to them as a surefire method for making sure that they get all the comps they deserve.

"On the other hand, it will be sold to pit and surveillance personnel as a solution to card counters, cheaters, comp abusers and other advantage players. This will not be announced in the industry as a device that will eliminate most pit, surveillance and marketing personnel.

"The marketing people are key in making this thing work. They understand spin. They’ve got the toughest job of all. If MindPlay works, it will eliminate 500 hosts’ jobs in this town. That’s most of them. They are the highest paid class of employees in this industry. There won’t be fifty to sixty hosts left here if MindPlay works. It will be the job of the marketing people at the top—those who hope to survive—to sell this thing to their underlings as a marketing ‘tool,’ when, in fact, it will ultimately eliminate all but one or two hosts from every casino.”

“So you don’t think they’ll figure it out pretty quickly when they see their job functions disappearing?”

John laughed. “I’m afraid to say, Arnold, most of them really are pretty dumb. There are a few smart ones, a few of the old timers who survived the bean counters and a few young hotshots. But most bosses should probably have jobs selling coffee at Starbucks.

"Again, if MindPlay works—and that’s a big if—that’s probably what they will be doing a few years from now. They don’t know the games. They don’t read. They make no effort to educate themselves. They won’t even see it coming. At first, everyone will be saying, ‘Wow, look at all this information we have now! This really makes my job easy!’ Only a few will be saying, ‘Oh-oh, this makes my job disappear.’”

In January, when I heard that the Las Vegas Hilton had installed a twelve-table pit of these MindPlay tables on the main casino floor, I went to the US Government Patent Office website, and looked up the patent. (You can look it up yourself under patent #6,460,848.)

John was right. This is not so much a device for eliminating card counters as for eliminating floor personnel. To quote from the patent:

“The actual gaming and wagering patterns of the customers are visually observed by casino personnel and manually entered into a computer to create a digitized copy of the customer’s gaming habits… Similarly, casinos wish to track the efficiency of the casino and the casino’s employees…

"A typical method of tracking employee efficiency is to manually count the number of hands of blackjack dealt by a dealer over some time period. A change in an amount in a bank at the gaming table can also be manually determined and combined with the count of the number of hands to determine a won/loss percentage for the dealer… “pit managers” can visually monitor the live play of a game at the gaming table.

"The current methods of tracking have several drawbacks. The methods typically depend on manual observation of a gaming table. Thus coverage is not comprehensive, and is limited to tracking a relatively small number of games, customers and employees… The tracking methods are also prone to error since the manual methods rely on human observers who can become inattentive or distracted…

“An employee analysis function receives data from the table monitoring logic, and analyzes the data for the employee dealer efficiency, performance and attendance. A report function receives data from the table monitoring logic, and analysis from the player and employee analysis, respectively.

"The report function generates appropriate reports regarding the playing habits of the players, and about the performance and efficiency of the employee dealer. Reports can cover all aspects of the gaming, including financial reports, statistical reports based on player profiles, human resources reports based on employee data and marketing reports. The above description sets out a non-intrusive system to record and analyze data for accounting, marketing and/or financial purpose.”

Mindplay: "To Bring Factory-Like Automation and Control" to a Casino Near You

Then I went to the MindPlay website to see what the company had to say about the system. Did they really believe they could run table game pits like a bunch of slot machines? A quote on the front page of their site answered my question:

“The challenge was to bring factory-like automation and control to the action on a casino floor.”

I called John. I told him I’d seen some MindPlay tables at the Hilton, and asked him if this was the beginning of the end. I also told him I had downloaded the MindPlay patent from the Internet. “Isn’t there some possibility,” I asked him, “that MindPlay might actually be better than humans at performing these data collection functions?”

“Sure,” he said. “That’s why it’s so dangerous to the industry. There’s an old saying, Arnold: Age and treachery will beat youth and brilliance every time. This is so true in gambling, yet it’s not something that is understood by the corporations that are running the casinos.

"They believe in youth and brilliance. I’m old school. I think Bill Zender had the right idea. If you want to make money on your games, and protect your games, you hire a bunch of ex-card counters, ex-hole-carders, ex-crossroaders, and you let people who know how to take off games keep people from taking off your games.

"These corporate types actually believe that machines can protect the games better than people. In my opinion, this is lunacy. This system is so fraught with potential for abuse it’s insane.

How MindPlay Can Be Used to Cheat Players

“For instance, the computer will know the exact order of the cards in the shoe prior to the deal. This information can be accessed by anyone with the proper authority, meaning the password to get into the data screens. The casino manager can actually access this information from his home, over the Internet, if he wants to. I don’t care how many firewalls and layers of encryption they’re using, a couple of smart-ass humans who want to take millions out of a joint could pull an Ocean’s Eleven without any explosives. One password is literally the key to the vault.

“And how is it, Arnold, that some numbskull in Gaming has actually authorized the casinos to use marked cards? Is this nuts, or what? They really believe this system will be impenetrable? Do they really believe everyone on the inside will always be squeaky clean? Do they really believe no outsiders will ever get a hold of one of these systems in order to take it apart and find the weaknesses, the bugs, the backdoors?”

“How can this device know the order of the cards in the shoe prior to the deal?” I asked. “I watched the Hilton tables, and they were hand-shuffling the cards. Does the shoe itself actually read the card order?”

“I don’t think they’re using the full-blown system yet,” he said. “The dealing shoe is just a dealing shoe. It’s the discard holder that reads the card order. After the shuffle, the dealer has to place the cards back into the discard holder before placing them into the shoe. The discard holder reads the complete stack, top to bottom, in a second.”

“They weren’t doing that at the Hilton,” I said. “But won’t players find that just a bit strange? They shuffle the cards, then they place them back into the discard holder, then they take them out a second later and put them into the shoe?”

“The dealers will be instructed to tell players that they’re just making sure all the cards are still there, that the discard holder checks to see that six full decks are in play.”

“Just in case, during the shuffle, a few cards got up and walked away?”

“It’s the spin,” he said. “They will be unlikely to tell the players that the central computer now knows the exact order of the cards to be dealt. The dealers themselves may not know this.”

“Couldn’t that make this a cheating device, as defined by Nevada law?” I asked. “Couldn’t this actually be used to instruct the dealer to shuffle up if, for instance, high cards were approaching and some player had a big bet out to catch a blackjack, or a monster double down or something?”

“Gaming has already approved MindPlay as a legal device. It never would have gone into live testing if there was a cheating question. Whether or not Gaming will come out and say ‘You can’t use this function of this device in this way,’ has yet to be seen.

"The potential for this kind of abuse is immense. At this point, the casinos can do anything that they are not specifically prohibited from doing, and shuffling up is always a legal option. Dealers in Nevada are currently allowed by Gaming to count cards and shuffle away player-favorable decks, and MindPlay would not really be doing anything that dealers are not currently allowed to do; it would just be doing it with extreme accuracy.

"No one in the industry wants to talk about these features out loud right now, but with MindPlay, imagine this: If the high cards are about to be dealt, and a player is sitting there with a table-limit bet, MindPlay would know if the best hand would go to the player or the dealer. MindPlay knows the exact order of the cards. If a dealer blackjack is coming, to beat a bunch of player 20s, why should the dealer be instructed to shuffle up? The current preferential shuffling practices have no accuracy. MindPlay can make these decisions with absolute precision.”

“So, right now,” I said, “that Hilton game is safe for players, at least insofar as the house not knowing the exact order of the cards?”

“As soon as you see dealers placing the decks back into the discard tray, after the shuffle, before putting them into the shoe, get out of the game,” he said. “The only reason for a dealer to do that is so the computer can see the exact order of the cards to be dealt.”

“That’s scary,” I said.

“Assuming it works,” he said. “I’m predicting a huge failure.”

Implications of MindPlay Automation for Professional Gamblers

I called a few professional players and alerted them about this MindPlay monster, and I told them where they could find the patent data on the Internet. Okay, I called more than a few pros. I talked with just about every serious player I knew. I I mean, this is very interesting stuff.

The possibility of pit bosses disappearing! The patent describes virtually every feature of the system, complete with technical drawings, diagrams, charts. It explains how it counts money, tracks chips, cards, evaluates player skill, and how it will replace almost all of the pit, surveillance and marketing personnel, saving the casinos millions per year in executive salaries.

The general consensus among the players I talked with who studied the patent information was that John is right. This thing is so complex it will never be able to do everything it’s supposed to do. But the casinos, saddled with the start-up and implementation costs, will likely be forced to begin the process of staff reduction despite a few “bugs” that have to be worked out.

“What’s your gut feeling about where this thing will ultimately go?” I asked one pro.

“I’m salivating at the thought of any casino using this system full out,” he said. “I’m just afraid MindPlay won’t work well enough for them to actually use it. My hope is that it will work well enough for them to think it works okay. That would be a dream come true. We can kiss the bosses good-bye. We’ll be dancing in the aisles.”

As the MindPlay promo flyer says: This changes everything!♠

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  MindPlay and Casino Surveillance
The MindPlay casino games table management system may be used to reduce casino surveillance and pit personnel, but it won't be much of a bargain to casinos because it's easy to fool.