Groups of five cluster around a poker table, staring intently at the high-def screens while facsimile cards fly their way.
In their midst one night last week, Jamie Tsottles kept his eyes on the small tabletop screen showing dice being tossed by an automated craps machine at another table. But he would rather have been playing poker with a human croupier, known in the trade as a live dealer.
“I enjoy the conversation with a dealer,” said Tsottles, an information technology specialist from Glen Burnie. “It’s more social. And you’re going to have different kinds of gamblers — someone with $500,000 to spend versus people who bring $40 and don’t go over their limit.”
Whether tight-budgeted or high-flying, gamblers may soon notice a big change in Maryland’s casinos. The state legislature passed Wednesday, and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) swiftly signed, a law permitting live dealers at tabletop games such as blackjack, roulette, poker and craps. If voters approve a referendum on the measure in November, Prince George’s County also could add the state’s sixth casino.
In what may be the ultimate man vs. machine story, the back-to-the-future move to bring in human dealers is more about money and marketing than nostalgia. Casino operators, players, dealers and therapists who treat problem gamblers say the presence of live dealers makes gambling more entertaining and more lucrative than in casinos equipped just with electronic games.
It draws more experienced gamblers who place bigger bets. The games themselves become less of a solitary experience, as players eyeball one another’s every move in search of a subtle tell, and alternately rejoice with winners and commiserate with losers. Dealers may dispense advice to players, giving quick tutorials to novices or suggesting to someone who’s too drunk or too broke that it’s time to take a break.
For most casino habitues, live dealers make gambling more fun.
“Electronic games are faceless,” said Jeffrey A. Lowenhar, a casino marketing consultant who heads Gaming Research in Las Vegas and calls himself Dr. Jeff. “You put in your money, you make a decision and you win or lose.
“With table games, you’re interacting with other people. You could be sitting at a table with five or seven people, and 15 or 20 people standing behind you. There’s the excitement of yelling and screaming when you win. You can’t do that in isolation when you’re playing electronic games and literally talking to yourself.”
Still, the slots of today are more advanced than the one-armed bandits that used to line casino floors. And the technology in the electronic table games, such as roulette and blackjack, is state of the art. For some, the experience is preferable.
So far, Maryland Live! has been successful in offering dealerless games. In just its second month of operation, it took in more than $35 million.
Georgiana Jilson, a Baltimore nonfiction writer who takes the bus to casinos in New Jersey and West Virginia and who has visited Maryland Live! at least seven times since it opened in June, said she never plays table games frequented by serious players — almost by definition, those with human dealers. She rarely breaches her limit of $40.
“There’s a lot of pressure on you with a live dealer,” said Jilson, sitting at a Panda Jade slot machine at Maryland Live! while waiting for a video screen with a low $5 minimum to open up. “There’s a lot of people standing around wondering what’s taking you so long. I’m not a seasoned gambler. I want time to think.”
Without traditional table games, however, Maryland’s five casinos have steadily been losing customers to rivals in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, where the laws permit table games that mimic the atmosphere in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Many veteran gamers do not conceal their scorn for the electronic games that are the only kind Maryland permits.
“If people wanted machines, they could go to an arcade,” said Gregory P. Fiore, president of the Casino Gaming Institute, a New Jersey-based school that trains dealers. “We’re not children. We’re spending money, and we want to deal with a real croupier.”
The Excalibur in Las Vegas offers one of the best real-world examples of that.
In 2008, the turreted, Disney castlelike casino closed its 12 traditional poker tables, fired the dealers and replaced them with electronic poker tables.
Almost immediately, customers started abandoning the Excalibur for other casinos with live dealers: “This isn’t poker,” they groused.
“We’d run promotions to get people into the building to try it out,” said Glynis Mickelian, the Excalibur’s poker manager. “Well, they tried it, and they didn’t like it. That wasn’t what we expected, especially in an electronic age.”
Eleven months later, the machines were removed and human dealers were rehired, despite the added cost of wages, benefits and supervisors.
In retrospect, Mickelian said she understands why the electronic poker tables bombed.
“Poker players like to physically hold the cards and play with their chips,” Mickelian said. “They stack them and unstack them. Players look into the other players’ faces and try to read each other. You don’t have that with electronic poker. It’s more like a slot machine.”
Although slot machines still provide the bulk of a typical casino’s revenues, casinos hoping to draw big betters cannot ignore table games with human dealers.
“It’s the psychology of it,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “People playing the higher limit tables don’t usually want to do it with a computerized game. In a game like craps, the interaction of the people and with the dealer is very important. It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.”
While a good deal of research has been conducted into problem gambling, little is known about whether players’ behavior is different in a game with a human dealer than in an electronic game. The theories cover every possibility, including that it may make no difference at all.
“People who end up developing gambling problems tend to be involved in a lot of types of games — slots as well as poker and roulette, for example,” said Sarah Nelson, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and researches addictive behaviors at the Cambridge Health Alliance. “I don’t see how switching to a human dealer would facilitate addiction.”
Joanna Franklin, a Baltimore gambling therapist who heads the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, said she worries that more young adults could become hooked on gambling once traditional table games come to town.
Behind her concern is an unusual phenomenon. In casinos, the people most commonly seated at the electronic slots machines are older. The crowd around table games is overwhelmingly under 30.
“If you bring table games to Maryland, we can expect to see younger people go to play,” Franklin said. “It’s only a tiny minority who end up with gambling problems. But it’s a concern because younger people are least likely to have solid impulse control.”
It’s still unclear whether voters will support the conversion, along with another casino in Prince George’s County.
Even a frequent casino patron such as Jilson expects to vote against it. The reason has nothing to do with live gambling, and everything to do with where she lives.
“I don’t have a problem with a casino here, but I think we have enough in the state,” she said. “If they put one in National Harbor, it’s just going to drain benefits from Anne Arundel County.”