How to design a casino table game that’s a worldwide hit

Ron Sylvester

The “Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em” poker tables at the Cosmopolitan.

Click to enlarge photo

Roger Snow is the executive vice president and chief product officer for Shuffle Master.

VEGAS INC coverage

Roger Snow's career as a table game designer started when he opened a casino invoice.

Now executive vice president and chief product officer for SHFL entertainment (formerly Shuffle Master), Snow was working at the Mirage when he saw a $2,000 bill from Shuffle Master for a game named Let it Ride.

He was shocked, both that a company owned the game and that the casino paid for it. When Snow learned that the Mirage and other casinos payed $2,000 per Let it Ride table, he vowed to capitalize on the setup.

Snow went to work for Shuffle Master in 2000. The company didn't have anyone who developed games, so Snow took a shot at it. His first game was four-card poker, which has since become one of the most successful games in the company's history.

Much like slot machines, the table games Snow develops are based on mathematical formulas. But Snow, a former newspaper reporter, isn't good at math. Instead, he works with Eliot Frome, a Las Vegas mathematician who followed his father, Lenny Frome, into the gaming business.

Lenny Frome was a former rocket scientist who became known as the "Godfather of Video Poker." Snow said Eliot Frome is just as brilliant.

Together the pair have developed Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, Four Card Poker, Crazy 4 Poker and a baccarat-based game called Dragon Bonus.

VEGAS INC recently sat down with Snow to talk about what makes games a success or a failure.

How do you become a casino game inventor?

There's no undergraduate program for table game designers. There's no apprentice program. And there are hundreds of people, if not more, who are trying to create table games.

There's no standard or protocol for it. You just fall into it.

How do you come up with new games?

Some game developers have told me they'll be in the shower and all of the sudden they get this flash of brilliance, and they'll have to get the soap out of their eyes and they'll go write it down before they forget it.

There are not these moments of, "Aha, Watson come in here, I need you." This is not how my mind works. I sit down and I say, "I need to come up with a table game that has a certain feature. What would be fun?" I have to say, "Tomorrow from noon until 2, I have to develop a new game." I find it to be kind of a boring process and frustrating process.

What are your newest creations, and how did you come up with them?

One is called House Money Blackjack. It's a side bet where when the player wins after his first two cards. In regular blackjack, the game is over. You have the option of collecting your money or placing it on your original bet so you're playing with "house money."

I was looking at blackjack side bets and asking myself, "What does no other blackjack side bet do?" They're all so boring and all so the same. So it occurred to me you can't take those proceeds and add them onto your main bet. So that's what I did.

It will hit 100 tables faster than any product in the history of this company. It's in Washington, California and Nevada. In Las Vegas, it's at the Cannery and it's coming to the Wynn.

The second one is called Face Up Stud Poker. I sat down and said, "What could you do that's different and interesting?" The dealer shows you his entire hand. And now you know exactly what you have to beat. You see four of seven cards of your hand. You've got three cards to come. So are you in, or are you out?

My methodology is to look for something that hasn't been done before, that is truly unique.

After you develop the game, what happens next?

Here's something about this business people don't understand: The odds of success are minuscule. There's no stats on this, but my guess is of every hundred games that make it onto the casino floor each year, one survives. Even for Shuffle Master. Our batting average is better than that, but it's not a 50-50 proposition or anywhere close to that.

That's worse odds than in the casino.

It's terrible. That's why I say I was lucky my first game was Four Card Poker, which turned out to be one of the biggest games of all time. If it wasn't successful, I probably wouldn't be doing this. I would have been given one shot. So I'm very lucky that way.

What ideas failed?

I'm the world's foremost authority on failing in this business.

I had a game one time that had an awful name. It was called "Pai Wow Bonus." It was a side bet for pai gow. In pai gow poker, there are 53 cards in the deck and 49 cards are always dealt out, no matter how many players are at the table. There are always four cards remaining. "Pai Wow Bonus" was a side bet on those four cards.

That was a disaster. It had a horrible name. It was goofy.

I had a game die recently called Rabbit Hunter. It was a pretty standard five-card poker game, but they could pay for an extra card to help their hand. It tested really well. We thought it was going to be really successful so we had all these promotional T-shirts made. Now people are washing cars with them.

Who do your games appeal to?

People would be surprised at how little we know about our own customers. I would suspect most of the serious players would stay away from these games.

In our games, you're fighting a statistical advantage. It's an inflexible mathematical formula you can't beat. It's volatile. You might win for an hour, you might win for a day, you might win for a week. But the longer you play, the more likely it is you're going to lose. It's like playing roulette. You can't beat it.

I think what happened with Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, which is our fastest growing game the last couple of years, is that a lot of people wanted to be poker players. But it's not as glamorous as it is on TV. You can get cleaned out pretty quickly if you don't know what you're doing. And did you ever play poker? It can be kind of boring. You fold three-quarters of your hands, and there's not a lot of action, necessarily. So people have gravitated back toward the pits.

Casino operators have described your games as having the adrenaline rush of slot machines. Do you agree?

We come up with games that have a unique feature and provide some level of mathematical probably that's volatile. There's almost a violent nature to them, that you can win or lose a lot very quickly. There are games you have to risk a lot of money in order to get paid. I sit there and think, "What would get your heart beating?"

From my experience as a gambler, it's all about that adrenaline rush. It's like poker. You've got that big pot out there and you think you've won it, but you're not sure. And the last card is coming and it's like holy … That's what gambling is all about to me.

Is there a certain house advantage you're trying to hit?

The short answer is yes. But it depends on the how much strategy there is to the game. If you have a game with no strategy and it's basically a coin flip, you want to have about a 4 percent house advantage. But if you have a game with a lot of strategy, you can get away with a lower house advantage because people won't play it properly.

The best example is Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em. It has less than a 1 percent house advantage, which seems insane that you could put that on a casino floor. But players don't play anywhere near that. I don't play it anywhere near that. It's just too complicated to play. You can offer what is essentially an even bet game to people, and it will still win money for the house.

It's like craps — an even bet, but nobody plays just the even bet. They can't help themselves. They say, "Ah, give me the hard 10." Because they're bored.

Do you watch people play?

One time, I was playing Crazy 4 Poker at the Mirage. I don't say anything, because who cares, right? But I was sitting there and the player and the dealer got into an argument over a rule of the game. Finally I said, "Sorry, excuse me, but the player is right."

The dealer said, "Excuse me, sir, but I've been dealing for two years, I think I know the rules."

I said, "I've got that beat."

I pulled out my business card and said, "I developed this game about five years ago."

I try not to do it. But I still enjoy playing once in a while. I think you need to have that. People's tastes change. You have to get out there. You learn so much by observing the players and the dealers.

Have you seen innovative games that still fail?

Yes. I'll see games where the inventor has really thought things out, but it's just too much. You're dealing with regular people, and sometimes they've been drinking. You can't have a game that's so complicated no one understands it. You need to have a little complexity. It has to be interesting. But it also has to be intuitive in a sense.

The player has to be able to understand why he wins and why he loses. That has to be obvious.

Most of your games seem to be a variation of poker or blackjack. Why not just play those games?

To say there are too many poker games is like saying there are too many operas in Italian. Poker is a beautiful language that has an infinite number of variations.

I keep doing poker games and blackjack games because that's what people like.

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