VEGAS INC coverage
Station Casinos is updating its video poker offerings with new machines that let players customize backgrounds and the way cards are dealt.
But at the same time, the casino company is removing many of its highest-paying video poker games.
For years, Station has been known for having some of the best video poker payouts in Las Vegas. But over the past few months, several full-pay machines — those with payouts of 100 percent or more — have disappeared.
Full-pay machines allow skilled players to overcome the house advantage. If a gambler plays perfectly, a 101 percent machine, for example, would pay $101 for every $100 gambled. A 99 percent machine would pay $99.
"The machines at Station have been getting a lot tighter," said Bob Dancer, a Las Vegas author and high-stakes professional gambler who specializes in video poker. "Most players think there will be no 100 percent games by the end of the year at Station Casinos. They have 100 percent machines, but they have more at the middle of the spectrum and a whole lot near the bottom. Station appears to be catering to the less-knowledgeable player."
Station officials would not disclose how many high-paying machines they have removed, nor would they say from which casinos.
Roger Pettersson, corporate director of gaming operations, said Station did remove some 100 percent machines but has no plans to get rid of all of them. They replaced the games with IGT machines that have 99.8 percent paybacks, he said.
"Even with that adjustment, we still remain the leader in the market for offering the most machines with a 100 percent payback structure," Pettersson said.
Station owns eight of the top 10 casinos with the most 100 percent payouts for video poker. Green Valley Ranch, Red Rock and Santa Fe Station each had more than 100 as of this week. The Palms and Sam’s Town rounded out the top 10.
Station spokeswoman Lori Nelson said the company has more than 27,000 games with paybacks of 99 percent or more and 2,100 games with paybacks of 100 percent or more.
"The company will continue to offer more 100 percent payback machines than any of our competitors," she said. "We remain committed to providing our guests the best gaming value and video poker products available."
Most players aren't knowledgeable enough to take advantage of full-pay games, Dancer said.
"But no one should play at a machine that pays less than 99 percent," he said. "There are too many 99 percent machines around town."
Station also has become stingier with its player points.
Gamblers with loyalty cards used to receive three points for every dollar they spent on most video poker machines, including full-pay ones. But Station recently changed the formula on its 100 percent games. Now, players earn one point for every $4 they gamble.
Pettersson said the machines with 99.8 percent payouts still award three points for every dollar spent.
Customers who have noticed the change are nonplussed. Pettersson said he expected some push back because video poker players tend to develop favorite games and stick to them.
"Video poker players are not as adventurous as slot players," Pettersson said. "They are more loyal to their machines."
As the company shifts its video poker offerings, it also has unveiled a new line of games from WMS.
The My Poker machines allow players to design their own look and feel for each game and customize how fast the cards are dealt, how they're sorted on the screen, the color of the background and style of cards.
WMS designers created the new games based on feedback from players, with features they requested, company officials said.
The machines offer familiar games, such as Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild, Jokers Wild, Double Bonus and Double Double, as well as games with more volatile pay tables for those looking to hit big. Those games feature bigger bonuses, such as an exclusive Triple Triple, which awards higher payouts for more winning combinations. There's also a Bonus Royals game, which gives higher payouts to royal flushes without requiring a side bet.
Another game, My Poker Winning Streak, allows players to multiply their money up to 10 times by playing consecutive winning hands.
"You rarely see people getting excited by a pair, but with this, they could because the winnings keep multiplying," said Steve Byrne, WMS’ executive director of product marketing.
The games are exclusively at Station Casinos.
Byrne said the My Poker Multi-game and My Poker Winning Streak Games are the first major innovation for video poker in seven years.
"We think we've given the players what they asked for and provided games with better pay tables and higher volatility," Byrne said.
When players first sit down at a My Poker game, it asks for a one-time log in, which allows gamblers to customize the experience. Data is integrated with the player’s loyalty card, so the machine remembers the person's choices. Players also can customize games online.
Some of the options are solely for looks, such as background color and card art. But some can help optimize play.
"There are a couple of different ways to have a four-color deck, and if your eye sight isn't good, you don't get the black suits and the red suits confused," Dancer said. "Another useful feature is sorting from high to low or low high. That helps you get the straights, or even inside straights, and not miss any."
Giving players control over games has been a trend in slot machines and video poker over the past decade, said Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at MIT who studies the design of casino machines and how they relate to problem gambling.
"There has been a great deal of conversation within the industry about how much control a player should have," Dow Schull said. "The idea is if you play close attention to every detail the player wants, you bring them into the game, hook them and you can bring in more revenue."
While the features can be attractive to players, the machines also can have a tighter grip on problem gamblers.
"A machine that responds more closely to whoever the person is in front of it is going to create a strong bond," Dow Schull said. "It's going to have a greater holding power over that person. It's a more potent interface."
Video poker, which emerged in 1979, helped push the explosive popularity of gaming machines. Being able to select which cards to hold gives players a sense of control.
As a result, slot machines and video poker games began to take over real estate in casinos and push aside table games as the most popular, and most profitable, games on the floor.
Manufacturers soon began offering players choices on slots and other electronic games to draw them, and their money, in even further.
Unlike slot machines, there aren’t as many random number combinations in video poker, which uses a 52-card deck. Serious players quickly figured out they could identify the video poker machines with the best payback percentages and increase their winnings.
And while some more experienced players may be irked by the change at Station Casinos, Pettersson said the reaction to the new WMS line has been mostly positive.
"There has been great player interest in this product since we installed them," he said. "We are optimistic guests will like the personalization features that come with it."