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The Future Looks Bright for Electronic Poker Tables

Brian Haveson, Founder of Lightning Poker, Talks About Poker Automation


Historically, poker has required several physical elements to play: chips (or money), a table, some chairs, and a deck of cards (which is truly one of the earliest versions of an analog random-number generator). Then Internet poker came along and introduced the world to the virtual table. With online poker, only a personal computer, an Internet connection, and membership to a participating financial institution is needed.

It was only a matter of time before that technology found its way into the traditional brick-and-mortar poker rooms, and that happened in the form of automated poker tables.

Automated poker tables like the ones manufactured by Lightning Gaming and PokerTek, two companies located in the United States, are slowly finding their way - through intense marketing and sales - into poker markets everywhere.

Brian Haveson, poker player and businessman, is one of the key players in the automated poker industry. As the CEO and founder of Lightning Gaming, the company behind Lightning Poker, Haveson is at the forefront of this new industry.

Earlier this year, Lightning Gaming entered an agreement with the gaming company Shuffle Master to distribute its product worldwide. The partnership with Shuffle Master has been invaluable to Lightning Gaming. As Haveson puts it, it made the Pennsylvania company international overnight. Haveson pointed out that Shuffle Master has offices all around the world, with a good portion of its 500-plus staff working to market and sell its properties, Lightning Gaming included.

PokerTek, who manufactures the PokerPro line of tables, including a heads-up version, has a similar distribution agreement with Aristocrat International, an Australian gaming company that distributes gaming products globally.

Also, last month, Lightning Gaming acquired Poker Automation, which was the No. 3 player in the industry.

Lightning Gaming was founded in 2004 by Haveson, but the concept was in the works for a few years. The goal was to "capitalize on the speed of Internet poker play combined with the face-to-face interaction of a live table game, resulting in increased profitability for casino poker rooms."

Haveson gave up a portion of his day to talk with Card Player about Lightning Poker and future of automated poker tables. His company, with the help of Shuffle Master, has placed its tables in casinos located in Macau, Germany, Australia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lebanon, and the United States, and it will soon have tables in casinos in South Africa.

As well as being an accomplished tournament poker player (he's racked up nearly $1 million in tournament wins), Haveson is a businessman with lots of experience. He most recently was the CEO of NutriSystems before founding Lightning Gaming.

Card Player: Are automated poker tables the future for live poker?

Brian Haveson: I think there is always going to be a place for dealered [dealer-dealt] poker. I don't think we'll ever be more than 50 percent of the tables in poker rooms. There are some 100-percent automated poker rooms, but I don't ever envision taking over Bellagio or taking over the Commerce completely with electronic poker tables. I think they'll always be a spot for dealered tables. Some player like the electronic tables, some players like the dealered [ones].

CP: What kind of players like the automated tables?

BH: We've noticed that it's more of a younger demographic, Internet players who are used to the speed of Internet poker. Once you play our tables, then you move over to a dealered table, you do see a noticeable difference in the amount of hands you get per hour. Our tables are much faster. You don't have the dealer mistakes, the dealer changeovers, the splitting of pots, dealing with the chips, or changing the decks. You get a lot more hands, so the younger players who are used to the Internet really seem to gravitate to the tables.

CP: What kind of casino markets do you guys do best in?

BH: We actually do best when there are no dealered tables at all. We're doing very well in Canada, right now. We're doing very well in the European markets. I can't point to what makes one place better than the others besides that the main issue is management support. When management gets behind the product, it really works. When they're not behind it, it doesn't work.

CP: How has the reception been among management in the casinos?

BH: Very good, for the most part. Most of these managers worked their way up through the ranks of being dealers, and some of that may have a little of that mentality of replacing the dealer's jobs with technology.

Running a poker room and managing the dealers is a very daunting task in a big poker room. Keeping all of those dealers scheduled and moving them around and changing them is a very difficult process, so a lot of them welcome the electronic tables from that standpoint.

CP: How has the deal with Shuffle Master changed your company?

BH: It's made us international. I wouldn't have any of those international sales I spoke of if it wasn't for Shuffle Master, [or] very few. It's a big organization. They have 550 employees, and most of those people are salespeople. They have offices in Macau, they have an offices in Australia, they have an offices in South Africa, they have offices in Austria."

CP: Talk a bit about Macau. How important will the electronic poker-table industry be for the future of poker in Macau?

BH: As you know, Macau's doing more revenue than Vegas. I just spent eight days there. I think it's going to be very important, because they have a labor shortage in Macau. They can't get enough dealers to deal the games, and they keep building these mega, mega resorts. You drive through there and everywhere you look there's new construction for a new casino. And if they're going to get poker going, a very important piece of that puzzle is going to be having electronic tables.

If you look at the Venetian, it's a massive property. It's the second-biggest building in the world. It's just a sea of baccarat tables. Baccarat pretty much dominates the gambling dollar in Macau. You don't see a lot of slot machines like you do here. Slot machines are kind of secondary. We had a table at the Grand Waldo that was there during the Asian Pacific Poker Tour. It pretty much ran 24 hours a day at full capacity.

It's a project for us. It's going to take time, but once the market gets it, starts to understand poker, I think it's going to explode. I really believe poker is going to take off in Asia.

CP: How long do you think it will be until the poker market explodes in Macau?

BH: I think it's measured in terms of years instead of months.

CP: What's the process of getting your product in a market like Macau?

BH: We go meet with the decision-makers in Macau. The government considers us a slot machine and not a poker table or a gaming table. All electronic games are considered slot machines, so we meet with the director of slot operations, as opposed to the director of table games, and we talk them through it, and they get it. Pretty much everybody there thinks poker is going to be hot in Macau, but they all agree that it will take some time.

CP: What are some of the other markets in Asia you think will be huge?

BH: I think Malaysia is going to be big. I think Vietnam, obviously, if you look how poker is with Vietnamese players. I think in all of those fringe Asian countries, it's going to be big. I think Korea could be big. Pretty much everywhere. I think everywhere in Asia, it's going to be very popular.

CP: You mentioned Australia as a big market. Why do you think Australia will be a big market for automated poker?

BH: Australians just live poker, and again, they have labor issue in Australia. It's a gigantic country with not much of a population. We just put four tables into Sydney just last week, in the Star City Casino, where the Asian Pacific Poker Tour [took place]. They're doing very well. If you go to the World Series, you always run into Australians. They just love the game.

CP: What did Joe Hachem's World Series of Poker win do for poker in Australia?

BH: It was huge. That's a big part of it why it's so popular. It's absolutely huge.

CP: What's the future going to bring for Lightning Poker?

BH: It's just going to be slowly building it up, getting casinos interested in the product and placing it, and taking our time and making sure everything is done right and increasing sales. And basically we only have one competitor, and that's PokerTek, and there's clearly room enough for two players.

CP: Do you have plans to introduce more automated poker products to the world?

BH: What we've done is we have multiple games that play on our table. The next game that we actually introduced at G2E [Global Gaming Expo] was an automated slot tournament. You know these casinos offer these slot tournaments to their players to get the players into the casinos. Well, what they do is they basically play it on our tables as opposed to tying up their slot machines. A lot of casinos have seen a lot of value in that concept.

CP: Where do you think the next big poker market will be in America?

BH: I think everywhere. I think every state is going to have poker tables, eventually. I think every state is going to have a casino and every state is going to have poker tables. Poker players don't want to travel too far to play, so I think it's going to hurt places like Atlantic City, you know, when Maryland opens up poker rooms and Pennsylvania opens up poker rooms. I just think everywhere.