Top-10 innovations that changed casino gambling

19 March 2012

I started writing about the gambling industry in 2006, and over the last six years, there have been a number of developments that have revolutionized the industry, changing the way gamblers bet and the way games are played.

But many of the industry's biggest changes and innovations came before I started writing about the industry. In fact, some innovations that are older than I am are still in use today. Here's a top-10 list of game-changing developments in the gambling industry (as well as a view into my inner germaphobe).

10. Comps
The idea of rewarding gamblers for playing games of chance with a free meal, hotel room, or (for the high rollers) a charter flight and a limousine ride to and from your casino is almost as old as the industry. Getting a free meal or a hotel room is nice, but it's important to remember the real cost of comps. If you get something based on your normal play, by all means make use of it. But you should never gamble more than you originally intended just to get comped. You're much better off just buying what you want and staying within your limits than trying to gamble your way to comps.

9. Tournament poker
Thirty years ago, poker was seen as a game that was played in smoke-filled back rooms by old men. But the expansion of tournament poker began to change that. People started to recognize that the same players were ending up at final tables and that poker is a game of skill. There's also an egalitarian spirit in tournament poker. Everyone starts with the same amount in chips and there's no way deeper pockets can get you any more (except for rebuy tournaments). Even before the Moneymaker explosion, the World Series of Poker's Main Event was broadcast on ESPN (yes, in the wee hours of the morning, but it was broadcast nonetheless). Tournament poker changed the perception of the game and, along with number 6 on this list, allowed for a boom in popularity over the last 10 years.

8. Progressive jackpots
One of the most potent gambling fantasies is hitting the big score. Before progressive jackpots became widely available, the only way to get a big score was to wager big. But with the advent of networked slot games, gamblers had access to six- and even seven-figure scores for as little as pennies a spin. The idea has also been adopted in poker with bad beat jackpots. The odds are long and the overwhelming majority of us will never hit one of those life-changing progressives, but you can't help but think about what you'd do with the money when you hear about someone hitting one.

7. Player loyalty cards
Player loyalty cards or reward cards are a true win-win for the industry. Casinos gain the ability to track the habits of their customers, while the even the lowest stake gamblers now get access to comp points every time they use their cards at a slot machine, table game or poker table. Since they are optional, gamblers can opt out of being tracked, but those who choose to have their play tracked can access win/loss statements for their tax forms and make sure they get the comps they earn. Casino marketing departments can also use the information gathered to offer promotions to players, whether it be a discounted hotel room or free slot play.

6. Hole card camera
Nothing revolutionized televised poker more than the hole-card camera, patented by Henry Orenstein in 1995. Before the hole cam, poker on TV was hard to follow. But when spectators could see the hole cards, they started to play along. The innovation, along with Chris Moneymaker's win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, revolutionized the game.

5. Online gambling
Online casinos, sportsbooks and poker rooms started to pop up in the mid- to late-1990s. Gamblers could now place a wager from the comfort of their own home, instead of making the trek to a casino. As Internet speeds and access grew, the quality of the online gambling experience improved.

Early online casinos were generally unregulated and independent of their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They started to gain popularity, and of course notice from government regulators. Now, many European gambling companies have both a brick-and-mortar and online presence, and U.S. corporations are teaming up with online software providers to be ready for when U.S. states or the federal regulatory landscape allow Americans to start wagering online.

4. Video slot machines
While you can still find three-reel slot machines that actually spin, the vast majority of slot machines in brick-and-mortar casinos these days are video slot machines. The change allows game developers to provide a richer experience for the player, weaving in video content from movies and popular culture, as well as involved bonus rounds. The innovation also allowed for the proliferation of the penny slot, which can be quite profitable for casinos, as a max-coin, max-line bet can cost up to two or three bucks a pop.

3. Live dealer online casinos
While the vast majority of online casinos can be trusted, some people doubt whether the random number generator that determines the cards or the result of a spin of a roulette wheel is as fair as a shuffled deck of cards or a physical roulette wheel. Well, those fears can be eased by playing live dealer games at online casinos. These tables allow players to play a variety of games, including roulette, blackjack and baccarat, with a real wheel or deck of cards. The players can watch the result play out in real time on a video display and can interact with a real dealer or croupier. It's a true game-changer for online casinos.

2. In-game sports betting
Five years ago, if you wanted to bet on a sporting event, your only options were generally to place a wager before the game. Sometimes, you might get a halftime line in football or basketball, but in general, once the game began, the opportunity to bet was over. In-game, or in-running betting, changed that.

Available both online and in some brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, in-game betting allows a gambler to place a bet in the middle of a game. You can bet on the spread, or you can bet on the result of the next play. Some sports bettors prefer in-game betting as they can see how a team is performing and make their bets accordingly. As a result of this innovation, the very best sports bettors can watch a game and wager like a day-trader, backing the sides that they believe have a positive expected return.

1. Ticket in, ticket out
The first time I went to Atlantic City, I was 23–years-old and a coworker of mine won $30 on a slot machine (unfortunately I don't remember the property). Quarters clinked and clanged into his dirty plastic cup, and he went to turn the change into bills at another dirty machine. I remember being completely unimpressed with the sound of banging metal coins and how many germs must be spread from the circulation of all those coins.

The next time I visited a casino, several years later, the slot machines spit out a ticket when you cashed out, which you took to a redemption center where the machine spit out exactly what you were owed. The ticket-in, ticket-out system revolutionized the way players interact with slot machines and saved a lot of quarters from being traded back and forth between gamblers and the casinos. I know some people miss the old coin-in, coin-out machines, but I'm not one of them. Ticket-in, ticket-out forever changed the way a slot floor looks and sounds.

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