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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Are You Ready for a Robotic Card Dealer?

12 October 1998

An acquaintance sent me e-mail the other day. He's head honcho in the Robotics Department at the Richard M Nixon Institute of Technocracy (formerly the Yorba Linda CA High School Extension).

One of his graduate students, Chuck Rossum, was tired of building robots for workaday chores like welding automobiles, positioning radioactive rods in nuclear reactors, and studying soil samples on the surfaces of nearby planets. Rossum wanted to create a robot for something really interesting and socially redeeming. Dealing casino blackjack. Would I critique the concept?

Always on the alert for new, innovative, and potentially profitable schemes, I jumped at the opportunity.

Rossum had the basics. How to shuffle, distribute, and pick up cards. How to determine active spots for each round, detect and interpret hand signals, and read card values. How to program the internal computer to know the rules of the game, decide the outcome of each bet, recognize questions players were most likely to ask and synthesize germane replies - including "I'll call the pit boss" when all else fails, and say "good hit" or "too bad" as appropriate. And how to pay winners and collect from losers.

I allowed that these seemed to be necessary features, although the way tasks were performed would affect the chances players would accept the invention. For example, a good blackjack dealer knows how to deliver cards smoothly, at a pace matching the expertise of the players at the table, and with a bit of flair.

Rossum, saving the best for last, then told me that while true cyborg technology was a long way off, the robotic dealers would have human appearances. "They'd look and speak like Lieutenant Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, rather than be hodge-podges of tin cans like R2D2 in Star Wars." This was insightful, I said, since players who preferred to put their fates in the hands of non-judgmental machines already had a choice of slots.

The plan was to get some fat cat casino to fund the development of a prototype and install it on the floor as a test. Like most engineering projects, this would go through several phases - each building on the results of the last. But the Nixon Tech robotics team knew the first go-around should be unimpeachable if they were to get a casino to buy-in, and not have the robot fall flat on its anthropomorphic face when it shuffled its first shoe.

"What have I left out?" Rossum asked. I replied he hadn't said anything about the way robot dealers would take abuse.

"What do you mean?" he pressed.

"Most solid citizens you find in casinos are gracious and polite to dealers and other gamblers," I explained. "And floor people never pander to churlish players, tolerating rudeness, crudeness, or lewdness just because someone's a high roller. But discourtesy rears its ugly head on rare occasions. Maybe a Rodney Dangerfield type, who 'don't get no respect' at home or on the job, tries to belittle dealers using subtle tricks like blowing cigar smoke at them. Or a gambler who isn't such a big boy or girl, after all, gets nasty when a dealer pulls a killer card from the shoe."

"Robots would be perfect in these situations," Rossum insisted. "Nothing like that would bother them. They'd ignore oafish conduct, filter out the smoke, and stick to their knitting."

"Exactly the point!" I exclaimed. "Ill-mannered bozos, rare as they are, don't come to the casino to be ignored. There's no sense in being offensive if nobody's offended. A robot could be programmed to do something only live dealers at the pinnacle of the profession can achieve. It can respond to repugnant players as if it's rising to the bait, allowing these folks to indulge their fantasies of superiority. But, at the same time, it can diffuse the acrimony ill-mannered persons like this create at the table by subtly letting everyone else know the boorish behavior is actually having no impact." As Sumner A Ingmark put it:

A talent people rarely share,
Is to the brunt of anger bear,
Yet still of rancor clear the air.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.