A recent G2E conference session in Las Vegas gave me a chance to hear industry insiders talk about the current usage of RFID (Radio Frequency ID) technology inside casinos. This technology uses radio tags embedded in casino chips to authenticate the chips, and to enable more accurate data gathering on the casino floor. The idea has been around for a number of years now, with Wynn Las Vegas using the system since 2005. In the years since, the technology has slowly improved and more casinos have begun to use the chips. An expert speaker at the conference indicated that perhaps 40 casinos in the US are currently utilizing radio-enabled chips.
Probably the most compelling casino benefit provided by RFID is the ability to validate and authenticate high-value chips. Counterfeit chips can be a major threat to a casino, and having each chip embedded with a radio tag and serial number can be a powerful weapon against fraud. Consider the risk posed by a manufacturer shipping millions of dollars of chips to the casino. With RFID, those chips are just useless tokens until the serial numbers are officially added to the inventory at the casino.
Another ability of these systems is to automate the counting process, both in the casino cage and in the table game racks on the floor. From the commentary at the conference, the technology does not currently enable a full automated count in the cage, but floor racks can be counted. I don’t know why the full-cage count still poses a problem, but these kinds of limitations seemed to be a common theme throughout the talk. The state of the art just isn’t quite there yet.
For table game players, there are two ways that RFID chips can be problematic:
The first is the use of sensors under each betting circle to accurately determine the amount a player is betting. The benefit to the casino is that average bet ratings can be precisely accurate for each player, and they can eliminate the inaccurate ratings that often allow players to earn comps above the appropriate level. See “How a Basic Strategy Player can Beat Blackjack” for more on that. In addition, if this real-time betting data can be coupled with sophisticated surveillance software, the process of detecting many forms of advantage play could be automated.
The second concern is that RFID tags could potentially allow a casino to “assign” chips to a particular player who won them at the table. If the casino knows who you are (or at least has an assigned profile for you), then chips could be tagged to you specifically. If those chips disappear out of the casino inventory for a time, if you like to stockpile chips for future play, this information would be a problem, especially if someone other than the original player eventually plays the chip or cashes it at the cashier.
Fortunately, although the system sellers paint RFID as an extremely capable platform, there are still holes in all of this process. The casino floor is a messy environment for this kind of orderly tracking. Players move from table to table, and chips are in constant motion. The kind of bulletproof tracking that would allow chips to be assigned to specific players with any degree of certainty just doesn’t exist. In my opinion, this will not change in the next few years. An industry representative admitted as much during the G2E session. When asked if the system could assign a chip to a specific player, his response was that “It could be done”, but he said that in a tone that made clear that the technology today falls short of this goal.
There may be some exceptions to this, particularly in the tracking of junket players who may be assigned inventoried special chips upon their arrival. In that use case, the main goal is to make sure that the junket players are giving the action expected for their trip.
For now, the principle threat that RFID poses to blackjack players is that it may be difficult or impossible to inflate your average bet rating at the table. To accomplish even this requires a substantial investment by the casino in sensors that currently run about $10,000 to equip a single blackjack table.
So, RFID may be here now, but it still falls short of its eventual promise for the industry. For savvy players, that’s a good thing.