Casino old-timer getting back in game with Gambet

There’s never any shortage of new table games in Nevada. Right now, there are 557 table games approved for the state’s casinos, though you rarely see more than a dozen or so at any casino. But Jose Brito’s quest to find a niche shows that an Old Vegas attitude doesn’t have to mean more of the same old games.

Brito is a genuine casino old-timer who broke into the business at age 23 dealing blackjack, baccarat and roulette in Havana in the 1950s. The Tropicana Night Club Casino and El Casino at the famous Havana Hilton were excellent training grounds, and Brito learned the nuts and bolts of gambling there.

But Cuban casinos didn’t long survive Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, and Brito fled the country, ending up in Las Vegas. Former Havana Hilton executive Larry Snow helped Brito move to Las Vegas, where he quickly scored a dealing job at the Stardust. During the following decade, he worked his way up to the position of pit boss. Brito had stints at the Dunes, Caesars Palace and Desert Inn before leaving town for Lake Tahoe, where he ran gambling operations for the King’s Castle casino. In the 1980s, Brito moved again, to Atlantic City, where he helped Del Webb open the Claridge hotel-casino before moving to the Playboy hotel-casino.

Retired from the industry for several years, Brito returned to Las Vegas in 2005 with a mission: to work on Gambet, a game he’d been tinkering with since the early 1980s. The game combines blackjack and baccarat, two casino favorites. Blackjack has long been the most popular game, and baccarat, since elbowing aside craps in 2004, has been the No. 2 earning game in Nevada. Combining the games seems like a can’t-miss prospect.

“I was frustrated with years of trying to explain the rules and regulations of baccarat to players,” Brito says. “It is a classic, elegant game, but it is a confusing and complex one, as well. So I started thinking about options. I started mixing games together and Gambet was born. My daughter (Carmen Gigar, the managing principal of Zenith Gaming, which is marketing the game) gave me the name and it stuck.”

As in baccarat, the point is to get closer to nine than the house. There is no busting, and the cards are dealt according to pre-defined rules. The game is played on a modified blackjack table and features an insurance-type bet as well as other propositions. An initial draw of nine and a 10-value card (10s or faces), called a “hard nine,” pays three-to-two, like a natural blackjack.

The game has a lot going for it; no skill is required, translating into a short learning curve. But with several side bets, there’s enough variety to keep it interesting.

Getting a new game approved in Nevada isn’t easy. The Gaming Control Board has a 15-point checklist for would-be inventors. Before even being considered, all games must have statistical evaluations, patents on file at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and an agreement from a major casino to permit field testing of the game.

It can be a frustrating journey, particularly for someone who’s been an insider for so long.

“I feel like a dinosaur sometimes,” Brito says when asked about the obstacles he’s facing. “While I knew lots of important people 30 years ago and I was in at the highest level of the business, today I don’t know anyone. I am an outsider and don’t speak the same modern language. So I have had to be creative and more patient. At my age that’s hard.”

In the end, Brito says, it’s a necessary struggle.

“New games always feed the basic house games and add to the overall action in the casino,” he says. “It is like any other industry. If you don’t look for innovation, it gets stale. Las Vegas is in a period of reinvention, and Gambet should be part of its evolution. It’s my dream to see it played by real customers in a live casino soon.”

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.