One Game’s Wild Ride

Caribbean Stud's slow disappearance from casinos is nearly complete

The gambling urge is pretty much universal and just about timeless. But the ways people gamble—those change quite a bit. For a while, faro was the Game That Won the West, surpassing all others in popularity. Then, fueled by the return of servicemen who’d played it during World War II, craps had its day, followed by the ascendance of blackjack after players learned they could “beat the dealer.”

But with limited floor space, games that no longer draw don’t last. This is nowhere more apparent than in looking at the fate of Caribbean Stud Poker in Nevada. Once nearly ubiquitous, it’s now nearly gone from the state’s casinos.

Caribbean Stud Poker is known in the industry as a proprietary table game. Some games, like roulette and blackjack, have rules that are in the public domain; any casino can offer them, as long as they get regulatory approval. Proprietary games, on the other hand, are developed by a creator who patents his or her work. The creator then sells the game to casinos, which pay a per-table rental fee ranging from $30 to $2,500 per month; more profitable tables command higher rents.

It’s difficult to chart Caribbean Stud Poker’s origins. There’s some dispute about who created it, and where. According to Gaming Control Board documents, it was first approved for use in the state’s casinos on April 1, 1992. By the early 1990s a company named Progressive Gaming was offering the game throughout the country. Since then, through a series of mergers, Caribbean Stud has become the property—like many other proprietary games—of SHFL Entertainment. Because of a quirk in the game’s legal history, though, it is distributed in Nevada by Canadian gaming tech company DEQ Systems.

The game grew rapidly in the ’90s. Players crowded the tables, drawn to the novelty of a poker-like game they could play against the dealer. By mid-decade, it had 150 units across the state.

But 1995 was the peak. The next year, there were only 137 tables statewide, and the decline continued from there. By 2005, there were 43 games; three years later, there were less than two dozen, and in 2010, only eight. In January 2012, the Gaming Revenue Report listed six Caribbean Stud tables in three locations. Then, in February, one of those locations removed the game, and, in accordance with Control Board policy, Caribbean Stud got bumped into the “other” category.

The game had a good run, SHFL chief product officer Roger Snow says. He’s as qualified an expert as there is, having created several proprietary games, including Ultimate Texas Hold ’em, Four Card Poker, Dragon Bonus and Crazy 4 Poker. “Caribbean Stud was the first prominent proprietary table game,” he says, “the first one to pass the 20-year barrier. I imagine, with just about anything, there is a life cycle for games like this. And Caribbean Stud is without question on the tail end of that life cycle, at least in the United States.”

But not all games fade. There is, of course, the enduring popularity of the Big Four (blackjack, roulette and craps, plus surging baccarat). Proprietary games have less history, but they have the potential to be just as durable. At last count, there were still 96 Let It Ride tables in Nevada, less than half its 1990s peak, but still respectable. Another SHFL-owned proprietary game, 3-Card Poker, is currently the king of the proprietaries, with 262 tables statewide. Those games’ durability is by design.

“In 2004-05, we saw the steady erosion of Caribbean Stud,” Snow says. “Its previous owners did very little to keep the game fresh, and we vowed not to do the same with Let It Ride. So we added a free side bet. That one little move reinvigorated the game.”

Proprietary games are potentially lucrative, and they are always jockeying for space on casino floors, which explains both the never-ending stream of new games (and litigation over patents) and the abundance of offerings. The Gaming Commission’s list of approved games—most of which are proprietary variants of the Big Four—is 22 pages long. Odds are, you don’t see most of those in casinos. A game is considered successful, Snow says, when it generates $500,000 or more in annual revenue for its owner. By his count, only about 20 successful table games have debuted in the past two decades.

But at the tables, there’s always hope. In March, the Gaming Commission approved Repeater Bets, a craps variant. It’s the latest new game whose makers would love a run like Caribbean Stud Poker’s. But certainly not the last.

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