Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.
When we last left mom-and-pop casino game inventors George and Stephanie Boutsifakos, their baby was being field-tested at Boulder Station, with no assurance it would survive its scheduled 90-day run.
Sure, the game was getting rave reviews in a casino in South Korea, but locally two other casinos had yanked it off the floor. Go figure.
Depending on how the Boulder Station trial went, the couple were on the brink of giving birth to a casino game that they had named Two Cards High.
We can now move their story forward.
Two Cards High completed its trial run at Boulder Station and the couple this month faced just two bureaucratic hoops before claiming success. They needed the state Gaming Control Board to bless the game so it could win final approval from the Nevada Gaming Commission as legal for play in Nevada casinos.
On Sept. 3, George Boutsifakos’ name was called at the Gaming Control Board meeting, and he stood up in the audience and moved into action.
He threw a felt layout of the game on a table, shuffled the 40-card no-faces deck and showed Board Chairman Dennis Neilander and members Randall Sayre and Mark Lipparelli how the game is played.
It wasn’t a very polished demonstration. Boutsifakos was nervous — no surprise, considering how much was on the line: thousands of dollars and several years of his life.
It had come down to this moment.
• • •
The tortuous journey of Two Cards High, from invention to final regulatory approval, was introduced in a Las Vegas Sun story in May.
Two Cards High was developed by Boutsifakos on a cardboard layout on a dining room table. At the time he was a Golden Nugget blackjack dealer.
The game is easy to learn: The player is dealt five cards. Three of them must add up to 10, 20 or 30 to qualify for a payoff and the remaining cards are the “two cards high” that are played against the dealer’s hand. If the dealer doesn’t qualify and the player does, the player wins. If the player’s two cards high are higher than the dealer’s, the player wins.
Two Cards High was played at the Flamingo and then at the Golden Nugget before the final field trial at Boulder Station. Managers at the first two properties pulled the game in mid-trial because it wasn’t making as much money as they anticipated. A cardinal rule of the floor is: Maximize revenue.
And even though the game completed its trial period at Boulder Station, the casino was not tickled with its revenue. It was shown the door because it wasn’t as popular as some of the other games.
Why the game was piddling along in Las Vegas was a mystery to the inventors because it caught fire in Korea, where a third partner, Sung Chang, was overseeing operations at Seoul’s Paradise Walker-Hill Casino.
The game debuted in Korea on July 7, 2008, and it had a drop — the amount of money wagered — of $546,000 in its first full quarter.
In the most recent quarter, the drop was $790,000, which has opened the door to a contract renewal for the game there. Korean casino operators had anticipated a drop of just $500,000 for the entire year.
Those kinds of numbers would help the couple promote their game to Nevada casinos, if they get regulators’ approval.
In fact, getting approval for a new game isn’t necessarily the hard part. Selling it to casino managers — that’s the trick.
Just ask Las Vegas resident Jack Chappell, who partnered with California-based Michael Christian to invent Play Craps, a card version of the popular dice game. Play Craps was also profiled by the Sun in May.
The two men have won regulators’ approval to sell their game to casinos in Nevada, but today, Play Craps is no longer at the Rampart Casino in Las Vegas — where management opted for more traditional table games — and the Eureka in Mesquite, which prefers slot machines over table games.
But the Viejas Casino, a tribal operation near San Diego, is host to two Play Craps tables, and its managers have promised to put a good word in for them among other tribal operators in California, Chappell said.
He and Christian also have made solid contacts with tribal operations in Washington state and the partners are close to making a deal with Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos, which has commercial operations in Missouri, where the game also is licensed.
He thinks that especially during tough financial times, casino executives are staying with what they know and aren’t as willing to take risks on something new.
“When you’re dealing with locals casinos, the players have their favorite game, their favorite table, their favorite dealer and their favorite seat,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t get between them and the player.”
• • •
In his demonstration of Two Cards High to the Nevada board, Boutsifakos pointed out with pride that the game is new and not a derivative of some other casino game. That argument also worked against him because that made it a little harder to explain it clearly and concisely to his audience. At one point, Stephanie chimed in with some details, and the court reporter transcribing the meeting had to ask for them to speak one at a time. As we said, the Boutsifakoses are new to this business.
As it turned out, board members didn’t have many questions for them. They rarely do on new game approvals, because most of the gritty details about the math and probabilities of the game are worked out well before the final approval stage.
The board voted unanimously to recommend licensing of the game. The next step is Thursday, when the couple appear before the five-member Nevada Gaming Commission for final approval.
“It’s not our place to pass judgment on the popularity of the game,” Neilander told the couple after the vote of approval. “The success and marketing of the game is now up to you, so good luck to you on this.” So now the growth of their baby will depend on how well the Boutsifakoses hustle.
Stephanie Boutsifakos said the game is “next in line” at Connecticut’s Foxwoods tribal casino and will be first on the floor as soon as a freeze on the acquisition of new games is lifted.
She also said MGM Mirage has expressed interest in the game, as have casinos in Russia.
Chappell’s advice for her: “It’s all about persistence. You just wake up in the morning and decide to talk to four people that day and make a good presentation, and you just go at it.”