When Shaquille O’Neal arrived at the headquarters of Dynamic Gaming Systems in Egg Harbor Township, he liked the company’s next-generation blackjack machine so much that he tried to take it home.
“He picked it up and was going to put it in his car,” CEO Charles Barksdale, 55, recalled from the company’s offices. “I said, ‘You can’t. That’s a prototype.’”
That prototype, for a first-in-the-nation gaming system called Shaqjack, was unveiled by Barksdale and the big man himself to a teeming crowd at Parx Casino, just outside Philadelphia, in October.
“It was like giving birth. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me,” said Barksdale, who worked in casino operations and marketing for three decades, and spent four years and untold dollars developing the Shaq-endorsed product.
Barksdale is pioneering an emerging technology called “live dealer,” in which a video feed of a dealer is transmitted to individual betting stations, which can be placed almost anywhere on the casino floor. Such systems, available in less than a handful of casinos in the U.S., allow one dealer to simultaneously deal to hundreds of gamblers, including gamblers betting from different properties and online.
At Parx, an elevated dealer platform is surrounded by 24 tangerine Shaqjack stations emitting the NBA legend’s trademark monotone (“Bets closing soon!”). It’s the only live-dealer blackjack system in the U.S.
One blackjack dealer typically services up to six players. Shaqjack turns that ratio on its head, slashing operating costs and giving casinos breathing room to lower minimum-bet requirements, said Lloyd D. Levenson, a prominent gaming-law attorney who represents Dynamic.
Because skilled blackjack players can exert some control over their performance, casinos don’t consider it a house-friendly game and generally require high-minimum bets to hedge against losses. While the game is among the most popular on the casino floor, the high minimums are prohibitively expensive for many gamblers.
“When you go into a successful casino in the evening, you can’t find a (blackjack) table for less than 25 bucks,” Levenson said. For casino operators, “you’re missing out on a population that would like to gamble but can’t afford to spend $25 dollars a hand.” With Shaqjack, “the expense side for the casino is less, so they can afford to reduce the minimum bet,” he said. “You’d be amazed how many people will sit down at a $10 table that wouldn’t sit down at a $25 table.”
Fully-automated video blackjack machines — old-hat in the casino industry — jettison the dealer completely, replacing human with algorithm.
But that’s not always what gamblers want, Levenson said.
“People warm up to real cards and real shuffling machines. The confidence that you have with a real dealer dealing real cards is obviously attractive to many players, and that’s what you have here. Real cards and real shuffling,” he said.
Levenson, whose firm, Cooper Levenson, has advised hundreds of companies on casino matters, said that when a business tries to sell a new gambling product, “Every single casino will ask you the same question: Where is it being played, and how’s it doing?”
Early statistics from Parx show that gamblers are playing Shaqjack “at an amazing volume,” he said. So after grinding for years, Dynamic’s Barksdale can finally tell operators: “It’s in Parx, and it’s doing great,” Levenson said.
Barksdale, speaking from Dynamic’s workspace on Fire Road, a dimly lit basketball-themed mock casino complete with hardwood decking, said it was “a long, hard-fought road to get there.”
Asked about startup costs, he responds with something between a groan and a laugh and says he obtained a private loan. “It’s not even like startup costs. It’s like life costs.”
He has eight employees. Four of them — the software guys — are Stockton University graduates. While the product was being developed, and no revenue was coming in, “we had some long talks at night,” he said.
But all sorts of New Jerseyeans came forward to support the project.
Creative Design & Productions in Pleasantville gave marketing advice, for free. Dynamic’s landlord let the company expand its offices without added charge. A fabricator from Williamstown worried more about getting the Shaqjack cabinets built than about his labor rate. And a certain 7-foot, 1-inch Newark native lent his name and likeness to Dynamic without charging an upfront fee, agreeing instead to payments tied to the company’s performance, said Barksdale, who lives in Forked River.
“We wouldn’t have got here if it wasn’t for people in New Jersey that actually saw the product and actually believed in the product and said, ‘You know what, tell us what we can do,’” he said.
He hopes to see Shaqjack in Atlantic City soon.
“New Jersey is where we hang our hat,” he said.