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A new gaming market

"Feeling lucky?" asks the curvaceous brunette on a 42-inch plasma screen.

"Feeling lucky?" asks the curvaceous brunette on a 42-inch plasma screen.

After circling the table with her eyes and smiling, she begins dealing cards in a make-believe game of blackjack, where skills typically used in a real game against real players at the table don't matter.

Instead, it's a game of chance between the player and the virtual dealer, and a computer will randomly select the outcome - just like a slot machine.

But for Pennsylvania slots operators, the electronic devices and their debut today offer something far more tangible: a chance to crack the lucrative table-games market. And it represents a big step toward morphing into full-service casinos like those in Atlantic City.

"This clearly starts to take us in a direction to compete with Atlantic City, and even Delaware," said Dave Jonas, president and chief operating officer of PhiladelphiaPark Casino, which is the first slots parlor in the state to test the machines.

"Ultimately, we want live table games. This will give regulators time to get comfortable with it, and, hopefully, work toward the next step," he said.

The introduction of the electronic games at the Bensalem slots parlor is likely to further heat up the tri-state gambling war involving New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Two billboards along the Atlantic City Expressway advertise the machines at PhiladelphiaPark. Two more advertise the electronic devices at Dover Downs and Delaware Park - two of the three racinos, or racetracks with slot machines, in Delaware.

Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Chester will introduce seven electronic blackjack tables, each seating up to five players, on Friday.

In Delaware, the electronic devices were introduced about six months ago and have done well, said Ed Sutor, president and chief executive officer of Dover Downs, which has 24 electronic table games featuring blackjack, poker, Let It Ride, and baccarat.

"Each month, the amount of revenue has gone up, which means more and more people have grown accustomed to them," Sutor said. "We've found that half of the players on these table games are brand new, so it's attracting new players who are younger and tend to be male, and that's a whole new market for us."

Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said how the machines do in Pennsylvania is being closely monitored.

"We are interested in anything that generates new revenue for the commonwealth," he said. Pennsylvania collects a tax of 54 percent of the gambling take at the parlors.

Some experts say the electronic devices could hurt Atlantic City's $5.2 billion gambling industry even more at a time when the resort is facing a myriad of issues, including recent casino smoking restrictions and efforts to unionize its 8,000-dealer workforce.

Slots revenue overall is down this year nearly 5 percent among Atlantic City's 11 casinos because of slots competition from Pennsylvania, but revenue from table games has been edging up. The most recent revenue figures from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission showed that table-games revenue was up 5.2 percent for the year in Atlantic City.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved the electronic table games last month. Eleven tables, each measuring 7 feet high and weighing 2,800 pounds, arrived April 24 at PhiladelphiaPark from Las Vegas, where they are manufactured by ShuffleMaster Inc.

The games feature a "virtual dealer" - a video image of a human dealer who talks to the players through a series of recordings that direct them to do certain things, such as place bets.

The randomly generated outcome of the electronic games qualifies the machines as acceptable under Pennsylvania law, which legalized slot-machine-only gambling in summer 2004.

"This machine simulates the atmosphere of a table game, but operates strictly as a slot machine, with each player competing against the machine . . . and not against any players also using the machine," Harbach said.

Daymon B. Savage, product manager at ShuffleMaster, who helped develop the engineering for the machines, said they hit the market in 2004, and are now in casinos in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and, most recently, Arkansas.

"Over time, people have become less afraid of the technology," Savage said.

The machines at PhiladelphiaPark feature different dealers, both male and female, and of various ethnicities. All are young and attractive.

"Certainly, while not replicating the live table-game experience found in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, it will be a sufficient enough table experience for some players who otherwise would make the drive to Atlantic City," said Joe Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, which tracks the gambling industry.

The virtual dealer does not deal from the same stack of cards to all five players. Each player has his own virtual deck or decks of cards. In front of every player is a set of buttons, including "hit," "stand" and "split" - the same used in real blackjack.

"It gives the appearance of being a communal table-game experience," Weinert said, "but the fact remains, it's a single-player game."

But it's enough to entice Joe Kern, 60, of Staten Island, who was at PhiladelphiaPark for the first time this week and was busy with a multi-play blackjack slot machine.

"I'll go check them out," he said of the new machines. "It's pretty fast-paced, and it seems like you can win at it."