Shuffle Machines - 101

(A Cursory Examination of Card-shuffling Devices used in Blackjack)

by Ron Fitch --- a.k.a. Boris

Looking back down the memory chute of time, during the last fifty years in the casino industry, I would call the 90's, the Decade of the Shuffle Machine. Virtually every modern casino sports one, or often several, shuffle machines; today, often from different manufacturers.

If nothing else, shuffle machines bring a high-tech "feel" to table games that are inherently repetitively mechanical in nature. I believe the major shuffle-machine designers are all now consciously addressing the issue of what psychological "message" is implied by the overall look of these shuffling devices. This becomes evident when you consider the sleek design of the new shuffling units; particularly ShuffleMaster's new "Ace" & "King" units as well as the "Random-Ejection" and "PRO" Shufflers.

Because Shuffle Machines are here to stay, in order to be on top of the game, you should have a thorough, working knowledge of these Units, along with the effects (if any) they exert over the game. Shuffle machines DO add a number of interesting dynamics to the already dynamic game of Blackjack.

This write-up is designed to orient you with the world of Shuffle Machine used in today's casinos. Information for this course (Shuffle Machines 101) includes material from conversations I've had with machine manufacturers and questioning pit-personnel in casinos, as well as data gleaned from Patent diagrams relating to these devices, along with observations from my years of play against each of the machines.

During our tour, we will address the following points:

Shuffle Machines: A Brief Resume'

Like most people in 1992, my first exposure to Shuffle Machines was by way of the single-deck ShuffleMaster I. Also like most people around that time, I was completely oblivious to card-shuffling units which had quietly surfaced in the Golden Nugget 6-deck games (downtown Vegas) some months before. These units were MONSTER tan-white, whale-sized units (white until, I assume, over time they were subjected to the usual smokey casino atmosphere). Recent reports suggest the unit was designed by none-other than Steve Wynn himself.

A rectangular hole in the top of the Whale-BOX allowed the dealer to drop in "chunks" of cards for "shuffling" back into the cards remaining in the box. The unit also sported a "shoe" attachment to mimic the single-card retrieval feature of manual dealing shoes.

An obliging floorperson opened a unit for us so we could watch the mechanics at work. She seemed to delight in watching us drool with fascination over the seemingly perfectly-timed array of mechanical and electro-mechanical components as the cards seemed to be randomly deposited amongst the rest of the cards in the "shoe".

While these (I call them Whale Box) units were ingenious, their complex array of belts and mini-elevators were constantly encountering alignment-problems and in general, frequently breaking down. It almost seemed like as soon as they were brought in to the Nugget, they were whisked-away into the night, resurfacing at the Nugget's sister-property, the Mirage, on the Las Vegas strip.

At the Mirage, these units enjoyed a tenure of about 2 years in a Blackjack pit set aside JUST for them. As it turns out, PRO-level players were able to exploit these machines, resulting in their eventual retirement; being replaced by their standard 6-deck shuffle (a Stutter(7) + S-Thru(4) affair). Ironically, we will later see the introduction of a variation of this Whale-Box in the form of ShuffleMaster's new "KING" Shuffler.

While the whale-boxes yielded conflicting results, ShuffleMaster I (and it's BIG Brother, ShuffleMaster II) took the Las Vegas Strip by storm. By 1994, ShuffleMaster's could be found in nearly every strip casino. (Currently, ShuffleMaster I's and II's seem to be waning somewhat, as new shuffle units make their way to the Blackjack pits.

Years ago, one of Boris' early Blackjack Journals sported a detailed write-up on ShuffleMaster I & II (The Invasion of ShuffleMaster). Also around this time, the ShuffleMaster Corp. introduced a new poker variation table game known as Let-It-Ride. Because Let-It-Ride is dealt from a single deck of cards, every Let-It-Ride game comes "bundled" with a ShuffleMaster unit. While Carribean Stud is also a single-deck game, because the license (to the game) is not owned by ShuffleMaster, there seem to be as many tables hand-shuffling this game as there are using ShuffleMaster.

By the mid-nineties, ShuffleMaster introduced what I call the "ShuffleMaster BOX"; an ominous looking rectangular black box sporting "Elevators" to effect a multi-pass representation of a conventional straight-thru shuffle procedure. The myriad of nuances unique to this unit is detailed in a separate article on the subject, entitled: ShuffleMaster BOX - An Inside Look.

Throughout the 90's ShuffleMaster units dominated the shuffler marketplace. Then, as the decade came to a close, we saw the emergence of new shuffling technology in units known as "QuickDraw", and the Random-Ejection Shuffler, as well as a battery-operated unit known as the "PRO Shuffler". Even ShuffleMaster has introduced new shuffling technology, with monikers of "Ace" (a ShuffleMaster I replacement) and "King" (a "continuous" multi-deck shuffler).

5 Major variations on Shuffle Machine Technology

Essentially, the myriad of different card-shufflers use one of the following mechanical approaches:

Belts and Escalators

Older machine technology has utilized belts and what I call Escalators, or mini-elevators; as in the aforementioned "whale" Boxes. Being predominantly mechanical (as opposed to ShuffleMaster units, which include a not-insignificant amount of digital-electronics), this early technology was prone to jams, mis-feeds and not-infrequent breakdowns; a contributing factor to their disappearance in today's game.


Mechanical Fingers

The old ShuffleMaster I and II units sport a pair of intertwine-finger sets. These "fingers" mechanically simulate what happens when you take a pair of picks and riffle them together. While these fingers make for an accurate riffle-simulation, they are prone to mis-alignment and eventually result in card jams during the riffle process. A slight (impartial) "bend" in a number of cards can cause the machine to jam, "damaging" the deck(s), requiring new cards to be brought in; a "feature" openly exploited by players desiring the retirement of a dealer-favorable pack of cards.


Card Transport "Elevators"

ShuffleMaster "BOX" units made their appearance in the mid 90's, sporting an entirely different approach, using a set of 3 carefully timed and integrated "elevators" to approximate the procedure of splitting a single stack of cards into two other stacks, followed by the intertwine of these two stacks back into one unified stack.

Unlike the ShuffleMaster I & II units (which require a fixed number of cards per unit), the ShuffleMaster Box easily accommodates anywhere from 2 to 8 decks of cards, with no special settings required. I am increasingly finding ShuffleMaster BOX units being used in Double-Deck games. The fall of 2000 has seen the emergence of 4-Deck ShuffleMaster BOX games in Atlantic City; unheard of when you consider that A.C. is mainly an 8-Deck town.

The down-side of the "elevator" method is wear-and-tear on the cards, caused by the method used to grip and "transport" the cards. Then again, because new cards are brought in everyday (and in some casinos, every shift), this is really a moot point. Another down-side of this type of shuffle unit is it's physical size; although overall, it does not seem to be much of a problem thus far. Most casinos simply mount the machine on a triangular-shaped bracket attached to the rear of the table.

"Missles" and Ejectors

The Random Ejection Shuffler by Casinovations™ uses a unique "missle" (i.e. ejector) system to "randomly" kick (eject) a card from an un-shuffled stack of cards, propelling it airborne into one of several receiving "channels" (directional chutes) which empty out over a receiving bin.

Because each channel is shaped in a graceful arc, cards traveling thru the upper arcs will arrive slightly later in time than if they had traveled through one of the lower arcs, thereby introducing yet another level of Randomity. While the ejection process seems reasonably random, card arrival in the receiving bin are stacked sequentially.

Shelves and Carousels

The ShuffleMaster "ACE" and "KING" units made their debut in casino table games in early 2000; effectively replacing the older ShuffleMaster I & II units (but not the BOX). These machines embody the vertical-shelf method. With this method, cards are dropped into an input hopper and singly placed on a storage "shelf" to be retrieved later.

With the ACE shuffler, cards are spit out in batches of 3, 5 and 7 cards; perfect for most single-deck casino card games, such as Let-It-Ride and 3-Card Poker and Pai-Gow.

The KING shuffler is "loaded" with either 4 or 5 decks, approximately 1/4 deck at a time. Cards are taken singly and placed on the top of one of the 19 shelves (the ACE Shuffler uses 9) using the LIFO (last in - first out) method. According to ShuffleMaster, shelf-selection is accomplished using 64-bit RNG (Random Number Generator) Technology. Why it takes 64 bits to represent a number from 1 - 19 is beyond me.

One the machine is loaded, then, a shelf-at-a-time, the cards are transferred to the holding-area of a shoe attachment on the front of the unit; to be dealt 1-card-at-a-time into play. At the end of each round (sometimes 2), the contents of the discard tray are fed back into the machine

With the shelf method, we have in effect a "continuous" shuffler. ShuffleMaster is correct in stating that the KING shuffler effectively combats card-counting, because essentially, there is no such thing as "penetration concerns" when using a continuous shuffler.

Contrary to "popular belief" and claims by ShuffleMaster Corp., the cards produced by the KING Shuffler are not random. While they may not be countable using traditional card-counting methods, this does not mean the cards are random. You may recall that we made the same conclusion regarding the ShuffleMaster BOX shuffler.

Shuffle Machines - 101 Summary

We have covered a lot of ground in this short article on Shuffle Machine basics. There are actually more machines to detail; specifically, the ShufflePRO™, Shuffle Star™ and QuickDraw™ units. These will be covered in the next installment of this series (Shuffle Machines 102).

In addition to the above mention shuffling units, we will example a unique variation of the Random-Ejection shuffler being used to deal "double-deck" games from a batch of 8-decks total, dealt 2-decks at a time. You will be amazed at the difference this game represents.

In my Experience, all of the shuffle technology methods described in this article make the cards less-trackable (using published, conventional methods). However, this is not to say that the cards produced are actually random. Cards that are not random are in some way predictable. Current and future articles in this series will address some ideas on taking advantage of this non-randomness.

If you would like to get a look at what the cards in a ShuffleMaster BOX or Random-Ejection Shuffler games look and play like, pickup a copy of the Boris for Blackjack Simulation Software, where these games are showcased. Lacking a copy of the software, go to your favorite casino sporting these units and watch the play for a couple of hours. Seeing is believing!!