Garden City’s true visionary: Eric Swallow

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I recently sat with Eric Swallow, owner of Garden City Casino in San Jose, to talk about his innovative approach to the gaming industry. With no cardroom experience, he was approached by the Lunardi family in 2004 for consultation about buying Garden City, which had been in bankruptcy for five years over a lease dispute. Three years later, Swallow and the Lunardis were co-owners of the club. As Swallow analyzed the business aspect of California poker rooms, he found there wasn’t enough structure. Not familiar with the standard tipping practices that could often be used to get prime game assignments, he was discouraged at the negative effect the practice had on most patrons. He felt cardrooms didn’t do their best to serve the customer.

He drew on his business and financial background to become a project manager for computer software packages he helped develop for clients such as Mercedes-Benz. Why not a program for casinos?

So he developed the “Profitable Casino” software program, which does, well, everything. It handles human resources from payroll to labor-law compliance. It tracks dealer performance and has a foolproof accounting function to count drop boxes.

My first question: “How can a computer program improve customer service?” He said the portion that tracks dealer actions creates a more positive experience for the customers in that it rewards the higher performing dealers with favorable rotations in the popular games.

How does it determine performance? By swiping their dealer card in and out at each table, the system tracks the dealer’s punctuality and keeps accounting of how many hands per table the dealer produces. If there’s a “break” in the action at any table (e.g. misdeal, unruly customer), a supervisor swipes his/her card at that table to mark how long the action is down. At the end of the shift, the dealer is required to note what happened. Repeated infractions can result in disciplinary action. Each dealer is required to be “certified” to deal each particular game. As a new dealer, one might only be certified to handle the smaller-limit hold’em games until they have a chance to become comfortable with the game and develop enough confidence and skill to be certified in other games. If a dealer does not perform well in certain games, they are given the opportunity for additional training and management support with the ultimate goal of being certified in all games the club offers. With the dealer working more efficiently and in control of games, the players have a consistently better perception of the game.

Other changes Swallow instituted: eliminate proposition players, install an electronic waiting-list board; eliminate tipping pools, and make tipping between employees optional. While there was push-back on each change, he stuck to his principles and found each change led to a better gaming experience for the customers and more profit for the club.
When I asked him about the traditional tipping by dealers for chip runners and floor staff, he said he encouraged them to tip based on the level of service they received. How is this working out? According to Swallow, employee performance and customer satisfaction has improved dramatically by using the system. Each individual is held accountable for doing their job, with the results clearly documented. The tired argument of “we’ve been doing it this way for 40 years” runs out of steam when you can see objective data showing otherwise.

With his revolutionary software, sharp business acumen and finely tuned staff, where is Swallow heading with all of this? In the spring, Garden City will move to a new location and operate under a new name: Casino Matrix. I had a chance to look at the architectural plans, finishes and features for the new club and can guarantee it will make a huge splash in San Jose with the gaming and non-gaming community. While I promised not to divulge too much information, I will say the state-of-the-art sports bar will host more than 120 LED TVs. Look for a feature spread, complete with photographs, of the Casino Matrix in a few months in Ante Up, as Eric promised me a special preview of the club before the grand opening.

— Bret Miller is the Ante Up Ambassador for Northern California. Email him at anteupbret@gmail.com.