Anatomy of a slot floor

October 30, 2001 7:26 AM
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The Palms in two weeks will christen the city’s newest hotel-casino, but the process of preparing that casino, especially the slot floor, has been an ongoing and sometimes hectic process for most of the past eight months.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a beehive of activity, in which all of the casino’s 2,200 machines were programmed by technicians, filled with coins and tested and cross-tested to ensure fairness and operational integrity.

But the tedious task of creating the casino floor began back in March.

To start with, the casino had hundreds of different makes and models of slot machines from which to choose, plus various denominations and other considerations, such as coin-operated versus ticket-in, ticket-out machines.

“We determined that will cater to predominantly a locals crowd, which meant including a sufficient number of video poker machines with all the right games,” said Mike Tomasello, director of slot operations at the Palms. “It’s a very detailed process, which requires a lot of paperwork. We just don’t bring the machines onto the floor and plug them in.”

Ordering the machines took hundreds of hours of work. Besides the various mix of games ”” reel and video ”” Tomasello had to figure out denominations, the number of flat tops, slant tops or round tops, or those with spinning wheels, tumbling dice or climbing gorillas on top.

He also determined that the Palms would utilize the ticket-in, ticket-out system, such as the one employed at the Suncoast, but retain the ability of machines to accept and pay out coins as well.

The brains of the games are different, too. There are computer chips that program the payout, the hold percentage, and operating characteristics, that is, the bells and whistles.

Then planners looked at drawings, starting with the square footage of the casino and plotted what else besides slot machines would be located on the floor.

“The first step was to create a layout of what the casino would look like and to pencil in a tentative layout of the machines, change booths, payout stations and the like,” Tomasello said. “It’s also always a good idea to meet early with the design team, the artists responsible for the artistic layout of the casino.”

Tomasello said working with designers is key to ensuring the right blend of form and function.

“The Palms casino, especially, is architecturally artistic with a variety of design features such as those massive ceiling fans, chandeliers and other elements that must be factored into the process of setting up the machines and the associated signage,” Tomasello said. “We try to plan around the task of ensuring site lines and enough space for players’ as well as floor workers’ convenience, but we often end up changing a bank of machines once we actually place them onto the floor.”

Slot machines began to arrive back in July. But the truckers didn’t simply drop off their precious cargo and roll on. Gaming inspectors had to verify that the steel band locking the back of the tractor-trailer hadn’t been broken, and that the serial number on the band matched the trucker’s bill of lading.

Like a VIN number on a car, that serial number was the casino’s assurance that the machines weren’t tampered with. Satisfied that the numbers matched, Tomasello’s technicians used bolt cutters to snap the steel band, and the process of unloading the bubble-wrapped machines began.

The machines arrived on pallets, two or four each, depending on their size. The serial number of each machine was checked against its bill of sale, and then fork-lifted inside.

Before the machines could be placed on the floor, there had to be built cabinets on which to stand, plus housing for payout stations.

There’s also the logistics of the wiring. Beneath the casino’s colorful carpeting is a sub-floor that contains a labyrinth of wires. Like a massive metal lasagna with wires running through it, the sub-floor is the cardio-vascular system of the slot machines.

Different machines sometimes require different electrical circuits. Some machines, like the Wheel of Fortune games, need more juice to power up. And once the machines were in place, wires were pulled through the floor and carpeting and into cabinets.

It’s three months until the Palms’ opening, and the slot machines are already on the floor. But Tomasello’s job is far from over. There’s a long list of tests that must be completed before the games are ready for play.

Even though state-approved gaming labs have already tested a prototype of every game’s main computer chip, the machines’ chips are now checked against the original.

The process requires pulling the chips from the computer board, plugging them into a briefcase-like machine, then cross-checking their characteristics against a database. Each test takes 3-4 seconds, but with more than 2,000 machines, it’s a grueling exercise.

After the main chips are verified, more tests are run and the slot machines’ final settings are put into place.

“There are a battery of other tests, parameters to be set, such as accounting, marketing and casino management interface systems, plus coin tests, ticketing and the like,” Tomasello said. “Overall, it may involve 10 minutes of programming per machine, but the programmers’ fingers are often numb from feverishly pressing the control buttons!”

Once the machines are in place and functioning satisfactorily, the casino’s shift managers (about four weeks before opening) familiarize themselves with the machines (they play each game!) and layout of the casino. They also put themselves through a number of procedural scenarios ”” practice makes perfect and helps avoid problems when the play begins.

This week, the casino’s floor and booth cashiers will have their “dress rehearsal,” and the slot machines will enter a final “tinkering” phase.

“We will have reached a point where we’re mostly tweaking and tinkering,” said Tomasello, who for the past few months has been averaging between 90 and 100 hours a week on property. “We have to stop fine tuning at some point.

“The goal is to have everything on target, but there’s always some surprises,” he continued. “The trick is to keep those to a minimum.”

The Palms is scheduled to open to the public on Thursday, Nov. 15. The only surprise so far is the early opening date. It was originally scheduled to open in December.