Coinless slots running on the ‘loose’

Feb 18, 2003 7:30 AM

The growing wave of ticket-in, ticket-out machines on Las Vegas casino floors could give new meaning to the term "loose slots."

Contrary to popular perception, none of the thousands of coinless slots in play have received formal, final approval from state gaming regulators. That doesn’t mean the devices are illegal. It does mean they haven’t been fully tested and certified.

And that could mean a field day for computer hackers, experts tell GamingToday.

In fact, one ingenious computer wizard has already hacked into one coinless system to produce a $5 million ticket. The voucher wasn’t paid because the game had a $1 million limit, but the fact that a bogus coupon was produced at all is cause for concern.

"Coupons suck,’’ complains one flummoxed regulator.

"Slots used to be an island of security. There are locks on machine doors and bill validators. Now you’re trusting a computer in the back of the house,’’ says Marc McDermott, chief of electronic services for Nevada’s Gaming Control Board.

Despite the inherent risks, casinos are turning to coinless systems in ever-greater numbers. Slots at the new Cannery Casino in North Las Vegas pay off entirely by coupons. Players cannot even put coins into the slots at the new Tuscany resort on East Flamingo Road.

The Suncoast casino in Summerlin paved the way for paper jackpots when it installed IGT’s EZ Pay system 2½ years ago. That system permits players to use either coins or tickets.

Since then, more than 70 other casinos have joined the paper chase. Gaming agents admit they do not know precisely how many machines are in operation. Nor have they set any timetable for formal approval of the games.

Instead, the state has issued an unusual "verbal approval to continue to expand.’’ So casinos are free to install or convert to coinless slots as they wish.

Failures in open-ended field tests are referred to outside agencies, which then run more tests offline. By effectively circumventing the state’s regulatory apparatus, this privatized approach has accelerated research and development of new games.

The problem, critics allege, is that such testing comes as the expense of accountability.

"We look at the data that comes out — not the actual event,’’ notes one regulator. "Just because a piece of paper says it passes doesn’t necessarily make it so.’’

But paper is the way to go, as far as casinos are concerned.

John Hawkins of Greektown Casino in Detroit told a recent gathering of slot managers in Las Vegas that voucher-based systems produce substantial savings of time and personnel.

James Maida of Gaming Laboratories International says coupons "will become mainstream."

"The bean counters want coins off the floor,’’ another industry insider added. "They don’t want two-hour [slot] fills. They don’t want any hopper tipping. They also don’t care about customer service.’’

McDermott maintains that paper-based systems are "more vulnerable than coins." He adds that testing such games is both "difficult" and "critical."

Offers another industry observer: "You need a big firewall [between the machine and the coupon printer]."

Nevada casinos and regulators are betting that no one will burn the house.