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January 18, 2017

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Vetting Nevada’s casino games takes meticulous team of techies

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Thomas Moore

Jim Barbee, chief of the Gaming Control Board’s Technology Division.

Jim Barbee stood in the Gaming Control Board’s technical lab, a small utilitarian room filled with slot machines and video poker games blinking away, some with the doors open and their bill changers, video screens, slot reels and electronic guts on display.

“The first two things you learn when you work here are one, how to turn off the sound,” Barbee said. “And the second, is to make sure you get your money out when you’re done. If you leave it in, it’s gone and goes to the office doughnut fund. We haven’t had any doughnuts around here for a while.”

Barbee is chief of the board’s technical division, which has a number of roles when it comes to Nevada’s gaming regulations. One of them is approving new games and modifications to existing casino games.

As part of that process, they have to examine the games and run them through their paces. Hence the room full of various slots and video games.

Given the nature of today’s casino floor, it makes sense that most of Barbee’s staff of 26 people have technical backgrounds. His direct reports include computer scientists, electrical engineers, IT auditors, and even a physicist. Everyone in the division can read software code and all of them understand statistics.

In a typical year, Barbee said, his division tests and approves approximately a dozen new games and between 1,800 and 2000 modifications to existing games.

If the modification is simply changing the pictures on the slot machine’s glass, then there’s no need for testing. But if a change alters game play, the payout, or could in any way possibly affect the game’s outcome, it must be approved.

“We check everything,” Barbee said. “We ask, ‘Does the modification present a risk to the patron or can it be compromised by the patron?’ For example, would a thin plastic door on a game be a problem? Can it allow the human body’s normal electrical discharge to impact game play or say, can you poke your hand through it? We’ve seen cabinets so thin you could bend them and get access to the bill changer.”

Barbee said there are a few major steps a manufacturer must take to get a new game approved. The first is spending some time looking at the proposed game in the context of Nevada’s gaming regulations, to head off any potential issues as early as possible.

“The worst case is when someone comes to us and says, ‘Our product is already developed. Here it is,’” Barbee said. “Unfortunately, the very first things people do usually don’t work right off the bat. They need to come talk to us early in the game development process.”

After game manufacturers do their homework, they’re asked to write up a white paper about a proposed game and give it to the board. Then, the technical division offers its input and the company goes off to develop the game.

Once it’s ready, the manufacturer submits the game for testing, which is conducted by one of two independent testing labs.

The labs are responsible for ensuring the game works within Nevada’s regulatory structure, that it meets technical standards and that it passes the specific regulations that apply to that kind of game.

“As the labs go through the certification process we have a constant dialogue going on with them,” Barbee said. “Then, the technical certification comes through to us for final approval and that can take the form of the game being on the casino floor for a limited basis for field trials.”

After that, the three-member Gaming Control Board and then the five-member Nevada Gaming Commission has the final sign-off.

However, that’s just for slots and video poker games. The enforcement division, not the technical division, Barbee said, handles table games. Barbee’s people do, however, conduct statistical analyses of the table games to figure out what the hold percentage will be and to verify the game for fairness and susceptibility to compromise.

The technical division does have other responsibilities including ensuring the integrity of casino games once they are in the field.

“We have teams of technicians — two teams in south and one in north,” Barbee said. “Every day they come in and grab a list of locations and go out. We randomly inspect every gaming location in the state of Nevada at least once every three years. We show up unannounced, open up the gaming equipment and verify it’s running approved software and operating as approved.”

The technical division also supports the enforcement division when it’s investigating complaints or patron disputes, and the investigation division when it’s doing background checks of people applying for gaming licenses.

“We will go with the investigators to the applicant’s place of business and capture information on their phones, computers and servers,” Barbee said. “We once found out that one fellow was conducting offshore illegal betting … so you can get all kinds of information that way.”

In addition, the technical division helps the audit division monitor internal casino controls and even helps the enforcement division catch casino cheats by examining cheating methods and cheating devices if they’re confiscated.

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