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The evolution of casinos

By Chuck Newcombe

From mechanical one-armed bandits to modern computers - all tuned to win.

I grew up in a small town in Nevada in the 1950s. My dad's radio/TV repair shop was right next to a coin machine company that placed and serviced juke boxes, pin ball machines and slot machines in bars and taverns. They also placed slot machines in drug and grocery stores in small towns within a 100 mile radius. I, of course, was fascinated by the inner workings of the mechanical marvels they serviced, so I spent endless hours in their shop.

These mechanical marvels paid most winners from their internal cashbox, but the largest jackpots had to be paid by the owner of the host store, and that sometimes posed a problem. It seems that the odds didn't seem to be working out right in a couple of stores. The payouts claimed by the store owners seemed to be consistently greater than the machines were set for. And the coin machine company had to reimburse the store owners for these payouts.

It was suspected that the machines' hosts were adjusting the numbers because they wanted a little more of the take, so one day the owner of the coin machine company came to my dad and me to see if there was something we could suggest that would allow them to count the actual jackpots paid by their machines. And, since my dad was busy at the time, I got to look into it. I went next door and was promptly educated on how the machines worked.

After much puzzling over the problem, I ended up installing solenoid operated mechanical counters in a test machine. These were sequenced by micro-switches installed at appropriate points in the mechanism. After a month-long trial in the shop with satisfactory results, I had the job of modifying several more machines. These machines were ultimately installed in the stores in question, where it was made clear to the host-store owners that the actual payouts were being recorded. End of problem.

This all came back to me a while back as I watched an episode of NBC's Las Vegas, a weekly show about casino surveillance with high-tech cameras and computers to keep tabs on the operation.

So, what has all this got to do with test equipment and Fluke? Well, today most every slot machine in a casino is nothing more than a networked computer with a flashy user interface, and there are literally thousands of them in a typical Las Vegas palace.

Harrah's Casino

As you might imagine, the folks in the back room are very interested in what's happening on a minute by minute basis - and they have to be. Among other things, they must be able to prove to the state gambling commission that it is possible to win, however high the computer controlled odds, on every machine.

I became aware of this over ten years ago, when electrical maintenance personnel at two casinos called to ask about the Fluke 41 Power Harmonics Analyzer. These guys were concerned about transformers that were overheating and burning out. But it turns out that network communications problems began to arise too, when a building's electrical load became nearly all electronic (non-linear) in nature.

What was going on? Well, as the machines changed from those powered by customers' arms, to the electronic ones, the power distribution needs changed. It was a classic case of harmonics in the power system caused in the switch-mode power supplies in the machines. Harmonics caused overheating, which occurred not only in the transformers, that weren't rated to handle large harmonic currents, but also in the shared neutral wiring of the building, even when phases were carefully balanced. It was the latter that caused excessive neutral to ground voltages to appear in the machines, contributing to communication errors.

Lots of things have happened since. Data communications have become better isolated, and some machine power supplies have been redesigned to minimize the harmonic current returned to the power system. Wiring changes have also been made to minimize the shared neutral problem.

Some of the latest new casinos in 'Sin City' are now built from the ground up with a full understanding of the problem and therefore with the necessary improved power distribution technology provided by a company owned by a good friend of mine.

In my role as a product planner, I relied on this friend for assistance between 1990 and1993 as I defined Fluke's first Power Quality Meter, the Fluke 41. By the time the product was introduced in 1994, He had already wrung out its features in several real-world applications where power harmonics were an issue. And I'm happy to say that the development process at Fluke today relies on similar experts to field test new products before they are introduced.

So do casinos still need Fluke test equipment? You bet, because things go wrong in the distribution system. Wiring changes are made, loads are rearranged and increased, and wiring terminals work loose. The new Fluke thermal imagers make spotting the heating problems easy.

Today, Fluke offers a family of power quality meters and monitors used by these folks, and together with ScopeMeter test tools and Fluke Networks testers, these tools are at the heart of the operation that keeps the show running, legally and reliably in the computer-centric gambling industry.

P.S. Have you read the case study on using ScopeMeter to troubleshoot network issues in an Atlantic City casino? Read the full story: The Evolution of Casinos (.pdf) »