Watching the games people play

Watching the games people play

State keeps real-time track of every slot machine

SECRETED ON THE 12th floor of 101 Federal Street in Boston’s Financial District is a windowless command center, manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Keycard entry is so restricted and the information so sensitive that even top level managers don’t have access.

Four big-screen monitors are mounted on the wall with information constantly streaming about routers, servers, back-ups, and ever-changing data on more than 1,300 computer central processing units. Two people are always in the room, sitting for eight-hour shifts, each at a desk with three computer screens showing the same information being displayed on the big-screen monitors above.

Terrorist watch? Nuclear facility safeguard? Drug surveillance? No, casino game monitoring.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission keeps constant tabs on each and every machine at Plainridge Park Casino—the state’s one operating casino—and will also monitor the additional 6,600 machines that will come on line in the next two years when MGM Resorts in Springfield and Wynn Resort in Everett swing open their doors.

“Every day the system does a software check,” says Floyd Barroga, gaming technology manager for the commission. “If the casino makes a software change on the floor, we can monitor it here rather than sending an agent out, which can take several hours. We want to make sure the games are fair to the players.”

The monitoring system is actually operated by a private company, Rhode Island-based IGT, formerly known as GTECH, one of the largest video gaming companies in the world. IGT was awarded the 10-year, $23.1 million contract to design the software and staff the monitoring center. While the monitoring system is in use in other jurisdictions such as Maryland and Rhode Island, officials say Massachusetts is the first to voluntarily incorporate it without a legislative mandate.

The program is proprietary and the information so sensitive that officials turned off the monitors and would not allow CommonWealth to take photographs with the data displayed or the system operators at their stations, even from the back. Gaming commission officials declined to detail how many errant machines have been flagged by the program or even what the issues were, though they did acknowledge there have been incidents. A representative for IGT, who was present during the discussion, declined comment.

For officials at the Gaming Commission, it’s all about the money, both for bettors and the state. Under Massachusetts casino regulations, slot machines and video table games must return at least 80 percent of wagers to players. (Las Vegas casinos, by contrast, pay out a minimum of 75 percent by law.) In addition, the top prize in each game must pay out at least once for every 100 million “pulls,” the archaic term from the days of one-armed bandits meaning each time a game is played.

The monitoring system keeps track of every machine’s payout and the Gaming Commission has daily, weekly, and monthly printouts to ensure the minimums are being met. Plainridge, according Derek Lennon, the commission’s chief financial officer, pays out more than 92 percent of the money wagered there.

Lennon says the software program in each machine may have payout fluctuations in the short term, but the monitoring program stays on top of it. “We get printouts at 100,000 pulls, 250,000 pulls, on up,” says Lennon. “Right around a million [pulls] is when it always normalizes out.”

The state also has a vested interest in ensuring the machines are properly supervised to get an accurate tally of gross and net revenues. Plainridge pays 49 percent of its gross gaming revenues to the state by law and each casino will pay 25 percent of its revenue when they go into action.

The state has three data back-up centers, two in Chelsea and one in Springfield, to store the information, so none of the data are lost.

“If there’s a disaster, the system will kick over,” says Barroga. “It’s very critical for the taxation of a casino.”

The control command center shares space with a gaming lab where about a dozen slots and video gaming machines representing different manufacturers and games are regularly “Frankensteined,” in Lennon’s words, to troubleshoot problems and ensure the computer and software are working properly. Before the games reach the casino halls, they are rigorously tested by the state’s contracted test labs as well as in the commission’s 12th floor set-up to make sure they meet the state’s standards for payout algorithms.

“The test results are based upon millions upon billions of simulations and plays before that machine gets to the casino floor,” says Barroga, who’s adept at running the machines through their paces. Each machine takes about eight weeks of testing before it makes it to a casino floor. But if there is a new machine with a new software program, it can take three to nine months before testing is complete.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

IGT, which makes its own lines of slot machines and video games, essentially is monitoring itself and its rivals in its role with the Gaming Commission. Lennon says the commission avoids potential conflicts by having any proprietary information about competitor’s machines filtered out before it’s seen by IGT’s operators. He says the contract with IGT also can be voided if there’s any indication that someone without proper clearance is trying to gain access to the system.

“It’s a big gamble they’re not willing to take,” says Lennon.