Slots casinos: Agents keep eyes on house, gamblers

It’s a Thursday night at Hollywood Casino at Penn National – a day when gamblers will wager nearly USD 5 million on the glitzy new slot machines – and a payout machine breaks down.

As a technician wheels a repair cart onto the floor and opens up the machine, Trevor Hassenbein watches from an eye in the ceiling. He’s an enforcement agent with the state Gaming Control Board, and he’s looking over the shoulders of Penn National’s four-person surveillance team in a dark, low-ceilinged room with video screens splayed across the wall.

Watching through the surveillance camera, Hassenbein notes that a casino security guard is at the broken machine watching the technician, just as he’s supposed to be.

„This is the dumbest place in the world to commit a crime,“ someone says, recalling a little joke making the rounds in the state’s new casino industry.

Hassenbein is one of five state gaming enforcement agents that patrol the new Dauphin County slots parlor. After a couple new hires come aboard, there will soon be seven agents on duty 24 hours a day at the new slots hall.

Copying a model from states such as New Jersey, the Gaming Control Board has posted the agents at every Pennsylvania casino to ensure they adhere to state regulations for the multi-billion-dollar industry.

The agents‘ supervisor at Penn National is former Chambersburg Police Chief Mike DeFrank. The agents are mostly former cops, such as Lebanon Police Lt. Greg Holler, who will join the staff in the coming weeks.

Yet the agents aren’t security guards or surveillance staff – those are both hired by the casino. And they aren’t police – the state police posts at least one undercover trooper at the casino about 20 hours a day to make arrests.

Rather, the enforcement agents keep a watchful eye on all casino staff to ensure everything is done by the book. Many of the regulations they enforce are meant to prevent the casino from being scammed and prevent players from being cheated.

Among other things, they ensure security guards are at their posts, minors aren’t on the casino floor, and casino workers have the proper state credentials aren’t playing slot machines.

They issue temporary credentials to workers who forget their ID badges, and they monitor any arrests of casino workers to determine whether it’s serious enough to revoke their state license to work in the casino.

When a gambler wins more than USD 1,200, the agents oversee the payout. When cash boxes are emptied from the slot machines, the agents oversee it.

Sometimes, while making their regular rounds on the casino floor, they are just general problem solvers.

Shortly after Hassenbein watched the broken payout machine being fixed from the surveillance room, he walked the floor and came across a disgruntled gambler whose slot machine had malfunctioned. And it owed him $ 40.

Hassenbein radioed for a slots attendant, who paid the gambler his USD 40.

Problem solved.

Since Penn National’s casino opened last month, the most frequent problems have been slots players who’ve had too much to drink or are under the legal age of 21.

„There is no way in the world we are ever going to make it pure, but we’re going to keep it at a minimum,“ said Tom Sturgeon, who supervises agents statewide as deputy director of the Gaming Board’s Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement.

As with police, writing reports are a big part of the agents‘ job. Every reported incident must be written up so the gaming board can spot trends about how the casino operates.

„It’s a statistical tool,“ DeFrank said of the reports.

When a serious problem or trend arises, the agents have the power to ask the gaming board to sanction a casino or employee.

For instance, casinos can be sanctioned for allowing too many minors on the floor, and workers can be sanctioned for forgetting their credentials more than 12 times in one year. The gaming board can fine casinos or seek agreements to retrain or beef up staff.

Statewide, the agents‘ legwork has resulted in 15 fines against casinos and employees totaling more than USD 275,000, according to the gaming board.

Because Penn National recently opened, Sturgeon said the enforcement agents have been giving them a grace period before cracking down too hard on violations of state regulations.

On the whole, the agents said Penn National has done a good job running the new casino, but Sturgeon also said, „Their grace period is about over.“