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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

New take on tag-team tactics

21 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Casino managers use high-tech eyes-in-the-sky to spot card cheats but mostly favor boots on the ground to count chips, bust thieves and monitor hotel linens and uniforms worth millions of dollars.

Advances that can put tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in everything from gambling chips to shirt collars and even bed sheets, however, mean tracking technology can now be embedded deep in nearly every aspect of resort operations.

The tags could save Las Vegas resort companies millions of dollars by identifying gambling cheats and tracking soiled sheets. They also raise new concerns about privacy by allowing casinos to track something as private as the value of chips in a customer's pocket.

RFID tags already track baggage at McCarran International Airport and are in some gambling chips at Caesars Palace and other Las Vegas resorts.

Possible new uses, including using tags to help workers track dirty laundry without touching it, were the subject of a conference Thursday at The Venetian.

"To scan soiled garments all day is not a pleasant job," said Jeff Markman, president of Positek RFID, a Norristown, Pa., company that puts tags in linens and garments. "They don't make gloves thick enough."

The RFID conference was sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. It's the second time the international group with roughly 375,000 members held an RFID event.

The idea is for professionals to learn more about the devices from academic papers members submit to the group.

"Some of them are really practical, some of them are really out there, theoretical," speaker Harry Pappas said during a forum on RFID in casinos. "We need all that."

Markman said radio tags cost 69 cents to 74 cents each and can save big resorts tens of thousands of dollars annually over bar codes now in use. Bar codes aren't as durable as chips, which can survive more than five years and 200 washes. Scanners can also spot chips through a pile of linen, meaning no one has to sort through dirty material to find and scan an item.

In a large resort with 6,000 workers the chips can prevent $50,000 worth of garment losses annually and save $200 a day in time lost to manually scanning bar codes, Markman said.

They can also freak out employees who don't like the idea of wearing uniforms embedded with tracking devices, Markman said describing wrinkles that need ironing to ensure smooth deployment of the technology.

"You will find a few employees who cut every single one out," he said. "It is just a fact of life."

As much as RFID can improve life in the laundry room, they can have an even bigger impact in the front of the house.

"The technology is able to identify up to 1,000 stacked chips per second," said Bodo Ischebeck, vice president of RFID and table management systems for Las Vegas-based Progressive Gaming International Corp. "We see a massive rollout worldwide."

RFID is catching on in casinos partly because new versions of the technology are less vulnerable to interference and use signals that can be processed faster than those from older devices. They can cost as much as $1 each, which adds 25 to 50 percent to the cost of an individual gambling chip.

Ischebeck's company makes systems that integrate RFID data into casino computer networks so managers, security workers and executives can make sense of the information pouring in.

He estimates there are RFID systems in place for 500 to 1,000 of 60,000 gaming tables worldwide. He expects it to grow to more than 2,000 by the end of the year.

"Gaming chips give them the opportunity to understand their winning and losing patterns," Ischebeck said. "On slot machines that has been done for years. But on tables that has always been kind of a black hole."

The chips may also help thwart casino pickpockets, Jim Grubbs, security supervisor and training coordinator at Caesars Palace said during the gambling forum.

"Thefts do occur in Sin City," Grubbs said, adding that big-spending foreign customers can become targets for gambling chip thieves. "They spend a lot of money, they get all these chips, they get their pockets picked."

If casino security finds someone with chips that correlate to a gambler who claims to be a theft victim the information can be used as evidence, Grubbs said.

"Right there, it is probably enough to get them into court," he said.

RFID technology can also reduce labor costs for a casino.

John Kendall, president and CEO of Chipco International, a Raymond, Maine-based gambling chip company, said embedded gambling chips can accomplish player tracking goals that now require a worker using a pen and paper to monitor and note wager patterns of big betting players.

"RFID is a better way to capture it with lower costs and with no bathroom breaks or lunch breaks," Kendall said.