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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Not ATM in slot machine, but getting close

24 September 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Nevada regulators don't allow slot machines that accept gamblers' debit cards, for fear they could quickly drain their bank accounts.

But they are considering allowing the next-closest convenience - or danger: allowing gamblers to put their debit cards into nearby kiosks for cash-equivalent-vouchers that can then be inserted into slots.

Such devices would free gamblers from having to handle cash, proponents say.

But others worry that such an easy way to get money to feed slots might enable compulsive gamblers. And there is a school of thought that the more gamblers are removed from handling cash, the more prone they are to gamble because they don't experience the loss of actual money.

With those sides framing the debate, the Nevada Gaming Commission is expected to vote today on whether to allow the ATM -like voucher technology to be adopted here.

Gambling is one of few activities that consumers can't pay for electronically, even though the technology exists to let them slip a debit card into a slot machine. And gamblers have long had access to cash machines in casinos, although the amount of cash they can dispense to a customer in a 24-hour period is typically limited.

The new devices would also be limited in the value of vouchers they could dispense, the manufacturer says.

In a letter to Nevada regulators, Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, urged them not to allow use of the technology until studies show its effect on gambling addicts and "at risk" gamblers. Whyte said the manufacturer should be obligated to pay for independent research.

"They're the ones introducing the product and who stand to profit by it," Whyte said. "The entire thrust of the gaming industry for some time now has been to have evidence-based research" for regulations and problem gambling programs.

The devices are being produced in a joint venture between Global Cash Access, the industry's largest ATM supplier, and slot machine manufacturer International Game Technology.

"We're not really pushing the envelope here" because gamblers already have access to nearby ATMs to withdraw cash, said Tom Sears, executive vice president of Global Cash Access. He will head the joint venture, called Innovative Funds Transfer.

Casinos have been clamoring for cashless systems because they reduce their overhead. And ATM-type kiosks that spit out vouchers for gamblers could easily be adapted to allow gamblers to access other hotel services, such as making restaurant reservations and buying show tickets.

The immediate concern remains whether the devices promote problem gambling.

Field trials with thousands of gamblers at Casino Pauma near San Diego showed that people didn't necessarily withdraw more money using the debit kiosks. Gamblers made more transactions, but the average transaction amount was a bit lower than the typical ATM withdrawal, Sears said.

The company is recommending a $500 withdrawal limit per transaction in Nevada, though limits also could be set by players.

Meanwhile, one competitor is going down a different road.

Cash Systems, led by a former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, has developed a system called Power Cash that would allow gamblers to access money they deposit ahead of time into a casino account. Gamblers would tap a touch screen on a slot machine to access their cash, removing the need to bring cash to the casino or use an ATM. The system, which could end up eliminating the need for tickets that are now fed into slot machines, is being tested outside of Nevada first with the hope that a Nevada company will want to test it here.

Instead of spitting out a ticket with the gambler's remaining balance, as today's high-tech slots do, this system would transfer that money into the player's account for use next time around, said John Glaser, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Cash Systems.

Sears predicts that tickets, years from now, will go the way of mechanical slot machines. But his company, which makes a similar device for use in California, isn't about to present it to Nevada regulators anytime soon.

"Ultimately that's what players want. But there's still a lot of political concerns about game-level access to your bank account," he said.