LAS VEGAS -- Common slot machine reset keys — identical to one that caused a Reno casino to be hit with a $1 million gaming fine — are easily found for sale on various Internet sites.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal purchased two of the keys — often referred to as the 2341 slot machine reset/attendant key — from an eBay seller in Winona, Minn., for $12.44, including shipping and handling.
But was the transaction a waste of money?
The key is a common tool used by slot machine technicians to gather information or reset a game following verification of a large jackpot. Most keys are generic and work on slot machines of all manufacturers.
The key lets someone with intricate knowledge of a typical slot machine’s inner workings to view hold percentage settings, game history and payouts on the game’s screen. Gaming regulators require that 30 different technical standards be displayed when the 2341 key is inserted on the side of a slot machine.
But the key can’t alter a game’s outcome — it won’t line up three sevens or program a jackpot.
“This key cannot access the brain box of a slot machine,” Nevada State Gaming Control Board Gaming Commission Chairman A.G. Burnett told the Nevada Gaming Commission on Feb. 20. That day, the panel accepted the seven-figure fine paid by the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino Reno after an employee was caught using a 2341 key to steal proprietary information, such as slot machine hold percentages, from 11 rival Northern Nevada casinos.
Jim Barbee, chief of the Control Board’s technology division, said state regulations require a casino to perform some level of hardware or software change to alter a game’s odds. That task involves opening a slot machine to get into its inner workings.
The 2341 key can’t do that.
“That requires a whole different key that has to be signed out from security,” Barbee said. “There are various levels of security to get in there. The 2341 key cannot impact the game itself.”
"THE ALLEN WRENCH" OF GAMING
Slot machine reset keys were considered an innocuous gaming industry tool until the Peppermill situation.
One 2341 key can be used on slot machines manufactured by IGT - International Game Technology, Bally Technologies, Inc., WMS Industries Incorporated and others.
“It’s kind of like the Allen wrench of gaming industry,” IGT Product Management Director Jacob Lanning said. “It’s useful to the operator. But beyond that, I’m not real sure what other use it could have.”
During the Peppermill hearing, Gaming Commissioner Tony Alamo Jr. said he was astounded to learn “70 to 75 percent of all the machines in Nevada choose this same key. In fact, some manufacturers are 100 percent.”
Barbee said slot machines are shipped to casinos with care packages, which are backup equipment and material including components for the machines. The packages often contain four 2341 keys. At the Control Board’s equipment testing laboratory, Barbee displayed a coffee can with several dozen 2341 keys.
The key, he said, has been in use for decades.
“A casino might have 1,500 or 2,000 slot machines,” Barbee said. “Multiply that by four. There are a lot of keys out there.”
So it wasn’t a surprise that Ryan Tors, a corporate analyst for the Peppermill, owned a 2341 key.
With the Peppermill management’s full knowledge and support, Tors used the key to access rival slot machines at the Grand Sierra last summer. However, he was caught by the casino’s security. A subsequent Control Board investigation discovered that Tors had been gathering information since 2011 from 10 other Northern Nevada casinos.
The three-count complaint said the Peppermill was operating unsuitably and the casino agreed to pay the $1 million fine. Las Vegas gaming attorney Frank Schreck told the Gaming Commission the Peppermill never used the slot machine information “to gain a competitive advantage. It was to satisfy curiosity.”
The action also wasn’t criminal. Schreck said the Washoe County district attorney’s office reviewed the case and declined to charge Tors and the Peppermill criminally.
But would it be illegal if a customer used a 2341 key on a Nevada casino floor?
No, Burnett said.
If caught, however, he said the casino should escort the patron out of the property.
KEYS FOR SALE ABOUND ONLINE
It’s not illegal to sell the 2341 keys online, nor is it illegal to purchase them.
The Peppermill events brought increased attention to the 2341 key and their availability to the public.
Last week, eBay had 11 listings for 2341 keys.
The operator of Tuohy Media, which sold the 2341 keys to the Review-Journal, declined a phone interview request. In an email exchange, the Tuohy Media operator explained what the keys were used for but wouldn’t say how he obtained them or why he was selling them.
Burnett said the Control Board has started looking into how the 2341 keys are getting online.
“We can’t police eBay, but we want to know how they got out there and who put them out there,” Burnett said. “It’s important that there be an understanding of what the keys can and can’t do.”
The Peppermill situation caused the Control Board to put out an industry notice Feb. 25 that told casino operators to more strictly control who has access to the 2341 keys.
In the notice, Control Board member Terry Johnson said the keys should be limited “to an authorized employee of the licensee and with the licensee’s own gaming establishment.”
Casino operators were also told to monitor their gaming devices more closely to ensure only authorized personnel are using the keys.
“This key is not to be used by nonemployees; make sure that your surveillance standards are up to par and that you (cite for trespassing) or 86 anyone who is caught using the key,” Burnett told the commission.
USE IN "JUDICIOUS MANNER"
Casino operators and slot machine manufacturers were reluctant to discuss the 2341 keys after the Peppermill incident.
Several casino companies declined requests to use a 2341 key purchased on eBay on a slot machine on their floor within security personnel and a state gaming agent present.
Bally Technologies officials declined to comment on the keys, citing the Peppermill situation.
Lanning said IGT provides the key to casino operators “to be used in a judicious manner.”
Lanning, who worked in slot operations at several Strip casinos, said he “didn’t see the value” of the key to a slot machine patron.
Burnett said slot machine manufacturers are concerned about the games’ integrity. The Peppermill matter “simply crossed the line.”
Barbee allowed the Review-Journal to test the key on slot machines from different companies in the Control Board’s lab in Las Vegas.
He doesn’t consider the key a risk to a slot machine’s integrity.
“Improper use could be a risk to the integrity of gaming in general,” Barbee said, “case in point, what happened recently with the Peppermill.”
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