Betting on the IT department

How Station Casinos will take on Super Sunday - potentially the toughest day of the year for a casino IT department

Marshall Andrew has two big reasons to be nervous.

The former Chicago resident's favorite football team will be vying for its first Super Bowl championship in two decades. But Andrew will scarcely have time to enjoy the game, because he is the CIO and vice president of technology for Station Casinos , which operates 15 Las Vegas casinos. Super Sunday is potentially the toughest day of the year for a casino IT department.

"It's our largest betting day of the year, and you hope that everything just stays together and you don't have any issues," Andrew says. "If you do have issues you don't have enough time to respond. If your [systems are] out, you can't take bets. I would say in my job here I really haven't had a chance to enjoy a Super Bowl."

Betting increases tremendously several hours before the big game and at half time, Andrew notes. Forty or 50 of Andrew's 120 employees will work on Sunday. Andrew will be stationed at what he calls a "command center" that links the 15 casinos, but says he can't say where this central location is because of security concerns.

"We bring extra staff in for both Saturday and Sunday, and we have other staff on call from both hardware support and network support and software application support," he says.

Each of the 15 casinos typically has two IT staffers on site but will have more this weekend.

What could go wrong on Super Bowl Sunday? There could be problems with the network linking the 15 casinos, routers, switches, or the applications that handle betting, for example.

"We've had problems with third-party software two or three times on Super Bowl, where it couldn't handle the volume," Andrew says. "It'll just lock up and people can't place their bets. We call the vendor and see if they can help us out."

Another potential concern is a pager system that handles remote bets customers place on touch-tone phones. By law, Station Casinos can only take bets from within Nevada. A patron who wants to use the phone betting service is given a pager by the casino chain. This pager verifies the gambler is inside Nevada because it does not work outside the state's borders. When a customer wants to place a bet, he or she calls the remote betting service, which sends a password to the pager. Then the customer calls back with a touch-tone phone and enters the password.

Station Casinos also allows betting from home computers through an intranet, which customers can access with software provided by the casino chain. The remote betting systems have been in place six years.

"Those are another level of complexity we always have to watch for and we're concerned with," Andrew says.

When Andrew took his current job 12 years ago, the company had one casino and he had five employees. Now there are 15 casinos located off the Vegas strip, including Red Rock, Green Valley Ranch and Palace. The IT department supports 270 servers, about 3,500 desktop computers, about 220 electronic gaming machines, and a variety of kiosks where players can redeem points similar to frequent flyer miles.

"It's amazing the amount of technology that's used in our business. There's almost nothing you do here that is not technology related," he says. "When we first got here we didn't have computers on gaming tables, we didn't have kiosks, we couldn't do this type of player card and player tracking."

Andrew previously worked for a large paper company, as well as Ingress Software and in Germany for the Esprit clothing retailer. Working for a casino chain is far more complicated not only because of strict gaming regulations but also because Station Casinos is essentially working in five industries: gaming, entertainment, retail, food and beverages, and hotels. "We have to link all the systems together for these five different types of industries," he says.

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