By Zack Harold
Charleston Daily Mail
Dustin Lamar spends hours each day in a dimly lit room, playing slot machines.
He feeds hundreds of dollars into the machines at a time. He always loses money, but he always gets it back.
Lamar is not especially lucky. Luck is not very useful against these high-tech one-armed bandits.
And while Lamar probably knows more about slot machines than anyone else in West Virginia, he says built-in security measures prevent him from scamming the devices. The days are long gone when you could tie a string to a quarter, feed it into a slot machine and yank it back out.
But Lamar does have a few things working in his favor.
First, he doesn’t play with his own money. He plays with a bank envelope full of greenbacks, loaned to him by the West Virginia Lottery.
Second, Lamar has a special key that can open the belly of slot machines. When he’s finished playing, he reaches into the machine’s bill acceptor and retrieves his money.
Third, Lamar doesn’t play in casinos. He can’t. State law forbids it.
That’s because Lamar is the manager of the state’s video lottery test laboratory, located on the 12th floor of the Lottery’s headquarters in downtown Charleston.
The laboratory is packed with about 40 slot machines. Toward the back of the room are smaller, cheaper models, like the ones you find in bars or gambling parlors.
But larger, flashier models — the kind that are featured in the state’s racetrack casinos — dominate the room. Some have themes — NASCAR, “The Lord of the Rings,” Monopoly — while others are variations on traditional slot machine games.
The machines are just tools, however. Open them up and they’re just a computer. The laboratory’s primary job is to test the software that will be run on these machines.
Today’s slot machines are easily updated. New games can be installed just by plugging in a memory card, like the one inside a digital camera.
Lamar and the lab’s two other employees spend their days looking for glitches and errors in new games before they appear in casinos or gambling parlors. They also make sure the rules are easily understood and the game pays out money when it is supposed to.
The games undergo exhaustive testing before arriving in West Virginia. The state Lottery Commission contracts with Gaming Labs International, which puts the game on autopilot to simulate hundreds of hours of play. Most bugs are caught this way.
But it’s still not the same as real, human testers playing the games.
“We test more of a real-world basis,” Lamar said. “It helps us find bugs and things that couldn’t be found in other scenarios.”
The laboratory tests more than 50 games a week, with more games arriving daily.
Lamar tests the games just like customers play them, sitting in a comfortable chair with a wad of cash. But he also keeps a hospital food tray in front of him with a checklist of things he’s looking for. He also has printouts of the game’s screens for reference.
Tacy Donovan, the West Virginia Lottery’s deputy director of video lottery, said it’s important for Lamar and his crew to understand how the games work in case there are customer service complaints once the games are available to the general public.
Alvin Rose, deputy director of security for the limited video lottery, said, “It’s like when you buy a new car. Everything’s perfect until you start driving it.”
When players have a complaint, Lamar is able to pull up their exact game on a machine in his lab and replay it to see if something went wrong.
The complaints seldom pan out. Players usually are just confused, but the Lottery takes each complaint seriously.
“If we don’t keep the public’s trust, they won’t play the games,” Rose said.
Rose said it’s a common misconception the West Virginia Lottery can change the odds on machines to affect the amount of money players win.
“We can’t make a machine hot or cold. Nobody can change the odds of that machine,” he said.
Donovan said video lottery games are designed to pay back 92 percent of all money they receive. That payout is spread over the life of the machine, however, so don’t expect to win $92 for every $100 you spend at a slot machine.
“You might put $100 in and not win a penny. But the guy behind you might win $10,000,” Lamar said.
And that’s why Lamar spends his days playing the slots.
If someone is supposed to win $10,000, the Lottery needs to make sure they get the money ... because it doesn’t happen very often.