Behind the scenes: How casinos prepared for the new $100 bill

Handout via The New York Times

An undated handout photo of the front of the new $100 note. The Federal Reserve will begin circulating a new $100 bill on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, with some modern and colorful anti-counterfeiting features, after overcoming problems that postponed its debut for more than two and a half years.

There's a new Benjamin in town, and the casino companies were ready for him.

For years, Las Vegas' gaming companies had been preparing for the Oct. 8 debut of a new $100 bill. In advance of its arrival, resorts and equipment manufacturers spent thousands of hours making sure every slot machine and money-taking device would accept them without a hitch.

It worked. Bosses at the biggest gaming companies say the transition so far has been smooth.

David Kubajak was among the first to find out about the new $100 bill.

As senior director of operations at JCM Global, which supplies more than 75 percent of the country's 850,000 slot machine bill validators, Kubajak got word from the U.S. Treasury Department about five years ago that Benjamin Franklin was getting a makeover.

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing relies on industry experts such as Kubajak for feedback on bill design. The Federal Reserve wants to make sure its design is secure and difficult to counterfeit.

About three years before the government planned to release the bills, officials sent Kubajak a design concept to review.

The agency is sensitive to JCM's needs. The company deals mostly with $100 bills and partners with some of the world's largest gaming companies, including IGT and Caesars Entertainment. Updating software can takes months.

In return, Kubajak's team signed multiple security agreements promising to keep their lips sealed about the new $100. Most JCM employees were prohibited from seeing the bills, and the Bureau of Engraving conducted monthly audits to make sure no information had leaked.

“It really is a top-secret, well-controlled process,” Kubajak said.

Once a final design was approved, the feds sent Kubajak bills for testing.

In February, a postman dropped off an average-looking package to JCM’s Las Vegas office. Kubajak was out, so Tom Nieman, vice president of global marketing, opened it. Inside the box, he found 1,000 crisp new $100 bills.

“I thought: ‘Geez, what is David getting into?’” Nieman said.

Nieman didn't know they were worthless.

Click to enlarge photo

An undated handout screen grab of the new $100 notes on the printing press at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Federal Reserve will begin circulating a new $100 bill on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, with some modern and colorful anti-counterfeiting features, after overcoming problems that postponed its debut for more than two and a half years.

The bills lacked serial numbers so they weren't legal tender, but they were authentic enough that JCM could run them through bill validators to make sure their software recognized the new design.

Each updated bill includes a gold ink well and bell you can feel with your fingers. A 3-D strip occupies the lower-right corner and changes from green to gold when turned.

There also are covert, secret features that those in the know can't disclose.

“I am prohibited from discussing those because of the security agreements I’m under,” Kubajak said.

Almost every casino game, with the exception of most table games, requires a bill validator that can recognize $1 bills and three designs of $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills dating to 1953.

U.S. currency never expires. If you put a $1 bill in a shoebox under your bed, it still will be valid 40 years from now.

Casinos call JCM all the time asking whether bills from the 1960s still work.

“Of course it’s OK,” Kubajak said. “It’s still valid U.S. currency.”

Although older bills eventually will be destroyed by the Federal Reserve and replaced with new ones, casinos aren't responsible for separating old bills from new ones.

Gaming companies upgraded validators in their slot machines about three months before the new bill's release. Most casino operators have contracts that include software upgrades for new bills, so the work came at no additional cost, Kubajak said.

Updating a slot machine is usually as simple as plugging a USB drive into it and pressing a button to upload the data. Each upgrade takes 45 seconds to a minute.

“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist,” said Mike Gatten, vice president of slot operations at MGM Resorts International's Aria. Gatten's team had to update 1,900 machines.

Casino employees also had to be trained on what the new currency looks like and how to detect counterfeits.

So far, there haven’t been many problems with the validators, Kubajak said.

That doesn't mean Kubajak can rest easy. More bill changes are coming down the pike.

Kubajak already has information about new bills that will debut five years from now.

“We’re already working on the future,” he said.

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