While hoards of hopeful fortune-hunters plunk quarter after quarter into the flashing one-armed bandits at the Mazatzal Casino, a dedicated crew of employees work quietly behind the scenes.
Their job, above all, is public relations, says general manager James McDermott. His philosophy is that if the customers aren't happy, the Tonto Apaches won't continue to enjoy the reputation they've earned.
"We wouldn't have a casino if people didn't believe we were fair," he said.
The Mazatzal Casino is the largest employer in Payson, McDermott said, employing 280 people, with 75 working on any given shift.
Hubert Nanty, chief gaming inspector for the Tonto Apaches, led a behind-the-scenes tour Monday of the world-class gaming operation.
Starting in the gaming office, Nanty explained that potential employees and vendors must undergo extensive background checks before they're allowed to work for the casino.
"That's part of our gaming compact with the state," he said.
In the gaming office, a team of eight inspectors conduct background investigations, check in visitors, check out vendors and oversee the overall gaming operation. They monitor the gaming floor, make occasional trips through the casino and perform random audits of the casino's 320 machines.
"The inspectors are the only employees authorized to go anywhere in the casino without escort," he said.
From the confines of the gaming office, an inspector can check out the entire operation by security camera. If the inspector catches something suspicious that bears further inspection, he or she also can override the surveillance team and take over the operation of any camera.
"For instance," Nanty said, "if there's something strange going on in the sports bar, we can take over the camera and zoom in on the action.
The gaming office works closely with the surveillance crew, keeping watch on the images captured on the Tonto Apache's 154 security cameras. Through those lenses, members of the surveillance crew can monitor nearly every square inch of the casino, the restaurant, the parking lot, and the Tonto Apache Market.
"The only place we don't have a camera is in the rest rooms," said Joe Tunno, head of casino surveillance.
Inside the dimly lit room that Nanty calls the "eyes and ears" of the casino, Tunno and two operators keep constant watch on the 24 monitors lining the front wall of the surveillance area.
Tunno said surveillance workers are put through extensive testing before they can take a seat at the control console. Once there, they work eight-hour shifts with occasional breaks. They normally eat their meals at their stations.
After spending a full shift watching gamblers court Lady Luck, children playing in the arcade, and diners eating in the restaurant, surveillance worker Betsy Flores said she likes to go home, put her feet up and watch -- what else? -- television.
"I watch TV, rent movies," she said. "It's better at home, though, because we have sound.
In compliance with the state gaming compact, Tunno said the images captured by the cameras are constantly recorded by his department's 46 video-cassette recorders. Videotapes record an entire 24-hour period, and are switched daily at 10 a.m. Once recorded, tapes are set aside to cool before they are rewound, labeled and stored for a 30-day period.
"We are probably the largest user of videotapes in the Rim country," McDermott said.
Behind the wall of monitors are miles and miles of cable and wires that connect the surveillance crews to the outside world. In the event of a power failure, Tunno said the monitoring system is connected to an uninterruptible power supply -- a UPS system -- that will provide for an additional 18 to 20 minutes.
Surveillance works closely with the casino's security patrol, headed by former Payson police officer Randy Von Meter. On a normal shift, Von Meter said he has a crew of seven guards on duty.
"Because this is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country, we also employ a full-time compliance officer," McDermott said. "He makes sure that the casino is in constant compliance with the state compact.
The casino also recently added a new position -- a management information specialist. McDermott said one of that person's main duties is to make sure every aspect of the casino is Y2K complaint.
"We're almost there already," he said. "And, we've already told the managers to plan on being here at midnight New Year's Eve.
The casino's largest department is food and beverage, run by Tribal Council member Louise Lopez.
"We have about 78 employees in food and beverage," she said, "and have about 30 on per shift.
Lopez said she is proud of the reputation the Cedar Ridge Restaurant has earned, and works hard to maintain its good image.
"We have surprise visits about once a month from Indian Health Service," she said. "On our last visit, we scored 95 out of 100. We've also heard from a number of our vendors that we have the cleanest kitchen in town.
With the growing popularity of the restaurant, and its banquet facilities, Lopez said the tribe is considering expanding Cedar Ridge as early as August.
Next, the tour led to the "cage," or the "hub of the casino," as McDermott calls it.
Inside the cage, workers hand out rolls of quarters and nickels, and trays of dollar tokens to gamblers. More cameras per square foot are trained on the cage than any other area of the casino.
It's also linked to a separate computer system that monitors the machines for jackpots. Once a lucky gambler hits a jackpot, the computer makes note of it and generates a card to inform workers of the prize payout.
Behind the cage -- surrounded by several inches of concrete block reinforced by rebar -- is the vault where the casino's profits are stored.
"We don't really worry about anyone breaking in," Nanty said, pointing out that the mini-Fort Knox is located directly in the center of the casino.
"Besides that, how much coin could you actually carry out of here in a trip?" McDermott asked.
Beyond the vault were the final two rooms on the tour -- the Soft Count room where the paper money is counted, and the Hard Count room where the coin is counted.
"The coin, the hard money, is actually weighed rather than counted," McDermott said. "It's more accurate that way."
With plans to expand the restaurant and possibly the bingo hall under way, McDermott said the tribe probably won't expand the casino itself anytime soon.
"There are two main features of our casino that we're very proud of," he said. "One is that we run a very clean facility, especially compared to some of the larger operations.
"The second feature is that there's room out on the floor. People aren't crammed in to each other at the machines. We don't want to compromise that open feeling by trying to add more slots."