Sit and Spin

How slot machines give gamblers the business

When legalized casino gambling dawned in America, in the era of Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, primitive slot machines—those one-armed bandits—served as little more than mechanical babysitters for the wives and girlfriends of high-roller card and dice players. And for decades thereafter, even as casinos low-rolled their way into the mainstream, gambling itself retained an air of disrepute (charming though it could be) that tended to keep decent folks away. But the recent proliferation of highly sophisticated, computerized, brightly lit, singing-and-talking slots has done away with any lingering social stigma attached to the betting life. Some statistics, random but telling:

America now has twice as many publicly available gambling devices that take money—slot and video-poker machines and electronic lottery outlets—as it does ATMs that dispense it. In the past fifteen years the number of such devices has grown fivefold, to more than 740,000, and is still mounting. This year a record 73 million Americans will visit one of the 1,200 gambling joints now stretching from coast to coast—a nearly 40 percent increase in visitors from just five years ago. Players make an average of six pilgrimages a year to these beckoning temples of luck, and more than a quarter of American adults now list gambling as their No. 1 entertainment choice. As much as 70 percent of the $48 billion in gaming revenues raked in by the casinos comes from slots. (Texas Hold'em poker and other table games may be the latest gambling fad both on TV and in Ben Affleck's social circle, but for the casinos it's all about machines, machines, machines.) Americans now spend on slots five times the amount they spend on movie tickets.

The slot-machine market is so hot, it's in a state of perpetual shake-out. More than 500 games a year are introduced on the casino floor, but each is granted only a few weeks' probation. They either perform immediately or get yanked, junked, and replaced (a profitable machine that costs about $10,000 can pay for itself in just thirty days).

Two contradictory, clashing principles—embodied in the terms TOD and revpac—drive the design of the modern slot machine. Customers, the suckers who put the money into the machines, want maximum TOD, time on device. They want to play as long as possible with their stake, and maybe even win. The machine operators want maximum revpac, revenue per available customer. Duh. The resulting products represent a compromise—these machines keep you more entertained and more engaged, and create the illusion that you are winning while making it more likely you will lose.

Take, for instance, the gleaming chrome totem that is the Jumbo Popcorn Slotto Five-Reel Bonus Game, made by AC Coin & Slot, of Pleasantville, New Jersey. Look at this nine-foot-tall, $11,000 behemoth and you ll see a century's worth of slot-machine evolution. The bottom half, with its bank of spinning reels stamped with symbols, appears little different from the basic three-reel mechanical slot machine built by the San Franciscan Charles August Fey in 1899. But the upper half of the machine is something else: a state-of-the-art "top box" that offers a bonus round of play beyond that of the basic reels below. (Fey's mechanical design dominated almost unchanged until the 1960s, when some electronic circuits were added to the machines. In the 1980s slots were computerized and bonus rounds were introduced, and in the 1990s video technology and top boxes appeared. The latest twist involves bonuses that pop up for no special reason—except to keep you playing. You get more TOD. The casino gets more revpac. Everyone's having fun.)

This particular top box is a glass case with a life-size theater popcorn kettle suspended inside, brimming not with corn but with a couple of dozen numbered "slotto" balls. Hit a bonus and a retro-sounding digital voice from somewhere inside the Slotto machine merrily announces, over a swell of 1950s movie-house music, "It's time for the Popcorn Bonus Show! Which size popcorn will you win?" After the same voice declares the size of the winnings (for instance, "medium"), the kettle inside the glass case begins rattling and shaking, and to the sounds of popping corn, slotto balls plop from the cooker and land in a tube, revealing the exact number of bonus credits—all of this supposedly being a great incentive to keep playing. "The fifty-to-sixty-year-old people who love to play machines are a pretty lively bunch," Chris Strano, AC Coin & Slot's marketing VP, said after correctly identifying me as one more thrill-seeking Boomer (I was playing with a generous exhibition Slotto machine at the Southern Gaming Summit, in casino-rich—pre-Katrina—Biloxi, Mississippi). "They are the Woodstock generation, and they want to have fun. That's what we give them. Something exciting, entertaining, and unpredictable."

They (that is to say "we") are also apparently hungry for comfy and reassuring themes, so machine builders are jostling one another in a frenzied race to license every nook and cranny of popular culture, both high and low: movies and movie stars; TV sitcoms, game shows, and commercials; board games and puzzles; myths, legends, and fairy tales; fads and celebrities; cars and boats; comic books and comic strips. Even Spam and Tabasco-sauce machines have become common. When a player hits a bonus round on an I Love Lucy machine, he's treated to video clips from the legendary TV show. (A rare version made several years ago even sprayed a rich chocolate scent in front of the player's nose when the classic scene of Lucy in the chocolate factory was shown.) This year's gaming summit featured new entries with Star Wars, Men in Black, and The Apprentice themes. Lose enough spins on this last machine and Donald Trump's perfectly reproduced voice shouts out, "You're fired"!—a better phrase than "You're bankrupt!"

Playing that Donald machine, by the way, just might bankrupt you. It can cost $2 a spin, and if you're fast enough, you can spin it 500 to 600 times an hour. Which brings us to the other latest trend in modern slot machines: games that apply a sinister multi-coin, multi-pay-line, low-denomination formula. Now we're talking real revpac.

Until recently most slot machines accepted only quarters or silver dollars, usually a maximum of three at a time. (Penny and nickel slots were relegated to sleazy grind joints and thought to be the last recourse for those unfortunate souls who had run out of Ripple.) The typical player would bet maybe a half dollar per pull. Those seeking more risk would play a dollar. Three- dollar bets were for the few who thrived on living dangerously. But rejoice, for we live in an age of ever more finely calibrated choice, and now the player, by touching the machine's interactive video screen, can choose a variety of denominations to be played—those denominations being deceptively itty-bitty. Cutting-edge machines like The Apprentice are designed to be played mostly at the one-cent and five-cent levels. Sounds cheap enough. Sounds like you ll get maximum TOD.

The catch is that these new machines allow you—encourage you, really—to play dozens, scores, even hundreds of "coins," or credits, per spin. The illusion created is rather startling. When the casual player slips a $20 bill into the machine, he may feel rich upon finding that he has a whopping 2,000 credits to gamble. That is, unless he's conscious of the fact that a spin could cost a fourth or even more than half of his total stake. The machine makers finally figured out that the lower the denomination, and thus the more coins one is allowed to play, the bigger the resulting bets. A player winds up more comfortably wagering amounts unthinkable even a few years ago—not just one or three or five dollars a spin but $10 or even $12.

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Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation, a columnist for LA Weekly, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His most recent book is The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas.

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