Slots continue to pull in crowds


Machines: From humble beginnings a century ago, one-armed bandits have become a staple of the gambling industry nationwide.

March 13, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RENO, NEV — RENO, Nev. - Early in the 20th century, when Las Vegas was just a

wide spot on a road in the desert, Reno was Nevada's Sin City, known for its saloons, gambling houses and a new gadget - the slot machine.

Slots were so plentiful in Reno about 100 years ago that the city had a licensing requirement for them. But the slots went underground in 1910, when Nevada outlawed gambling, only to re-emerge in 1931, during the Depression, when the cash-starved state legalized wagering. By 1940, a legion of the one-armed pickpockets worked Reno's casinos generating big profits for casino owners.

Today, gambling is a $9.6 billion business in the state, and two-thirds of the money comes from nearly 220,000 slot machines that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While slots are deeply ingrained in Nevada's history and culture, the roots of the slot machine industry go back to San Francisco, where in 1899 Charles Fey invented a three-reel slot called the Liberty Bell. His machine was not the first coin-operated mechanical gaming device, but for more than a half-century it stood as the standard for slot manufacturers.

A player dropped a nickel into the Liberty Bell, pulled the arm, and the three reels spun. If three Liberty Bell symbols appeared after the reels stopped, the machine spat out 20 nickels, the maximum payoff.

In 1958, two of Fey's grandsons, Marshall and Frank, opened an eating place and watering hole in Reno. The Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant has become a landmark because of its collection of antique slot machines and Old West artifacts, including the 20 horse-drawn wagons sitting on its roof.

Over the years, Marshall Fey, a spry 74-year-old, has become a slot machine historian. His book Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years has sold more than 30,000 copies in several languages.

During a tour of the restaurant, he explains the slot machine's place in Americana. Slots have given us the word jackpot to describe a big win, and the expression "It's a lemon," which is synonymous for a loser, Fey says.

For much of their history, slots symbolized society's ambivalence about a forbidden pleasure for many - gambling.

From the start, slot machines were the target of legal challenges waged by reformers and temperance movement members. Often legislation was enacted to ban slots or place restrictions on them, but the slot operators found innovative ways to thwart the law. Sometimes they simply bought off police and public officials.

For example, in 1898, a San Francisco ordinance banned cash payments from slots, Fey says, but slot operators got around it by distributing tokens, called trade checks, which could be redeemed for merchandise, such as cigars. When the police weren't looking, players simply exchanged the tokens for cash.

In 1906, one San Francisco slot maker offered the mayor a share of the profits, and a short time later the police stopped enforcing an ordinance that effectively banned slots. As a result, 800 new slots appeared in the city's saloons and cigar stores, Fey says.

The fruit symbols - cherries, oranges, lemons and plums - that became a standard on slots were part of a clever scheme to thwart anti-gambling forces.

In 1910, slot makers tried to make a case that they were producing vending machines - not gambling devices, Fey says.

They attached gum dispensers to the sides of the slots that gave out fruit-flavored gum, and to reinforce the idea, they used the fruit symbols on the slots, he says. "The gum was so bad, nobody took it, it just sat and dried out. But they argued that if you got something for your money, the gum, it wasn't gambling," Fey explains.

Using the same line of reasoning, manufacturers produced slots that played music. They argued that a player wasn't gambling; the player merely paid for the music. Or operators found clever ways to disguise slots.

"Now what do you think this little guy is?" Fey asks, holding up a device that looks like a toaster. "Well, you open up the toaster door and you have a miniature slot. They were popular because they were easy to hide behind the bar."

Fey points to another piece of his collection, a slot that looks like an old radio.

"You just lift up the radio dial and you have three reels with cigarette packs for symbols; if you line up three reels with the same brand, you get a free pack of cigs and an optional gumball," he says.

Another slot looks like a small beer keg.

"This guy came out in 1934 when Prohibition ended, and it's called the Magic Beer Barrel," Fey says, as he puts his hand on another machine. "You just put your coin in here, and the spigot spins the reels, but instead of fruit symbols, you have pretzels, diamonds and beer mugs, and to keep it legal, they paid off in mugs of beer."

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