High-tech slots prove jackpots

Machines: New bells and whistles turn one-armed bandits into top casino moneymakers.

March 24, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The old one-armed bandits on the Strip have been replaced by a new generation of high-tech pickpockets led by "Sinatra," "The Frog Prince," "Austin Powers" and "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." Some use video animation and interactive touch monitor screens, some sing, and an experimental game emits a pleasing aroma.

Soon, even the blind will be able to play when "Ray Charles" slots with Braille markings and audio features find their way into casinos. One version, called "What'd I Pay" - a pun on a Charles song title - has the rhythm and blues legend talking about his life and giving spoken instructions to help visually impaired players. The game features "the Paylettes," instead of his backup group, the Raylettes.

Over the past 25 years, slot machines have shed their stigma as the game of choice for women and inexperienced gamblers to become the dominant revenue generator and by far the most profitable component in the gambling business.

Last year, Nevada's gambling revenue totaled about $9.6 billion, with $6.2 billion from slots and $3.4 billion from table games, such as blackjack and craps.

In 1960, there were 16,000 slots in Nevada - last year there were 213,191, with 80 percent of the revenue, or "win," as it's called here, coming from the Las Vegas area.

Meanwhile, an explosion in legalized gambling over the past generation has raised the number of slot machines in use around the country to more than 600,000.

Slots are permitted at racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia, and some Maryland legislators are clamoring to legalize them here. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening steadfastly opposes the idea.

Nationwide, slots account for 70 percent to 90 percent of the roughly $37 billion in casino gross revenue, said William R. Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, at the University of Nevada-Reno. The only exception is in Las Vegas, where slots accounted for about half of the win.

"They [slots] are the bread and butter for casinos, as well as racetracks, and bars and taverns and many other places where they're permitted," Eadington said.

New generation of slots

The high-tech slots cost $6,000 to $10,000 apiece and some are based on new themes or pop icons. Pull the handle on "Sinatra" and a video of Ol' Blue Eyes will appear and he'll belt out tunes such as "Fly Me to the Moon" and "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Unlike the old machines, players don't need a bucket of coins to play. "Sinatra" will accept $1, $5, $10, $50 and $100 bills and it is linked to a progressive jackpot that starts at $500,000 and grows until a player hits it. In January, a woman playing a nickel "Addams Family" game in Las Vegas hit a $1.2 million progressive jackpot.

In one new game, "The Frog Prince," when three animated frogs line up on the middle reels, the player gets a "kiss the frog" bonus. A forest scene appears and three frogs wait for the player to kiss one of them by touching its image on the monitor to proceed to the next phase of the game.

Last year, Reno-based International Game Technology, the nation's dominant manufacturer of slots, unveiled an experimental "I Love Lucy" machine that emits the aroma of chocolate. The slot re-creates the scene from the old TV show in which Lucy and Ethel are trying to wrap candy in a factory.

A Las Vegas company, Bally Gaming and Systems, came up with the Ray Charles slot machines. One version is "What'd I Pay," and another uses Charles' image with an American flag waving in the background as he sings "America the Beautiful."

Award-winning design

In March, Bally Gaming and Systems, a unit of Alliance Gaming Corp., won the 2002 Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind for the Ray Charles slots. The AFB is a national nonprofit group dedicated to fighting for equal treatment for visually impaired people.

In a promotional spot for Bally, Charles, who lost his sight to glaucoma at age 6, says the slots will give blind people "independence" and enable them to have fun without depending on others' help.

The Ray Charles machines haven't reached casinos yet. As is the case with all new slots, the computer chip regulating the percentage the machines pay out to players must be tested and approved by jurisdictional gambling regulators.

The traditional fruit symbols that line up to signify a payoff - cherries, plums and oranges - have been replaced on most new machines. "Fortune Cookie," an IGT game, uses food and other items found in a Chinese restaurant for its reel symbols.

Table games' decline

Jim Kilby, the Boyd Professor of Gaming at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the public's preference for games is changing and the trend does not bode well for table games.

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