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  Poker | The Rat Pack | Slots | Water

Slots: Las Vegas Gamblers Lose Some $5 Billion a Year at the Slot Machines Alone
by Michelle Ferrari

Poolside slots at the Sands. Noël Coward, the English playwright and cabaret star who performed in Las Vegas in the mid-1950s, called them fruit machines -- probably in reference to the pictures of lemons and cherries that decorated their whirling reel strips but also quite possibly in affectionate mockery of those who spent hour upon hour pumping nickels into a machine's greedy maw, yanking away at its stiff, black-knobbed lever, and hoping for the clatter of coin on metal that signaled the all-too-rare jackpot. "The sound is fascinating," Coward reported, "the noise of the fruit machines, the clink of silver dollars, quarters, nickels... The din is considerable, but you get used to it."

Invented in 1895 by Charles Fey, a Bavarian native turned San Franciscan who had spent his late teens as an apprentice to a scientific instrument maker, the cacophonous mechanical slot machine -- or one-armed bandit -- quickly became a staple in San Francisco's Barbary Coast gambling clubs and saloons, hooking hordes of small-time bettors with its promise of a dollar return on a nickel investment. After Nevada legalized gambling, in 1931, the machines began turning up in Las Vegas, not only in casinos and saloons but also at gas stations, grocery stores, and eventually even the departure lounge at McCarran Airport. In contrast to table games such as blackjack and craps, which require a modicum of both skill and composure, the slots appealed primarily to the inexperienced and easily intimidated player -- a quality that casino owners gradually came to associate with healthy profit margins. By the midfifties, slot machines had begun to take up ever more space on the casino floor, precisely, as one operator told a journalist, "to keep the women busy while their husbands get trimmed."

The introduction of electrical slots, dollar slots, and, more recently, progressive reel slots such as Quartermania and Megabucks, which link to a statewide network via modem and multiply jackpots into the millions, have boosted the popularity of the so-called sucker's game substantially. With the investment of a dollar, the casino hold can be set at as little as 5 percent without compromising the house advantage. One result has been bigger potential payoffs for players: consider the twenty-something bachelor from Southern California who recently claimed a $39.7 million jackpot from a Megabucks machine at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino. But for every jackpot there are literally millions upon millions of losses, which translate into astronomical profits for the casinos. By 2004 between 60 and 70 percent of all gaming revenue in Las Vegas came from the slots -- more than all the table games combined.

Michelle Ferrari is the Emmy winning screenwriter of Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, and the author, with Stephen Ives, of the companion book to the series, in which this essay appears.

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