After years of abstinence, Mexico has reluctantly become a growing gambling market.
Although the old cultural bias against gambling remains, the federal government since 2004 has again been granting permits to open casinos, which, while not on the same scale and grandeur of those found along the Las Vegas Strip, are a beginning. New casino/resort projects, such as Mexicarlo near Cabo San Lucas have been announced while the famed Aqua Caliente Resort in Tijuana, once a hotspot for American tourists, has been restored to recapture the spirit of its former glory days.
These recent changes have, in turn, opened new opportunities for U.S. gaming equipment manufacturers, who are adapting their products for the market, which, while trending in the U.S. direction, still remains somewhat rooted in old preferences and traditions. Gaming Laboratories International (GLI) last May even struck a business alliance with Mexico’s Normalizacion y Certificacion Electronica to help bring testing standards for gaming equipment to that nation.
Mexico has not always been so reluctant to embrace gambling. Wagering games were extremely popular among the Aztecs. And in the late 19th Century under the rule of Porfirio Diaz, French-style casinos dotted the landscape. Nearly all of those casinos were closed following the Mexican Revolution in 1911. But by the 1920s, casinos were again in full bloom and popular destinations for U.S. citizens as newspapers reported how members of the movie industry in Hollywood enjoyed gambling weekends to Tijuana and Acapulco.
This boom in gambling came to an abrupt end in 1935 when reformist Mexican president Lazaro Cardenes issued a decree declaring gambling illegal. As some casinos flouted the decree and remained in operation, the Cardenes decree was written into law as the Federal Gaming and Raffles Law in 1947.
In the interim, Mexico went through a period in which gambling was frequently talked about and occasionally conducted yet remained illicit. The law permitted gambling at public events, such as fairs, with the proper permits, but those who staged the gambling realized that the government wouldn’t approve the permits, so they waited until the last minute to apply, staged the gambling under application, with the fair being over by the time the permit application was denied.
Those in the hotel and tourism business often argued that legalizing gambling would create many jobs as foreigners would storm Mexico to gamble, and candidates for office often backed these proposals, but the proposals never made it off the ground.
It wasn’t until Vincente Fox was elected Mexico’s president in 2000 that things began to change. But while Fox promised to legalize casinos and create definitive rules as to the types of games these establishments could offer, the Mexican Congress instead enacted some half measures in late 2004 to regulate certain forms of gambling but not others. These regulations were declared “not unconstitutional”by the Mexican Supreme Court in January 2007.
As a result, the Mexican gaming market is very unique.
“You won’t find large destination casinos in Mexico like those in Las Vegas, Monte Carlo or even Montreal,” said Gene Chayevsky, chairman and chief executive officer at Atlanta-based Cadillac Jack. “Mexico is primarily a market dominated by small casinos that cater to local players. There are certainly a few larger operations in places like Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City but even in tourist areas like Cancun, the casinos are primarily in neighborhoods away from areas visited by tourists.”
Mexico also has a large “electronic Latin-style bingo market,” said Chayevsky.
Although the gambling regulations enacted in 2004 are extremely vague in terms of what gaming devices are allowed, one thing they make crystal clear is that Class III slot machines remain illegal. What gaming devices Mexican casinos have are similar to Class II machines found in the United States in Native American casinos.
There also are a lot of Latin-style bingo devices, many sourced from companies based in Brazil and Spain. Early versions of these games (where one plays four bingo cards on a screen) were played on computer terminals, but as the “electronic terminals” (as Class II games are called in Mexico) became popular, makers of the bingo machines refitted them in stylish cabinets.
Latin-style bingo games remain most popular in the south of Mexico (Oaxaca), while Class II machines are dominant in the north (Monterrey and border areas).
During the past few years, Las Vegas-based Bally Technologies has placed more than 3,500 Class II machines at 40 locations throughout Mexico and is negotiating with a Mexican license holder that could nearly double its presence.
Bally has discovered that games with themes that are popular in the United States also are finding big popularity in Mexico. These include themes from its Class III games adapted to Class II technology to meet Mexican regulations.
“Hot Shots is our most popular game in Mexico, followed by Blazing 7’s and Tower of Power,” said John Connelly, vice president of international and gaming operations at Bally. “Among five-reel stepper machines, Quick Hit is becoming a big favorite.”
Bally makes a few changes in these Class II machines when sending them south of the border. Certain buttons are changed to meet Mexican regulations, Connelly said. Games also are translated into Spanish and even some left in English develop followings.
Since entering the Mexican market, Reno-based IGT has found players there to be sophisticated enough to have quickly chosen many game variations. Though raised on Latin-style bingo games, the Mexican player is open to trying new games and themes, said Toni Martinez, IGT vice president of Western Region Sales.
“Mexican players are most attracted to bonus-style games such as Wheel of Fortune and Fort Knox Multi-Level Progressives, which are our best performing games in that market,” Martinez said. “Dice games also are legal and popular, so IGT has just released a dice table game called Blackjack Dice that plays the popular card game with dice.”
The continued popularity of Latin-style bingo games in parts of Mexico resulted in IGT complementing its vast library of themed games with these bingo-based games, Martinez noted.
While IGT finds that English themes do well in Mexico, the company strives to translate them to the native language not only to enhance local understanding of game play but also as a basic courtesy to the native culture.
“Generally you don’t see many games that are specific to one culture, but it can be dangerous not to understand the culture when selecting game themes. But we find that players often are more entertained by outside cultures and cultural icons, as evidenced in other products such as soft drinks, cars and clothing,” Martinez said.
Cadillac Jack customizes its equipment for the Mexican market. “We do more than just translate the Class II games into Spanish,” said Chayevsky. “We tailor the graphics, game play math and the pay table to meet the local market requirements.”
Appropriately, the hottest Class II game title Cadillac Jack markets in Mexico is “So Hot,” a five-reel, twenty-line with multiple-win features and bonusing elements. Other popular titles include “Crazy Clowns,” “Dr. StrangeLuck,” “Cave Age Cash,” and “Hot 7’s.”
Not wanting to leave the Latin-style bingo game market to the Brazilians and Spaniards, Cadillac Jack has created multiple Latin Bingo games to appeal to this market with titles like “Bingo 9,” “Universal Bingo,” “Galactic Bingo” and “Turbo Max Bingo.”
Cadillac Jack is the only vendor in Mexico to offer wide area progressives, the company said. Typically installed as banks of 10 Class II style games in casinos that are linked with all other such machines in the country, the large jackpots generated by these networked machines can provide a player in Vera Cruz or San Luis Potosí with “a life-changing event,” , Chayevsky said.
Like Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, Class III slots remain a name not to be said in a Mexico still fearful that gambling will erode cultural and family values. But U.S. manufacturers see evolution of the Mexican market into Class III gaming as probably only a matter of time, though not in the immediate future.
Interestingly, Chayevsky sees another market for its Mexico product line. Some California casinos with a large Latino patronage have shown interest in acquiring Class II slots in Spanish.
But these U.S.-based Latino casino customers appear to have little interest in playing Latin-style bingo games.
“Perhaps it’s due to a lack of exposure to this type of game,” Chayevsky said. “As with any new product introduction, it may just take a little time before it becomes the trend.”