The gaming industry is very creative. It has to be. Players are always looking for the next big thing, and casino operators and suppliers have to give it to them or risk losing out to the competition. That makes innovation a big business, whether it’s new hotel designs, player promotions or gaming equipment. Most new inventions don’t see the light of day; or if they do, they fade quickly from sight. But just like the million-dollar slot jackpots that happen every so often, there are also occasional million-dollar innovations that revolutionize the industry. Here is our list of the most influential gaming innovations over the past few decades, in chronological order:
THE VIRTUAL REEL
Charles Fey invented the Liberty Bell slot machine in 1899, and for more than 80 years slots worked the same way. Three or more mechanical reels would spin and stop independently, and if an award-winning combination of symbols appeared the machine would pay out that award. In these early slot games each symbol on the reel was uniform. That meant that if a reel had 22 symbols on it, each symbol would appear 1 in 22 times on average. Mathematically, the longest odds on such a three-reel game were 1 in 223 (1 in 10,648), which limited the size of the awards. By the mid-1960s Bally had introduced the first electromechanically controlled slot games, and by the late 1970s microprocessor technology had started to supplant those. However, the reels still worked the same way - each symbol appeared uniformly, and the awards were still limited to small amounts.
That all changed in 1982 when Inge Telnaes introduced the concept of “virtual reels” in slot machines. A virtual reel is a behind-the-scenes list of symbols and their non-uniform probabilities. That virtual reel list is then mapped to the machine’s physical reel strip, determining how often each physical symbol should occur. For example, a slot reel could be configured to show a cherry symbol one time on average, the blank symbol below it six times, and the bar symbol below that two times. Rather than using a freely spinning mechanical reel, a random number generator is programmed to pick which of the virtual symbols should appear on each reel, and during play the reels are controlled using a brake to stop on those symbols (the reels would later be controlled by stepper motors). The total number of symbols can be dozens or even hundreds per virtual reel, so the problems of short odds and small awards go away. If each virtual reel in a three-reel game has 200 symbols, then the longest odds for that game are 1 in 8,000,000, and the awards in such a game can be much, much larger.
IGT acquired the patent for Telnaes’ invention in 1987, and this new technology (plus a fortunate decision from gaming regulators) helped propel them to a position of market dominance.
AUTOMATIC CARD SHUFFLERDriving trucks gave John Breeding lots of time to think, and in 1982 he was thinking about the problems Atlantic City casinos were having with blackjack players counting cards. Famed card counter Ken Uston had been barred by Resorts International, had sued, and in 1982 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that his barring was illegal. If casinos couldn’t legally kick out card counters they needed another option to protect themselves from advantage players.
Breeding’s solution was a device that could automatically take a deck of cards, perform several riffle shuffles (one wouldn’t be random enough) and then provide the dealer with a freshly shuffled deck. By dealing each hand from a freshly shuffled deck, card-counting would be impossible. As an added benefit an automatic shuffler would also prevent many forms of dealer-player collusion and cheating and eliminate shuffling time between hands. But this device didn’t exist, so Breeding formed a company, Shuffle Master, and set about making one. It took 10 years, but in 1992 the company’s first production shuffler hit the market.
New Jersey casinos couldn’t wait 10 years, however, so they took other steps. They changed the game of blackjack by dealing out of six- and eight-deck shoes, shuffling earlier in the shoe, and making other rule changes designed to thwart the effectiveness of card-counting. However, dealing out of a multi-deck shoe meant that the single-deck shuffler Breeding had spent 10 years developing wasn’t appropriate for blackjack. In a stroke of marketing genius, in early 1993, he invented the single-deck poker game Let It Ride to make use of the shuffler. With that new approach, shuffler sales took off. In 1994, Shuffle Master introduced the first of its multi-deck shufflers, reducing the down time in blackjack games as well, finally fulfilling Breeding’s original vision of eliminating card-counting in Atlantic City.
PLAYER TRACKINGThe early 1980s was an important time for the slot machine industry. Computers were being used to control slot games, and enormous jackpots had become mathematically feasible. But playing slots was an impersonal experience. The market was still primarily focused on big-money table game players who were easy to identify and reward with complimentaries. The only way to reward an average slot player was by using promotional tickets redeemable for merchandise, an idea pioneered by Steve Wynn.
John Acres had a company, EDT, that was manufacturing promotional ticket dispensers when, in 1983, he got some shocking news - static electricity sparks from players were causing ticket dispensers to malfunction and dispense all the tickets. In search of a solution Acres drew on some recent experiences: he had just returned from Botswana, where he’d been given a card key to open his hotel room door; and his kids’ Christmas presents included a learning game with a calculator-style display. Acres realized that by using a similar card to identify a slot machine player, accounting for bets and tickets could be handled by a remote computer (outside the reach of static shocks), while information could be shown on a calculator-style display on the player’s machine. Modern player-tracking systems were born.
Like many revolutionary ideas, player-tracking was slow to take off. It was nearly 10 years before player-tracking systems really gained acceptance. Today, operators use player-tracking systems integrated across multiple properties to gather details about player betting patterns and demographics. These systems can now even identify a player’s favorite time of year to visit or favorite casino restaurant, and casinos can tailor marketing offers to those individual tastes. They help casinos give players what they want and make them feel special enough to keep coming back.
The first slot machines were completely mechanical and used a complicated series of levers, pins, wheels, grooves and notches to spin and stop the reels. In the 1960s Bally pioneered the use of solenoids and other electromechanical devices to control the reels. Electromechanical or not, those mechanisms were prone to wear, failure and the dreaded “mis-indexing” - where the reels didn’t show the same symbols as the game had detected, and awards didn’t get paid. The mechanisms also were prone to being cheated by manipulating the reels in numerous ways to receive payouts.
That didn’t change until the mid-1980s when Universal Distributing introduced microprocessor-controlled stepper motor technology. It’s a common misconception that stepper motors and virtual reels were introduced together - though they’re a natural fit for gaming machines. Universal was the first to bring stepper motors to Las Vegas and use them to control reels in slot machine games. With pinpoint computer control the problems of finicky reel mechanisms, mis-indexing and many cheating techniques nearly disappeared. IGT and Bally soon followed with their own stepper machines using virtual-reel technology, and the modern computer-driven slot machine was born. Universal’s machines were popular, but they used a technique to inflate the probability of near-misses, which was ruled illegal in 1988, and Universal faded from the scene. However, the impact of their innovation is felt worldwide. Nearly every physical-reel slot machine made in the last 25 years has used a microprocessor and stepper motor to control the reels.
TICKET IN/TICKET OUTPlaying slot machines used to be a dirty habit, as the soiled fingers or gloves of any quarter slot player could attest. Using coins also meant that players had to lug heavy buckets around the casino to play their favorite machines. And if a slot player decided to switch denominations, she would have to cash out at her machine, carry her coins to the cashier, wait in line, have her bucket dumped into a coin-counting machine, receive her cash, find a different machine, insert the cash and begin all over again.
Casinos had their own concerns. Every minute a player was fumbling with coins or carrying buckets to the cashier was a minute not playing games. Also, the casinos had to hire dozens of employees to deal with the continual emptying and refilling of coin hoppers and to escort rolling metal cages full of coins across the casino floor. This even caused the carpets to wear out more quickly.
The MGM Grand in Las Vegas tested a version of a coinless system in the early 1990s, but it was a flop. Without the clanging of coins falling into trays the excitement on the floor was diminished and revenue per machine dropped significantly. Undeterred, IGT and Casino Data Systems developed a coinless ticket-based payment system known as EZ Pay, and in 2000 they conducted a field trial at the Fiesta Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Slowly, ticket-based wagering caught on as players realized they were free from the inconveniences of using physical coins. By 2005 it was hard to find a modern machine that still used coins.
Interestingly, the transition from coins to tickets was not slowed due to technology but due to player reluctance to change. It was the coin slot that gave the slot machine its name, and the sound of clanging coins has always been associated with casinos. To this day the sound of clanging coins still echoes throughout casinos, but now the clanging comes from audio speakers.
TRIPLE PLAY POKER
Video poker was introduced in 1979 by Sircoma (later IGT) and became enormously popular during the 1980s as an alternative to slot machines. At the same time, slot machines were becoming more exciting with the addition of more lines and larger jackpots. By contrast, video poker had a much lower top award (800 to 1 for a royal flush) and required the player to make a time-consuming strategic decision during each play. In the quest for more poker action some players would play two machines simultaneously.
Enter Ernie Moody, whose story is a fascinating example of how innovation combined with persistence can pay off. Moody had started a casino company and invented several table games in the early 1990s without much success. He then turned to video poker, and in 1996 he hit upon what would become his defining contribution to the game: Triple Play Poker.
In Triple Play the player can wager on three hands at once but only needs to make one strategic decision on the first hand, while held cards are simply copied and played again. The genius of Triple Play is that players can use the same strategy, bet three times as much, play three times as many hands and have three times as many chances to win.
It also means three times the action for the casino, so Moody licensed Triple Play Poker to IGT for manufacturing. When IGT introduced the first machines in late 1997 they quickly became a smash: more than 1,000 machines were placed in the first six months alone, and Moody joined the ranks of inventors whose ideas finally paid off big.
Today, you can find Triple Play and its variations in nearly every major casino.