Walking down memory lane on the evolution of slot machines

Slots have fascinated me for years. So when I jumped from the newspaper business into the gambling business in the ’60s, I couldn’t wait to see the inside of a slot machine. Oh, I sneaked a glance at an open door now and then, but I needed a slot mechanic to explain how the damn things worked. So one day I grabbed a mechanic and asked him to open up a 5-cent game. As I wrote more than 10 years ago, the inside looked like an explosion in a gadget factory. Or a Rube Goldberg creation on his worst day.

The mechanic must have seen the wonderment in my eyes. He smiled with the confidence of a man who has a job for life. “Only five of us in the company know how to fix these things,” he said.

Did that bother the casino? Of course not. The table games made all the money in those days, and the slots were scattered all over the place so the wives could play nickels and dimes while the husbands went for the big dough on craps and blackjack. I guess the bosses thought it would always be that way. Most of them had no idea that a revolution in computer technology was under way. Who could have looked at room-sized computers powered by vacuum tubes and foreseen the microprocessor?

We know what happened. The old mechanicals that dominated the slot business for decades were swept aside by the new electromechanicals. By the early ’80s microprocessors made their appearance in the so-called electronic machines. And by the mid-’80s, microprocessors with random number generators and pulse motor systems began to appear. The reels, once dominant, now became visual representations of computer-generated programs.

Who could have guessed that by the turn of the century many casinos would pull off many of the table games to make room for more slots?

As the machines changed through the years, so did many of the things that made them fun. I knew slot guys who were so sharp they could listen to coins clattering into the “loud bowls” and tell you what kind of day the joint was having. And in downtown Las Vegas casinos, even modest payoffs triggered the clanging of bells. In one or two places, wailing sirens replaced the bells. It sounded so easy to win at slots, who would dare leave?

So when I read Don Wittkowski’s piece inThe Press of Atlantic Cityabout Resorts Atlantic City bringing back, “Old-school, coin-operated slot machines to recapture the buzz of a bygone era,” memories of Las Vegas in the ’60s and ’70s kicked in.

One night I walked into the downtown Lady Luck to see owner Andy Tompkins, and the noise was insane. The bells and whistles made it seem like every machine in the place had gone haywire. You could hear the coins cascading out of the machines. I wanted to grab a fistful of nickels and dash into the action. I didn’t hear such cacophony again until 1981, when I walked into Resorts for the first time. The sound of coins falling into trays could have shattered your eardrums. The guy who showed me around apologized for such a slow night. “You can walk right up to a machine and start playing,” he said. “We usually don’t see that.”

So I’m glad Resorts brought back the old games, all eight of them, even if it doesn’t last. Wittkowski quoted one woman player, who said, “It’s original. This is the way it was done in the beginning. The sound of it, the clink-clink-clink of coins dropping down, makes it so much more fun.”

My partners and I did quite a bit of work for Resorts in the early ’80s, and I never did get used to the noise on the casino floor. But the place made money -lots of it -in those days.

I thought back to the old Super Sahara Celebration I started in the mid-’60s in Del Webb’s Sahara. Far as I know it was the first big casino floor cash giveaway -and the hit of the day was Double Jackpot Time. We started at 11 a.m. and held it every two hours until midnight.

We had about 500 slots in those days, and on a normal night you could hardly hear them. But it all changed before and during Double Jackpot Time. One of the first things I learned was never let the announcer tell the players Double Jackpot Time was only five minutes away. The first time it happened, the clatter, roar and whir of the machines fell silent almost immediately.

The slot manager froze. He’d never seen it happen

. I walked over to him and said, “Don’t worry. It’s never going to happen again.” After that we’d announce Double Jackpot Time when it was 15 or 20 minutes away – then give the players a 30-second call. Our slot sections were packed and we’d still get 30 seconds of pure silence before we started- followed by 500 machines chugging in unison as fast as the players could pull the handles.

We did a lot of offbeat promotions at the Sahara after that. We were a step ahead of the competition - and Glenn, our slot manager -was a step ahead of the customers. He set up a special machine and placed it near the Sahara’s main showroom. If it went 10 straight plays without a payoff, you were guaranteed a payoff on the next try. Each losing spin showed on the glass, so it was easy to see when it closed in on 10 straight misses.

It should have been a customer favorite, but the employees were always there first. The game was like an annuity for a couple of guys. Glenn took it off the floor in disgust.

I always felt sorry for the change girls in those days. Some of them had bad backs. Bob Bigelow, my pal in Reno at the Siena, said his change girls usually carried 35 pounds of coin. But that, too, changed.

About the only thing that didn’t change were table games. They’re pretty much the same today as they were in 1960. And in some places, they’re little more than curiosities. The old bosses never would have believed it.