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Mechanical slots a blast from the past

by Sally J. Taylor

For all the exterior bells and whistles, modern slot machines are surprisingly empty on the inside.

The spinning apples, oranges and “jackpots” are the last remnants of the mechanized slots of yesteryear when gears and wheels crowded the interior of the gold-plated boxes.

“These days, slots are really very basic,” said Geoff Andres, director of slot operations at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Casino. “The days of the mechanical slot machine are gone.”



Computers programmed to randomly dispense winnings now control the slot machine reels. The electronic brain is contained in a metal box about the size of a mail order catalog inside the mostly empty machine.

“That’s really the slot machine,” Andres said. “The chip is the personality of the machine.”



By Nevada state law, slot machines must pay back at least 80 percent of the money deposited. Major casinos have payback rates closer to 96 percent, Andres said.

“We enjoy having winners, celebrating winners,” he said. “People have to win sometimes to have fun.

“Harrah’s makes a little bit off a lot (spent).”

Most paybacks come in small amounts dispensed regularly to keep players playing. The enticement is the occasional big win: the jackpot.

Over the long haul, any one slot will produce small payoffs, jackpots and quiet times that average out to the casino’s payoff percentage.

But, because the machine resets itself with each pull, there is no such thing as a machine that is “due” for a jackpot.

Andres compares it to reaching into a shopping bag with white and red ping-pong balls. Each time you reach inside, you have a chance of grabbing a red ball. But, because the ball is replaced each time, “the chance for winning is the same now as it is later.

“Every spin is a random event,” he said.

Yet, as odds happen to be, the longer you play, the greater your chance of pulling out the winning ball. You could get a jackpot, or you could lose.

“It’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time,” Andres said. “You don’t know when it’s going to hit.”

Nevertheless, the odds of winning a slot machine jackpot are much greater than winning the state lottery, according to John Packer, Harrah’s director of communication. He said that he read about a University of Berkeley study which found the chance of winning the lottery is essentially the same whether you purchase a ticket or not.

“People are looking for a life-changing event (when they buy a lottery ticket),” Packer said. “Here, people come in hoping to win and have fun. A thousand dollars is not going to change your life. You’re not going to quit your job.”

As the insides of a slot machine have changed so has its surroundings. Slots have more company.

Once the haven for non-gambling spouses or those waiting for seats in a restaurant, slots and video poker machines have now displaced many poker and craps tables.

More people want to play machines more. And they are willing to deposit larger amounts per pull on the chance of coming away with a larger jackpot.

Harrah’s recently opened a new section of its casino floor dedicated to slot machines that take from $1 to $500 a play.

While the larger the denomination, the greater the payoff when it pays, the percentage of payoffs remains the same, Andres said.

From the mechanized slot machine of old, casinos now offer a variety of new games with new bells and whistles, ways to play and things to win.

Some new machines even display cable television broadcasts. Slot faithfuls no longer need to choose between sticking to the machine until it hits or leaving to catch the Super Bowl or a favorite soap opera.

Whichever version of the spinning reels a player chooses, the percentage of payoff remains the same.

“It doesn’t affect the overall payout,” Andres said. “It’s another thing that attracts customers. Another way to win.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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