nickels to millions, slots evolve over 100 years in Nevada - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Five cents was a good bet in 1905, when Nevada recognized slot machines.

"A nickel was considered a big amount of money then," said Marshall Fey, grandson of Charles Fey, the man gambling historians credit with inventing the slot machine.

"A quarter would have been too much," he said.

A century has passed since the Nevada Legislature voted to regulate slots, approving fees and rules for what were commonly called "nickel-in-the-slot machines." In 2005, gamblers are playing nickels and a lot more.

"Slot machines have become a little bit like movies," Charles Mathewson, former head of Reno-based International Game Technology, said of the ever-increasing variety of slots on casino floors. "You wouldn't want to see the same movie every day."

Once slot machines -- also known as "one-armed bandits" -- became computerized, they were able to add the ability to entertain to their capacity to enrich.

Government regulators count 202,801 machines in Nevada, generating 67.3 percent of what the state's casinos win from gamblers. Customers can put as little as a penny in the slot or play for a Megabucks multimillion-dollar jackpot.

"I've never played table games," tourist Dan Brown said of his preference for slot machines while playing one at the Reno Hilton. "They hooked me (after) I hit a royal flush on a nickel poker machine."

Brown and other slot players don't win all the time. Other ways have been found to make slot machines attractive to gamblers.

"It's the entertainment industry," said Dexter Phelps, director of slot operations at the Reno Hilton, northern Nevada's largest hotel and casino. "We were limited in how we could entertain in the old days. Now, it's almost infinite."

So are the jackpots.

That's because computer chips have replaced the grinding metal gears inside slots, allowing designers at companies such as IGT, the world's largest maker of gambling machines, to produce just about anything they can imagine.

"Our new Star Wars is coming out this year," Joe Kaminkow, IGT's vice president of game design, said of one of his company's latest machines. "It's high-end 3-D.

"We are doing things like you'd see in the movies."

There was nothing "high end" about the old mechanical machines, which Steve Trounday, the Reno Hilton's vice president of marketing, recalls from his days as a publicist for the Nevada Club in downtown Reno.

"The clunking," Trounday said of the noise made by mechanical slots. "They would clunk. That's a beat you don't hear from slot machines nowadays."

The racket stopped when the Nevada Club, one of the state's last casinos with a large number of mechanical slots, closed in 1998.

There's no "clunking" inside the Reno Hilton as Stan Dunavant of Dallas plays one of the most popular modern machines, Wheel of Fortune.

"Everybody knows Wheel of Fortune," Dunavant said of the television game show that's the theme for the game. "It's been around forever."

The Wheel of Fortune slot features a computerized version of the wheel contestants spin on TV.

"The longest-running slot machine out there, as far as what's most popular, is the Wheel of Fortune," said Phelps, who went to work as a slot mechanic in 1979, when the Reno Hilton was the MGM Grand. "The slot manufacturers have tried every single (TV) game show out there. Some of them do OK. None of them come close to the Wheel of Fortune."

"Even I play that one," said Mathewson, who called the machine's development an "accident."

In 1990 Mathewson attended a charity banquet, sitting next to a young television executive who mentioned the "Wheel of Fortune" game show would make a good slot machine.

No matter how fancy, modern slot machines do the same thing Charles Fey's first one did in 1895. They take coins in and, sometimes, give them back. When the bells ring, you've hit a jackpot. Maybe it's only a few quarters, or maybe it's the record $39.7 million Megabucks payoff March 21, 2003, at the Excalibur in Las Vegas.

"It's the lifeblood of the (casino) business," Mathewson, who bought controlling interest in IGT in 1986, said of slot machines. "Thank God, from my point of view. Back then, it was a $100 million business. Now, it's $2.5 billion."

In 1895, a man identified as P. Dooley probably wasn't thinking of amounts that colossal when he stopped briefly in the southeastern Nevada town of Pioche, carrying, according to at least one report, a slot machine.

"P. Dooley arrived Thursday evening from San Francisco," said a newspaper account copied by Marshall Fey. "He left on Monday's stage for Delamar and will take care of the store there. He brought back with him a nickel-in-the-slot machine and considerable sport has been the continually dropping of nickels in the slot."

The early slot, which Dooley apparently found in San Francisco, was the subject of another report a short time later.

"Considerable excitement has prevailed at Dooley's store in the past week, the cause being a nickel-in-the-slot machine," the newspaper said. "This is the first machine of the kind we've seen here and it created much amusement for many."

Marshall Fey, the author of a book about slots, figures Dooley's early model could have been made by his grandfather, Charles Fey, an electrical equipment manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay area, who devised a popular three-reel machine in 1895.

"He loved to invent," said Marshall Fey, 77.

Casino customers of the 21st century probably would recognize Charles Fey's slot that, along with three reels, featured a pay schedule, a coin acceptor and a handle to pull.

Although the 1905 Legislature authorized the licensing of slots, the lawmakers wanted to keep the machines hidden. The law said slots couldn't be visible to people "passing along any public highway, street, sidewalk, or thoroughfare of any town or city."

They might have been in backrooms, but slot machines were being played in Nevada before the state regulated them. Many, according to Marshall Fey, stayed, even when the Legislature outlawed gambling in 1910, a ban that lasted until 1931.

"It's like Prohibition," said Marshall Fey, comparing the gambling rule to an unsuccessful federal law against the sale and drinking of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. "Everyone was drinking."

The landmark Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant, which Marshall and his brother Frank Fey, opened in 1958 when they came to Reno from Northern California, is a museum of early slots.

Along with eating and drinking, Liberty Belle customers can view about 100 antique slots displayed behind glass, including an 1895 Liberty Bell, made by Charles Fey.

"My favorite machine would have to be the first one," Marshall Fey said of the Liberty Bell. "We like all of grandfather's machines."

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