[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: The Tug of the Newfangled Slot Machines

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Mon May 10 19:22:03 PDT 2004

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Gotta love the prima-donna software architects!


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The Tug of the Newfangled Slot Machines

May 9, 2004


When Anthony Baerlocher makes his monthly visit to the
Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno, Nev., he always starts with
a ritual he calls ''taking inventory,'' walking several
laps around the casino's sprawling 32,000-square-foot
gambling floor and noting which machines sit unloved,
vainly burping out their come-hither sounds, and which
machines have captured players' attention. The Atlantis is
home to more than 1,400 slot machines, but so vivid is the
mental snapshot that Baerlocher, 35, carries in his head
that he immediately registers the presence of a new machine
on the floor. Although Baerlocher is a trained
mathematician, his interest is far from academic. He is the
chief game designer for the country's largest maker of slot
machines, International Game Technology of Reno. At the
first sign of a new slot machine from a competitor, he goes
into action. ''Give me 30 minutes and $60,'' he says, ''and
I can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about
another company's machine.'' 

At 8 p.m. on a warm midsummer's night, Baerlocher watched a
woman dressed in green polyester pants and a
yellow-and-white-striped short-sleeved top play a slot
machine he designed called ''The Price Is Right.'' At
first, the woman's body language was noncommittal: she
stood half-turned from the game, as if no more than mildly
curious about the outcome of her wager. ''Price'' is what
slot pros call ''a cherry dribbler,'' a machine that
dispenses lots of small payouts while it nibbles at your
stash rather than biting off large chunks of it. ''You want
to give the newbie lots of positive reinforcement -- to
keep 'em playing,'' Baerlocher told me. As if on cue, the
woman hit a couple of small jackpots and took a seat.
''Gotcha,'' Baerlocher said softly under his breath. 

Baerlocher also watched players nearby at another machine
he designed for I.G.T., ''Wheel of Fortune.'' I.G.T. is to
the slot industry as Microsoft is to computer software, and
no product contributes more to I.G.T.'s bottom line than
what industry insiders simply call ''Wheel.'' How big is
it? In its 14-year lifetime, ''Madden N.F.L. Football,''
from Electronic Arts, has made roughly $1 billion, making
it one of the most successful home video games ever
produced. ''Wheel of Fortune,'' by contrast, takes in more
than a billion dollars each year. 

As in the televised game show, there is an actual wheel,
which spins whenever a player reaches the bonus round, on
average once in every 42 plays. The presence of the wheel
allows the slot machine to employ one of the most powerful
feints in the slot designer's arsenal: the near miss. When
a contestant spins the wheel on the game show and it stops
one or two spots past the $1,000 mark -- that's a near
miss. The slot machine version of ''Wheel,'' like many of
I.G.T.'s most popular slots, is designed to produce these
near misses, lots of them: though the wheel is divided into
22 pie slices of equal size, the odds are weighted so that
a player is likely to land on some wedges far more often
than on others. 

After a couple of minutes, an older woman, dressed in a
sparkly pink sweatsuit ensemble, reached the bonus round.
She groaned when the wheel nudged past the ''250 times
bet'' wedge and landed on ''10 times bet.'' Her male
companion cried out, ''Honey, you were so close!''
Baerlocher's starchy mien melted away, revealing an amused
smile. ''You can see it on their faces every time,'' he
said. ''They feel they came soooo close. They're ready to
try it again, because next time they're going to get it.'' 

Baerlocher shook his head and laughed in a way that
suggested he never gets bored witnessing this moment. He is
among a cadre of people inside I.G.T.'s giant slots factory
who study addiction -- though unlike their counterparts in
academia, of course, he and his colleagues work on the
promotion side of things. He is so devoted to the slot
machine that he has one in the front room of his town
house, in the hills above Reno, and a second one downstairs
in his den. We lingered another minute or so, long enough
to watch the lady in pink slip another $20 into the
machine, confident that this time the wheel wouldn't make
those extra couple of clicks. 

Nearly 40 million Americans played a slot machine in 2003,
according to an annual survey of casino gambling conducted
by Harrah's Entertainment. Every day in the United States,
slot machines take in, on average, more than $1 billion in
wagers. Most of that money will be paid back to players,
but so great is the ''hold'' from slot machines that
collectively the games gross more annually than McDonald's,
Wendy's, Burger King and Starbucks combined. All told,
North American casinos took in $30 billion from slots in
2003 -- an amount that dwarfs the $9 billion in tickets
sold in North American movie theaters that year.
Pornography, the country's second most lucrative form of
adult entertainment, doesn't come close, either: experts
estimate that Americans spend at most $10 billion a year on
live sex shows, phone sex and porn in various media from
cable to DVD to video and the Internet. Is it any wonder
that Baerlocher's boss, Joe Kaminkow, I.G.T.'s head of
design and product development, likes to say that he's in
the business of creating ''beautiful vaults''? 

Although it has frequently been controversial -- Fiorello
La Guardia and Earl Warren are among those who have made
headlines crusading against it -- the slot machine has
traditionally enjoyed little status in the world of casino
gambling. Slots were where the wives of the high rollers
sat, killing time with buckets of coins. But revenues from
the games have grown exponentially over the past few
decades, according to Bill Eadington, director of the
Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming
at the University of Nevada, Reno, and now the slot machine
is the undisputed king of the casino. Craps, blackjack and
roulette -- which once defined organized gambling -- are
going the way of tuxedos and diamonds inside the modern-day
casino, where the standard dress these days tends toward
polyester and athletic wear. Accounting for more than $7
out of every $10 of gambling revenues in casinos across the
United States, the once lowly slot machine is the top
earner even in glitzy palaces along the Las Vegas strip. 

Not only have slots been capturing an expanding share of
business on gambling floors across the country -- grabbing
an ever greater ''share of wallet,'' as industry insiders
put it; they have also played a crucial role in expanding
the footprint of casino gambling in the United States.
Where casinos were legal in just 2 states at the end of the
1980's, today they are legal in more than 30 -- a trend
that the slot machine, so easy to learn to play and
seemingly harmless, has no doubt helped fuel. ''It's the
slot machine that drives the industry today,'' says Frank
J. Fahrenkopf Jr., head of the American Gaming Association.
While craps, roulette and baccarat are outlawed in roughly
half the states that permit casino gambling, slot machines
are widely viewed as a politically palatable solution for
elected officials seeking to raise revenues -- the casino
equivalent, critics say, of a gateway drug. And the trend
is far from exhausted: Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, Alabama and Kentucky are among the states
that have recently considered installing slots at
racetracks to generate needed tax revenue. 

Fahrenkopf is reportedly paid in seven figures to praise
all things casino, but he can't seem to help taking a poke
at the slot machine. He views the transition from table
games to slots as symptomatic of the dumbing down of
American life. Playing craps means learning a complex set
of rules. Blackjack may be easy to learn, but it still
requires skill and concentration, and it's not uncommon for
the novice player to feel stupid in front of strangers. ''I
don't know if it's the education system, or maybe it's that
we as a society have gotten intellectually lazy,'' says
Fahrenkopf, who headed the Republican National Committee
under Ronald Reagan. ''But people would rather just sit
there and push a button.'' When I asked one elderly man to
explain the allure of playing slots, he replied, ''I don't
have to think.'' 

Slot machines are in fact for those well into the second
half of life. Manufacturers design games primarily for
women over 55 with lots of time and disposable income, and
casinos near retirement communities in and around places
like Phoenix and San Diego operate small fleets of jitneys
that shuttle back and forth to assisted-living centers. As
a come-on, one casino advertises free oxygen-tank refills
for its players, and heart defibrillators are increasingly
becoming standard equipment inside casinos. If a good
portion of the younger set today is hooked on video games,
it seems that the over-60 crowd has its own similarly
hypnotic fixation. ''For older people, it's a safe
environment,'' Baerlocher says. ''There are cameras and
security guards everywhere. You can go to one place and
shop and eat and be in a crowd even if you don't know
anybody.'' As one old Las Vegas hand put it, the country's
casinos are now providing ''day care for the elderly.'' 

The archetypal slot machine was invented in 1899 by Charles
Fey, a German immigrant, in San Francisco. But most
modern-day slot machines bear little resemblance to the
familiar one-armed bandit with its three reels spinning
behind a pane of glass and mechanically
click-click-clicking into position with each pull of a
lever. Today's slot machines feature well-choreographed
illusions designed to hide a fundamental truth: at heart
they're really nothing more than computers whose chips
randomly cycle through hundreds of thousands of numbers
every second. A player's fate is determined almost the
instant play begins. But to simply display a long string of
numbers on a computer screen, along with an accounting of
the money won or lost, would hardly prove entrancing. 

That said, the computer chip at a slot machine's core does
account in part for the exploding popularity of slots -- it
means flexibility for game designers. The physical size of
the spinning reels in most of yesterday's mechanical
machines typically limited them to 22 stops and just over
10,000 possible combinations. Computer technology lets game
makers weight the reels so that winning big occurs as
infrequently as, say, one in 46 million plays (the odds of
hitting the big multimillion-dollar jackpot on ''Wheel of
Fortune''). The increased odds make possible today's huge
jackpots, which reach into the millions of dollars on some
machines. You can double your wager on a hand of blackjack
or win 35 times your bet on a single spin of the roulette
wheel, but only the slot machine gives you the hope of
turning a few dollars into a seven- or eight-figure payoff.

Still, to maintain a sense of suspense in games that are
over the moment they start, to increase what Baerlocher and
his fellow game designers call ''time on device,'' I.G.T.
spends $120 million each year and employs more than 800
designers, graphic artists, script writers and video
engineers to find ways to surround the unromantic chips
with a colorful matrix of sounds, chrome, garishly-painted
glass and video effects, which include the soothing images
of famous people, from Bob Denver (the actor who played
Gilligan on ''Gilligan's Island'') to Elizabeth Taylor,
many of whom receive hundreds of thousands, if not
millions, of dollars to lend their identities to the
machines. The traditional pull-handle, if it exists at all,
is nothing more than a vestigial limb; most players now
press a button to start the reels, often virtual, spinning.
Many slot machines don't even pay out coins but issue
''credits'' on a paper receipt to be redeemed at the
cashier's cage. Slot makers have found that their customers
don't miss handling money -- coins are heavy and dirty,
after all -- and stereo speakers can project the simulated
yet satisfying ping and clink of cascading cash. ''We
basically mixed several recordings of quarters falling on a
metal tray and then fattened up the sound with the sound of
falling dollars,'' says Bill Hecht, I.G.T.'s top audio
engineer, when describing one of the audio files he
programs into a machine. 

Founded in 1981, I.G.T. dominated the expanding casino slot
machine industry until the mid-90's, when video slot
machines suddenly appeared. WMS Gaming, based in Illinois,
was the first company to cash in on these new machines in
the United States. (The marriage of slot machines and video
games was first consummated in Australia.) Their popularity
took I.G.T. by surprise. Bob Bittman, who was then the
company's chief designer, confesses that by 1999 he and his
fellow executives were anxious. The company's stock had
fallen precipitously, and Bittman recognized that he was
hardly the one to turn things around. ''I wasn't left-brain
enough -- or do I mean right brain?'' says Bittman, who
remains on I.G.T.'s board. That's when the company decided
to hire a talented young game designer, Joe Kaminkow, to
lead them into this jazzed-up new world. 

Kaminkow began college thinking he would someday work as a
TV weatherman, but soon his ambitions veered toward game
making. He was a co-founder of a pinball-design firm in his
20's, and after he and his partner sold the company to
Sega, the video-game giant, Kaminkow spent the next seven
years overseeing that company's U.S.-based pinball

Kaminkow knew virtually nothing about slot machines when he
took the reins of I.G.T.'s design and product-development
division. Yet five years later, the company has reasserted
its supremacy in the slot machine industry. The majority of
I.G.T.'s most popular games -- ''The Munsters,'' for
example, or ''The Price Is Right'' -- now feature virtual
reels spinning on video monitors, touch screens and, in the
bonus rounds, video clips. The company has been so
profitable during Kaminkow's tenure that if you bought
$10,000 worth of stock in I.G.T. and Microsoft in the month
of his arrival, January 1999, the I.G.T. shares would be
worth more than $70,000 today and the Microsoft shares
about $6,000. ''I'm not worthy of being mentioned in the
same paragraph as Joe Kaminkow,'' says Brooke Dunn, who had
been Kaminkow's equivalent at Shuffle Master, a Las
Vegas-based company that made a short-term foray into the
slots business. Jerald Seelig, general manager of A.C. Coin
and Slot, which occasionally creates machines in tandem
with I.G.T., says, ''History will certainly show he's one
of the guys who changed the industry forever.'' 

I was granted my first hour with the man Brooke Dunn calls
the industry's god in the winter of 2003. Kaminkow is on
the short side, a stocky fellow with a wolfish grin who
tends to sport a grizzled, haven't-shaved-in-a-day facial
growth. Despite the near-freezing temperatures outside, he
was dressed in jeans and a bright short-sleeved shirt that
you might wear to a summer barbecue with friends. Through
most of the interview, he leaned back in his chair and
propped his Nikes up on a table. He wore a red baseball cap
on his head. When I told him I wanted to explore the world
of casino slots from inside his design unit, he didn't need
convincing. From Kaminkow's point of view, it seemed high
time someone followed him around with a tape recorder.
''You're very lucky,'' he said. ''You're going to get a
million-dollar lesson. You'll be going to Joe U.'' 

Kaminkow's spacious office is drenched in pop culture. On
the walls hang assorted pictures of Kaminkow in the company
of any number of B-list stars: Scotty from ''Star Trek,''
Bob Denver and Cassandra Peterson, who, as Elvira, has been
featured on a couple of I.G.T. slot machines. His bookshelf
includes a pair of collector's editions Monkees videos,
several volumes of ''The Addams Family'' TV show and all
five ''Rocky'' films. Behind his desk hangs a framed blowup
of a photo signed by ''Sopranos'' cast members that, he
said, ''cost a small fortune.'' 

One wall in the office was hidden by a set of metal blinds
that Kaminkow showily snapped open partway through our
first meeting. ''This is our battle plan,'' he said. There
were maybe 100 note cards, each printed with an idea for a
game: ''Twinkies.'' ''Dilbert.'' ''That Girl.'' ''Cops and
Donuts.'' ''Beverly Hillbillies 3.'' Not too long ago a
big-time slots maker might introduce a dozen new games at
Global Gaming Expo, the annual gambling trade show held
each fall in Las Vegas. That, however, was before the
arrival of Joe Kaminkow, a time he refers to as
''pre-Joe.'' By his fourth show, in fall 2002, I.G.T.
unveiled 82 games at the expo, and Kaminkow, ignoring the
moans from his staff, promised that the company would
release 150 games a year later. (Often two years can pass
between inspiration and a spot in a casino, thanks to the
complications of designing a slot machine and to the
onerous approval process imposed by a multitude of
jurisdictions.) ''G2E,'' as everyone inside I.G.T. refers
to it, is the gambling industry's equivalent of Fashion
Week in Paris. And while employees work long weeks in the
run-up to G2E, the atmosphere at I.G.T. resembles that of
an Internet start-up at the height of the bubble: video and
pinball games are scattered in hallways throughout the
design building, and Kaminkow had a slush machine and a
popcorn maker put in the communal kitchen. 

Included in last year's G2E lineup were two games that
represented such high-stakes gambles for I.G.T. that
Kaminkow at first alluded to them only cryptically as ''the
big kahunas.'' Kahuna 1 turned out to be a ''Star Wars''
game -- and a coup of the first order. ''Baseball and 'Star
Wars,''' Bob Bittman says, ''have long been the two
untouchables'' in the world of themed slot machines. But
Kaminkow had signed deals with George Lucas for ''Star
Wars'' pinball and video games before, and after four years
of lobbying he apparently wore down the director-producer.
''George said, 'I recognize and understand that my audience
has matured,''' Kaminkow told me. '''They're spending time
in Las Vegas and in other casinos and on riverboats.''' The
question, though, is whether this game targeting a younger
demographic will justify the millions I.G.T. has spent on
what Baerlocher calls the ''most expensive title we've ever
done.'' I.G.T. says it does not know when the game will
appear in casinos. 

Big Kahuna 2 was ''Drew Carey's Big Balls of Cash,'' and it
also represented a considerable risk. Typically, Kaminkow
engages the services of a celebrity sure to provide an air
of comfortable nostalgia -- for instance, Dick Clark (who
holds the company record for most games, at seven) or Robin
Leach, from ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.'' Drew
Carey is not only more expensive; his image is also far
more provocative. When I.G.T. flew Carey to Reno for a day
of taping at the company's state-of-the-art film studio,
his caustic wit was a constant. Encouraged to improvise,
Carey read only occasionally from the prepared script;
instead, the comedian ad-libbed most of his own lines:
''Ohhhhhh, I'm so sorry. I guess that means another walk to
the A.T.M.'' ''Don't give up, we want to build another wing
on the casino.'' ''Why don't you go get another old lady so
I can take her Social Security check, too?'' ''Step right
up -- we need another sucker.'' 

Among the first things Kaminkow did when he arrived in Reno
in 1999 was spend as much time in the local casinos as he
could learning more about the games he was now responsible
for designing. ''I'd feed a twenty into a machine, and it'd
be gone in two minutes,'' he recalls. The word he uses to
describe the experience is not suitable for a family
newspaper. The problem, he decided, wasn't the vanishing
$20 -- taking people's money, after all, is the whole
purpose of these beautiful vaults -- but the speed with
which it disappeared. He instructed his mathematicians to
design most of I.G.T.'s new video games so that the typical
player would get at least 15 or 20 minutes on a machine
before needing to reach into her purse for another bill. He
also wanted games that paid more frequent, smaller payouts.

Inside I.G.T. they call it ''Joe's $20 test.'' One of the
first games released on Kaminkow's watch was based on the
old television sitcom ''I Dream of Jeannie.'' It was
Kaminkow who pioneered slots based on old TV shows; he
chose ''Jeannie'' as his first, he says, because ''every
woman wanted to be Jeannie'' (played by Barbara Eden), and
every man wanted -- paraphrasing Kaminkow -- to get to know
Eden's character intimately. The ''Jeannie'' machine, which
made its debut in 2000, included the show's big-band theme
song, Eden's voice (on small payouts you sometimes hear her
say, ''I can do so much more for thee, master'') and reel
icons tied to the show: a bejeweled thin-necked bottle, a
space capsule splashing into water and so on. And when you
have lined up the symbols just right, you enter a bonus
round that includes a spinning wheel and a short clip from
the show that lasts maybe 10 seconds. ''For your $20, you
should at least get to see a little of Jeannie,'' Kaminkow
says with a wink. 

Over the years, Kaminkow has handed down a long list of
edicts that I.G.T. designers call ''Joe's rules.'' Early
on, for example, the sidekick he brought with him from Sega
overheard an older man complain to his companion that he
had left his reading glasses in the room and couldn't see
well enough to play. Kaminkow declared that henceforth the
lettering on all I.G.T. machines would be large enough so
that pretty much everyone but the legally blind could play.
Sometimes he would reach the bonus round in a game but win
no money, so that became another of Joe's rules: no zonks;
players who experience the fanfare of a bonus round receive
at the very least a consolation payout. He also dictated
that whenever a bonus round offered players a choice, the
machine would reveal the values of the options not
selected. ''You want the player to have the feeling, 'I
almost picked that one; I'll get it next time,''' says
Randy Mead, a game designer at I.G.T. The games also
include periodic free spins and other gimmicks designed, as
Mead puts it, ''to give players time for a small break --
to light a cigarette, order a drink, to stand and

''Joe brought this way of thinking, Look, we've got to wow
them,'' says Dave Forshey, a graphic designer who arrived
at I.G.T. shortly before Kaminkow. ''It's not just push the
red button and watch the wheels spin. Make people want to
sit there. Use sight and sound and everything at our
disposal to get people's juices going.'' Before Kaminkow's
arrival, I.G.T.'s games weren't quiet -- hardly -- but they
didn't take full advantage of the power of special effects
like ''smart sounds'' -- bright bursts of music. So
Kaminkow decreed that every action, every spin of the
wheel, every outcome, would have its own unique sound. The
typical slot machine featured maybe 15 ''sound events''
when Kaminkow first arrived at I.G.T.; now that average is
closer to 400. And the deeper a player gets into a game,
the quicker and usually louder the music. 

''I'm not sure players even notice,'' says Bill Hecht,
I.G.T.'s top sound designer, ''but the effect is to get
them more excited.'' Every time the reels spin on
''Jeannie,'' a player hears a few seconds of the show's
theme song, and Hecht even orchestrated a bossa nova
rendition heard only when someone reaches the bonus round.
''Something for the regular players to look forward to,''
he says. ''We want to get your heart rate going a little.''

It wasn't Kaminkow who devised what are called multiline
games -- multicoin games that allow you to win on 1, 15 or
25 lines, assuming you wager enough coins. (Picture an
enlarged tic tac toe board that lets you win in any number
of crazy zigzag ways.) But under his stewardship, I.G.T.
has taken full advantage of whatever design changes have
allowed penny and nickel games to earn like dollar
machines. ''It used to be that the goal of casinos was to
move their nickel players to quarters, the quarter players
to dollars, the dollar players to five dollars,''
Baerlocher says. ''Now they don't bother, because we've
figured out how to get nickel and even penny machines to
play like dollar machines.'' How? By offering jackpots in
the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. A
penny machine like I.G.T.'s ''Beverly Hillbillies'' can be
played for a penny a spin, but in most jurisdictions you're
eligible for the big prize, which starts at $200,000, only
if you wager the maximum bet per spin of $2.50. The odds of
winning that big jackpot may be in the tens of millions to
one, but there's a 100 percent chance you'll be kicking
yourself for eternity if you see five Beverly Hillbillies
line up on the machine's reels after you bet less than the
maximum needed to win. ''The truth is, nowadays you can
lose more money faster on a nickel slot machine than at a
$10 blackjack table,'' says Nigel Turner, a scientist at
the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The
true brilliance of the industry's emphasis on nickel and
penny machines is perhaps best seen by comparing how much
of ''the handle,'' or the total amount wagered, they pay
out compared with dollar machines. The average nickel
machine pays back to winners somewhere between 88 and 92
percent of the money wagered, Baerlocher says, compared
with the roughly 95 percent that dollar machines pay out. 

Early on, Kaminkow's secretary, Pam Foster, told him, ''The
way you spend money, you'd better be good.'' Apparently all
the millions he spent have paid off. By the time I first
visited I.G.T., in 2002, the company had a 70 percent share
of the domestic slot market, and Kaminkow no longer saw
himself as competing against Bally, WMS Gaming and the
Australian-based Aristocrat so much as competing for the
attention of the tens of millions of Americans who had yet
to discover the magic of his slot machines. Although the
number of men who are playing the slots is increasing, they
tend to be on the far side of 60, and women in their late
50's still represent the slot machine's most trustworthy
devotees. So Kaminkow is devoting a sizable portion of his
time to what he benignly calls ''expanding his market.'' To
appeal to a younger, male cohort, he signed licensing deals
with the people behind ''South Park'' and ''Austin Powers''
(with mixed results) and then negotiated the even bigger
deals with Drew Carey and George Lucas for ''Star Wars.''
At the same time, he has been pursuing the potential of the
Latino market by designing a line of games that lets
gamblers play in Spanish with the push of a button. ''I
want my competitors to cry when they see my new games,'' he
says. ''I want them unable to get out of bed because they
realize, Damn, they've done what we didn't even think

The makers of slot machines may rely on the lure of
life-changing jackpots to attract customers, but the
machines' ability to hook so deeply into a player's
cerebral cortex derives from one of the more powerful human
feedback mechanisms, a phenomenon behavioral scientists
call infrequent random reinforcement, or ''intermittent
reward.'' Children whose parents consistently shower them
with love and attention tend to take that devotion for
granted. Those who know they'll never be rewarded by their
parents stop trying after a while. But those who are
rewarded only intermittently -- in the fashion of a slot
machine -- will often pursue positive outcomes with a
persistent tenacity. ''That hard-wiring that nature gave us
didn't anticipate electronic gaming devices,'' says Howard
Shaffer, director of the division on addictions at Harvard
Medical School and perhaps the country's foremost authority
on gambling disorders. 

''The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a
behavioral psychology perspective,'' says Nancy Petry, a
professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut
School of Medicine. ''The people who are making these
machines are using all the behavioral techniques to
increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will
reoccur.'' She refers to intermittent reward and
''second-order conditioning'' -- the lights and sounds that
go off when a player wins, for example, or the two cherries
in a row that convinces people they're getting closer. 

''No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as
beautifully as these machines,'' concludes Petry, who has
studied gambling treatments since 1998. ''I think that's
why that's the most popular form of gambling with which
people get into trouble.'' 

Anti-gambling activists refer to slots as ''the crack
cocaine of gambling.'' Though gambling's loudest critics
tend to be alarmists, the crack analogy may be apt. Just as
crack addicts have frequently seemed to self-destruct much
faster than those abusing powdered cocaine, there is
abundant, albeit still largely anecdotal, evidence
suggesting that the same is true of today's computer-driven
slot machines -- video-based slots especially. Where social
workers once found that the woes of a typical problem
gambler tended to mount gradually -- with a period of 20 or
more years commonly passing between a first wager and a
bottoming-out event like bankruptcy, divorce or even
suicide -- addiction cycles of a few years are, if not
typical, commonplace among slots players. 

''Treatment folks are definitely identifying people who are
experiencing what we call 'telescoping' -- a shortening of
the period of time that it takes for someone to get into
trouble,'' says Rachel Volberg, president of the National
Council on Problem Gambling and the author of ''When the
Chips Are Down: Problem Gambling in America.'' Volberg, who
runs Gemini Research, an organization that specializes in
gambling-related investigations, says it remains to be seen
whether the problem lies in ''something special about these
machines or in the people who prefer playing them.'' Female
slots players in particular, Petry says, ''tend to
experience this telescoping phenomenon -- and we know from
research that women are quicker to seek treatment.'' 

Gambling counselors regularly encounter people like Ricky
Brumfield, a working-class Phoenix woman who won $3,700 the
first time she ever touched a slot machine -- a day that
turned out to be the unluckiest of her life. That was in
1997, when Brumfield, then 43, traveled to Las Vegas to
help a friend celebrate the Fourth of July. Within nine
months, she had hocked her jewelry and gone through
$100,000 in cash and credit-card debt. She only stopped,
she confesses, because the Sheriff's Department arrested
her on child-abuse charges for leaving her two young kids
locked in a car in a casino parking lot while she played
the slots inside. ''I knew it was really wrong to do that,
but the urge to go into the casino was stronger than my
instincts as a mother,'' Brumfield says. She had only
recently had back surgery, but she found that when she
played, she never felt pain. ''I think the dopamine and
serotonin levels, when they kicked in -- that blocked off
the pain,'' says Brumfield, who now works for the Arizona
Council on Compulsive Gambling. ''You feel hypnotized by
the machine. You don't think of anything else.'' Near the
end, the hold the machines had over her, she says, was akin
to that of an unfaithful lover. She would fall into a
jealous rage when a favorite machine paid a jackpot to
another, less devoted player. 

''Slot machines have a different impact on the brain than
other forms of gambling,'' Howard Shaffer says. Unlike
table games, which are played in groups, slots are played
in isolation, and therefore they lack the same safeguards
social situations provide. ''And because the video form is
faster than the mechanical form, they hold the potential to
behave in the fashion of psychostimulants, like cocaine or
amphetamines. They energize and de-energize the brain in
more rapid cycles. The faster on, faster off, the greater
the risk.'' Colleagues of Shaffer have compared the brain
scans of people high on cocaine with those of people while
gambling: similar neurocircuitry is lighted up in both sets
of images. 

Shaffer predicts that in time electronic games will
''protect players.'' Just as the car industry implemented
basic technologies like seat belts to save lives, he
expects the gambling industry (which finances many of his
studies) to eventually employ strategies to interrupt
people when they play too fast. As Bill Eadington, the
University of Nevada, Reno, professor and a consultant to
Indian tribes, governments and casinos around the world,
puts it, ''I worry that we're burning out players too

The typical slots player initiates a new game every six
seconds. That works out to 10 games per minute, 600 per
hour. If the average player bets $2 a spin, that player is
wagering roughly $1,200 every hour. Slot designers have
experimented with machines that play even faster, but the
industry standard remains a six-second cycle. ''It wouldn't
be much fun if we took your money any faster than that,''
Kaminkow told me with a slight shrug of his shoulder,
suggesting that just how fast people play is entirely up to

I asked Kaminkow if he ever worried that the potent mix of
TV, technology and the prodigious talents of his creative
people will produce machines that are too powerful. ''What
kind of question is that?'' he replied. In his natural
state, Kaminkow is a breezy and sarcastic jokester who
revels in politically incorrect jokes. But he suddenly
sounded as if he were addressing a Rotary Club. ''I take
responsible gaming very seriously,'' he said. ''We're not
an alcohol, we're not a drug.'' He is in the entertainment
business, he added, a ''maker of small little movies'' that
bring a touch of joy and laughter to the lives of the
elderly and others. 

''I'm not looking for people who say, 'I spent my milk
money,''' he said. ''I think people need to be very
responsible in their gaming habits. I know I am.'' 

The million-plus-square-foot facility that houses I.G.T.'s
Reno operations sits in the Sierra foothills south of
downtown. Workers use bicycles and golf carts to get around
a complex that is larger than the Reno airport. Roughly
1,600 employees staff the nine assembly lines that I.G.T.
operates for two shifts a day, five days a week. The
warehouse where parts are stored evokes the government
warehouse in the final scene from ''Raiders of the Lost
Ark.'' Maybe most impressive of all is what the company
calls its finished goods area: hundreds of gleaming
machines are stacked in row after row of shelves that reach
several stories high. 

''My job is basically to keep feeding the beast,'' Kaminkow
likes to say, and toward that end he summoned a group of
his top designers to his office in the fall of 2002 to
discuss a game he was then calling ''Mega Money Ball.'' He
loved the idea of a lottery-themed game that gave the
illusion of costing just a penny to play, and he needed a
big name to ensure that it was a hit. The group considered
some of the company's regulars, like Dick Clark and Regis
Philbin, who was already under contract with I.G.T. for two
games, and also Max Baer Jr. (Jethro), who had three games,
with several more on the way. Eventually Kaminkow decided
they needed a comedian. Dennis Miller (too angry) and Jerry
Seinfeld (too expensive) were among the names bandied about
before Kaminkow suddenly bellowed, ''Nancy!'' The name that
had just crossed his mind was Drew Carey; Kaminkow was so
excited that he ignored the group and yelled for Nancy
King, who runs the company's licensing program. 

Negotiations with a celebrity's people sometimes stretch
over months (''Let's just say a lot of C celebrities think
they're A's,'' King says), but Carey proved easier than
most. ''I thought, Oh, it'd be fun to be involved in the
making of a slot machine,'' Carey says, adding that he
asked himself if it would hurt his chances of ever doing
movies, a goal of his, and concluded that it would not.
''That's almost all the thought I put into it,'' he says.
It helped, of course, that his was a multigame deal that
several people inside the company confirmed is worth in the
millions even before annual royalties are figured. 

Every slot machine starts with Kaminkow. ''Has Joe told you
his prima donna rule?'' several people had asked by the
time Kaminkow shared it with me (and then repeated on
successive visits). ''I tell people I've got my
one-prima-donna rule: there's room for only one prima donna
here, and I've already got the job,'' he says. But when
work began on the machine, the design team had received
little direction from the boss beyond a broad-brush mandate
to create an interesting lotterylike game that took full
advantage of Carey's talents. ''We get this pile of
vagueness,'' Baerlocher says, ''that we have to start
making into a game.'' A core group of about a dozen people
-- including Baerlocher and a junior mathematician, a
couple of computer programmers and assorted artists and
other creative types -- were assigned what was now being
called ''Big Balls of Cash.'' They all read Carey's book
''Dirty Jokes and Beer'' and then sat down to brainstorm.
''Basically we throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see
what sticks,'' says Randy Mead, the game designer charged
with coordinating the multitude of moving parts that would
become the Carey machine. ''So many of our gam es are based
on older themes that are perfect for our audience,'' Mead
explains. ''They're the same graphics, the same songs, the
same voices that those ladies really desire.'' The Carey
machine, though, offered a chance to work on ''something
much edgier and fun.'' 

Given the size of Carey's contract, ''Big Balls'' had to be
an important machine, important enough to slap a wholly
visible wheel on it. From almost the beginning, Kaminkow's
crew understood that the main bonus round would mimic those
commercial-like TV spots in which numbered Ping-Pong balls
are used to pick a winning lottery number. They dressed
Carey in a tuxedo and filmed him standing beside a
beautiful model in a low-cut dress. Given this premise and
the elaborate staging, a spinning wheel would seem
superfluous -- except that in the world of slot machine
design, spinning wheels are never superfluous. Baerlocher
likes to recount the time a man lined up the three ''Wheel
of Fortune'' symbols on a $1 machine. Bells rang, lights
flashed and the machine locked up, as it is programmed to
do whenever anyone hits the big jackpot. ''The casino host
comes over -- 'Congratulations, sir, you've won the big
jackpot. We're going to get people here to verify it.' And
he was like, 'Don't I get to spin the wheel?' He had just
won over a million dollars, but all he wanted to do is spin
the wheel.'' 

There are two basic elements to any slot machine,
Baerlocher says -- the art and the math: ''The art is used
to attract a player. That's our lure to get them to sit
down and play. That's when the game math takes over.'' The
math, he says, gives a game its personality. Baerlocher
decided that ''Big Balls'' couldn't be a cherry dribbler,
because it offered so bountiful a top prize, but he didn't
want it to be as tight as a game called ''Megabucks,''
which was already in casinos and which rarely rewarded
players with any money unless it was bestowing multiple
millions of dollars on some lucky soul. The Carey game, the
creators decided, would pay some small and medium jackpots,
but with nothing like the frequency of machines aimed at
the neophyte gambler. ''Our thinking was that people don't
want to come to a machine advertising a multimillion bonus
and walk away with a $20 or $40 win,'' Baerlocher says. The
other big question confronting the design team was how
often to initiate the bonus. Baerlocher was aiming for a
bonus that would kick in once during every 10 to 15 minutes
of play, but Kaminkow was pushing for something that would
hit more often. ''That's Joe,'' Baerlocher says. ''He wants
a machine that pays a ton of small pays, lots of
medium-size plays and a huge jackpot. In other words, he
wants us to do the impossible.'' 

Apparently Baerlocher accomplished just that. ''Big Balls
of Cash'' was a huge hit at last year's G2E, along with
''Star Wars'' and ''Elizabeth Taylor Dazzling Diamonds''
(described in I.G.T.'s press materials as an ''exciting new
merchandise-dispensing game'' that allows you to wear home
your winnings). I.G.T.'s designers killed many of Carey's
more candid wisecracks so as not to anger its most
important customers -- the casino executives who will
decide the machine's fate -- but there remained an
undeniable bite to the machine just the same. The company
took 150 new games to G2E, but there was often a wait to
play one of the two ''Big Balls'' machines. They were
''gaffed'' -- rigged -- to go immediately to the bonus
round, and over the three-day show it provided endless
laughs for the slots floor directors looking for new stuff.
''You've got a real winner here,'' person after person told
Kaminkow, who hovered around his two big kahunas and
''Dazzling Diamonds'' like a proud father. (''Big Balls''
is expected to make its debut in casinos at the end of this
year or early in 2005.) 

Most of the people I met inside I.G.T. told me they never
played slot machines on their own time. Anthony Baerlocher
turned out to be the exception rather than the rule.
Kaminkow's wife, Kim, says she plays only ''when Joe hands
me $20 and tells me I'm supposed to play some new
machine.'' Even one corporate P.R. staff member couldn't
resist shaking her head in disbelief as she described
scenes of people lining up to play a new machine. ''It was
unfathomable to me,'' she told me. When I asked one I.G.T.
artist if he ever plays, he acted as if I had insulted him.
''Slots are for losers,'' he spat, and then, coming to his
senses, begged me to consider that an off-the-record
comment. ''Big Balls of Cash'' was designed to hold roughly
10 cents for every dollar played, but saying the obvious
inside I.G.T. -- that the very math of the slot machine
makes it a loser's game -- would not be a very good career

Every so often during my time inside I.G.T. someone let me
into a locked showroom just off the building's main lobby.
Inside, I would find myriad machines clamoring for my
attention. They were in what slot designers describe as
''attract mode.'' A ''Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve''
kept announcing, ''It's a cold one in Times Square
tonight.'' A voice that sounded vaguely like Yosemite Sam
asked: ''Do you want to be rich? Oil rich?'' A familiar
voice from my TV past cried out, ''Come on down!'' Applause
emanated from a machine in the corner, and I heard Frank
Sinatra's voice: ''Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.'' 

On my first visit to the showroom, I jumped from game to
game, but on my second visit I stuck with a single game,
''The Price Is Right,'' which Baerlocher designed expressly
for the uninitiated. The showroom machine had 8,000 credits
on it -- $400. It wasn't my money, so I played the maximum
of $2.25 per spin. The machine constantly emitted noises:
clapping sounds, little bright chimes, the occasional
yodel. The show's theme song never stopped, driving me
batty, until finally I hit a bonus -- suddenly that theme
song turned sweet. Slot designers call it a ''rolling
sound'': the more credits you win, the longer the song
plays. At first I seemed to be winning, gathering credits
on every second or third spin. But after about 15 minutes,
I was down nearly 7,000 credits. I was winning the virtual
equivalent of 15 or 20 nickels every time I scored -- but I
was spending more than twice that with every spin. After 45
minutes, I was down below 5,000 credits. If I were playing
for real money, I would have lost more than $150. 

Playing free credits is nothing like playing with your own
money, of course, so at 2 a.m. one sleepless night I
slipped a 20-dollar bill into a ''Jeannie'' machine in the
Sands casino in Reno. That bought me a full 25 minutes on
the machine and one brief bonus glimpse of Jeannie. I'm
pretty much the age of those Kaminkow is targeting with his
newer machines -- and in fact I grew up dreaming of Jeannie
-- but it's hard to imagine being seduced by any celebrity
he might trot out, even Neil Young or Lou Reed. 

My brief crack at slots left me feeling somewhere between
stupid and glum. At that hour there were no cheery tourists
in brightly-patterned shirts amid the chirping of the
slots, no sunny smiles on the faces of elderly women happy
for a few hours out on the town. Several machines down from
me an older man sat slumped in his chair. His T-shirt was
riding up his overabundant belly, but he didn't seem to
care. He stared at the video screen in front of him in a
toddler-staring-at-television kind of way. Other players
around me were dressed in sweatsuits and slippers, and
there was even a woman in curlers. The hairstyles were
generally what you would expect if a fire alarm forced
people out of bed in the middle of the night. It wasn't
pleasure I saw on their faces so much as determination. 

The scene called to mind an evening one year earlier when I
spent time with several undercover cops who work for
Colorado's division of gambling. Walking the casinos of
Black Hawk and Central City, a pair of side-by-side
mountain towns with dozens of casinos, we came across a
woman who had just won $5,000 playing a dollar slot
machine. The people at the Isle of Capri Casino had trotted
out a photographer and an oversize poster-board check, but
the woman wasn't smiling. In fact, she looked sad. ''I'll
tell you,'' said Michael Lask, one of the undercover
officers, ''she probably lost $10,000 to win that $5,000.
And she knows that next week she'll be giving that $5,000
right back.'' For the most part, the only smiling faces I
saw while delving into the realm of slot machines were on
the faces of I.G.T.'s designers, unless you count the
players posing on the oversize pictures that hang in the
atrium of the company's entrance. 

Gary Rivlin covers Silicon Valley for The New York Times.
He is the author of ''The Plot to Get Bill Gates.'' 



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