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Tighter slots? Who cares!

Jul 22, 2008 7:03 PM

By David Stratton | As the economic slump deepens, casinos are finding a way to increase revenues in the face of decreasing attendance – tighten the screws on their slot machines.

Tighter slots, which return less money to the players, can generate more cash for the casino, based on the same amount of money bet.

The practice has been taken to new heights in Illinois, where the state’s nine casinos have managed to dramatically increase their slot revenues as the number of customers has dropped.

For instance, Illinois casinos generated 20 percent more revenue despite a 13 percent drop-off in attendance between 2000 and 2007, according to a report published by Chicago’s Daily Herald.

During that time, the amount of money pumped into slot machines increased only 2 percent, but the casinos’ win amount jumped 30 percent.

The difference was the addition of tighter slot machines. In 2000, only 7 percent of Illinois slot machines returned less than 90 percent of every dollar bet to the players. Last year, the number jumped to 46 percent.

The tighter slots are the newest slots – penny, 2-cent and 3-cent denomination machines – which often look like video games with their interactive touch screens, TV or movie clips and familiar themes such as "Wheel of Fortune," "Monopoly" or "The Wizard of Oz."

Other features designed to lure players are bonus rounds in which players can win extra cash, and a higher hit frequency which pays out frequent, but smaller, awards to the player.

In Nevada, the influx of tighter penny slots has driven the payback percentage to an all-time low, according to a story published in the June 24 issue of GamingToday.

Nonetheless, players continue to flock to the newer, though tighter, machines.

"It is a funny psychology and it is one that has obviously been very successful," Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno told the Daily Herald. "It is still hard to explain the popularity of (these) machines."

And if the players don’t walk away from the machines, don’t expect the casinos to loosen them any time soon.

"Casinos are a business and obviously their interests are in maximizing profitability," Eadington said.

For their part, casino operators say they’re just giving customers what they want – the games are entertaining and sometimes allow the customer to play longer.

"The players are demanding more and more of these," said John Finamore, regional vice president of Penn National Gaming, which owns the Hollywood Casino in Aurora and Empress Casino in Joliet.

If, in fact, players want more of the same, the slot manufacturers are happy to oblige.

WMS Gaming, which builds some of the most popular penny slots, has a new model, Top Gun. Digital speakers flank the player in a cockpit-like chair and, during a bonus round, the "pilot" gets to shoot down enemy jets. When the enemy shoots back, the player’s chair rumbles.

"There is a science to everything," Scott Herington of WMS Gaming told the Daily Herald. "This is only the beginning."