Nickels from heaven

Jun 19, 2001 10:40 AM

Not long ago, the nickel slot machine was considered the ugly duckling of the casino, which kept just enough of them to satisfy bankroll-challenged players who were content to plug away, a nickel at a time.

Well, times change, and so have the fortunes of nickel slot machines. In Nevada, players wagered nearly $18 billion on nickel slots for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2000, a whopping 450 percent increase from the $4 billion bet in 1990.

Moreover, nickel machines represented 21.8 percent of all money wagered on Nevada slots, compared with 17.6 percent the previous fiscal year, and only 6.6 percent in 1990.

The bottom line for Nevada casinos is that the ugly duckling has evolved into a cash cow. Casinos won $1.3 billion on nickel slots in fiscal 2000, a 36 percent increase over the win in 1999.

So how did this unlikely metamorphosis take place?

The nickel slot’s rise to prominence is the result of two factors.

First, manufacturers developed electronic games that accept a much wider range of bets than their mechanical ancestors. The range of bets now available on nickel slots can be anywhere from 1 to 90 coins (5 cents to $4.50), although the industry standard has become a maximum bet of 45 coins ($2.25).

Secondly, manufacturers are building much more compelling games. Starting with WMS Gaming’s "Monopoly," modern slot machines typically feature brilliant graphics, stereo sound effects, bonus rounds and usually an interesting game plan to keep customers interested.

"The machines are much more fun to play," says Jenn Carputo, a regular player at the Suncoast casino in Summerlin. "If it weren’t for games like "Addams Family" and "Little Green Men," I probably wouldn’t play the slots."

In addition to the new wave of multi-line, multi-coin machines, multi-game machines have helped fuel the popularity of nickel play.

"With the new machines, players are betting up to 50 hands of video poker at once," says Steve Weinberg, an analyst with the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "Over the last three or four years we’ve seen the rising popularity of multi-game machines helping to stimulate increase in gaming win for nickel machines."

Clearly, Weinberg adds, the nickel machine is no longer strictly for low-rollers.

"Players are dropping in $20 bills at a time," he says. "It doesn’t seem to matter they’re playing nickel machines. The public continues to eat them up."

At $20 a throw, players could easily be playing quarter or even dollar slot machines. But fans of the new nickel slots point out that they offer players more flexibility in setting their limits. That, and the fact that video nickel slots have amusing themes, contribute to their popularity.

There is, however, another characteristic of nickel slots that players should be aware of. If you play the maximum on a nickel machine, you’ll get a lot more wins than on the quarter or dollar machines, but they’re not going to be the maximum, usually 45 coins, returned.

That fact, coupled with a lower payback percentage on nickel machines than other machines, doesn’t seem to deter players.

"I don’t pay attention to those 92 percent and 98 percent numbers," says Carputo. "The game is fun, and I usually end the session cashing something out. That’s all I ask for."