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Nickel Slots Seem Positively High-End15 May 2007
Word that the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut has installed half-cent slot machines immediately brought two scenes from casino past to mind.
**In the mid-1990s, I met my old friend Scott Smith in Las Vegas. Scott and I had worked together as sports writers at the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph in the '70s, and we were catching up as I showed him around Las Vegas.
We got off the Strip and went to wander downtown, dingy in the pre-Fremont Street Experience days. We came across the Gold Spike casino, and I told Scott, "We have to go in. There's something here that you'll probably never see again."
At the back of the tiny casino was an area called the Copper Mine, featuring --- you guessed it --- penny slots. This was before the video revolution, so these weren't today's penny slots. They were old three-reel spinners, but you could bet a penny at a time. You could play penny video poker, too. If you hit a royal flush, not only would you win the 40 bucks a royal pays when you bet five pennies at a time, the Gold Spike would throw in dinner at the coffee shop.
The Gold Spike was one of the last places in the United States where you could play for pennies. I was sure even the Copper Mine was destined to be barren before long.
**A few years later, the early video slots such as WMS Gaming's Reel 'Em In had started their rise to popularity. At the first casinos to install them, the nickel games were outearning quarter and even dollar three-reel machines.
Despite the initial success of nickel video slots, there were doubters. A Harrah's executive told me, "You will never see nickel slots here. We think it cheapens the property."
A couple of years later, everybody had nickel slots --- lots of them --- including the Harrah's property where I'd had that conversation.
I ran into that same executive, and he said, "Remember when I told you I thought nickel slots cheapened the property? Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. They're the hottest thing we have going."
What the early resisters didn't understand was that these nickel slots, and ultimately the penny slots that would follow them, weren't like the earlier generation cheapies. This generation of video slots had five paylines to start, then as players got used to paylines that zigged and zagged in ways beyond a straight horizontal line across the screen, they went to nine lines, then 15, 20, 25, 50, even 100 paylines on some of today's games.
Some casino execs feared that machines would be taken up by players betting one nickel at a time, playing one payline and making the games unprofitable. Sure, the maximum bets were high. Even on a five-line game accepting up to five coins per line, players could bet 25 nickels per spin --- $1.25, more than the 75 cents a spin they could play on a common three-reel, three-coin quarter game. But would they do it?
As it's turned out, few players bet the max on games that now accept up to 500 coins per spin. But even fewer bet one coin at a time. The large majority at least cover all the paylines, and that's enough to insure bets large enough on nickel and even penny games to satisfy the most skeptical operator.
Which brings us back around to Mohegan Sun's new half-cent slots, IGT games with titles including Crystal Sevens and Pay Seven Times. You can bet a half-cent at a time, and sit for hours on end playing one payline for practically nothing. You can also bet up to 450 coins, a $2.25-cent wager that rivals the bet sizes of dollar players on two- and three-coin three-reel games. Most players will fall between the extremes, at least betting all the paylines.
What you can't do is cash out in half-cent increments --- there haven't been half-cent coins in the United States since 1857, so the cashier won't be able to full cash your ticket for 50.5 cents. You'll have to either play that half-cent before you print out a ticket, or forfeit it.
This isn't the first time Americans have seen slots where the player pays a half-cent per line. Aristocrat Technologies' 50 Lions, for instance, has 50 paylines, but each coin buys you two lines. On a penny game, that means you pay a half cent per line. But even on penny 50 Lions, you have to bet at least a penny.
Mohegan Sun's half-centers point the way to something new, at least in the American market. In Australia, there already are smaller denominations, such as quarter cents. If the half-pennies are a success --- and there's no reason to think they won't be --- we'll be seeing smaller fractions Stateside before you know it.
Pennies in danger of extinction? Nickels cheapening casino product? No way. In the video slot worlds, nickels seem positively high-end.
Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com, and to his casino talk show from 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WCKG-FM (105.9), streaming at http://1059freefm.com.
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