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Texas Hold'em and Penny Slots: Both Hot

16 August 2005

Texas Hold'em and penny slot machines may seem like they're on the opposite ends of the casino spectrum, but they have a couple of things in common:

Both are hot. Very hot. And a few short years ago, both were not. Very not.

Until televised poker --- World Poker Tour, World Series of Poker, Celebrity Poker Challenge and others --- turned no-limit Hold'em into a global cultural phenomenon, casinos seemed to be falling over themselves to see who could close their card rooms first.

Penny slots were an anachronism, hanging on only in a few low-rent spots in Nevada. Now, things to multiline, multicoin bonusing games, they're the fastest-growing segment of the casino industry. The average penny slot makes more money than the average quarter slot machine, and even more than the average dollar game in many casinos.

Not long ago, I spoke with Doug Dalton, director of poker operations at the Bellagio mega-resort in Las Vegas about the continuation of the poker boom. And I talked penny slots with Tammy Couchman, slot director of the Par-A-Dice casino in East Peoria when I made my annual trek to the Central Illinois property.

Bellagio has been a trend-setter, with an expanded 7,000 square foot, 40-table poker room that has eight 32-inch television monitors and 11 42-inch plasma screens. Dalton said he expects the boom to continue

"We anticipate the same type of improvement over the next 20 years, and that may be a little conservative," he said. "You look at the sales of [poker-related] products in Sam's Club and different areas, and this is something over and beyond just adults playing poker."

Casinos usually don't make as much money per square foot on poker as on the slots, but they're finding that poker attracts younger customers, and that those players also are spending money elsewhere in the casino.

"Poker attracts so many diverse customers into the casino," Dalton said. "The customers who come to play in our area also use the pits, the slots, the hotel. You can't get the advertising benefits to the property poker brings from any other game. People don't watch a great 21 player or baccarat or slot player. It's always poker. It's poker in the movies and on television. The great poker player is almost a host for the property. The great Doyle Brunson plays here all the time, and that's worth something to the property."

Far from being an extra for a handful of interested customers, poker has become a prime attraction. So have penny slots.

On my East Peoria trek, Couchman pointed out the busiest games in Par-A-Dice.

"The Aristocrat games," she said, nodding to the crowded machines near the entrance to the boat's lower level, a deck packed with low-denomination games. "You can't keep people away from them. The Reel Power games, Li'l Lucy. Fifty Lions --- people love that game."

After the afternoon tour, my wife and I came back for another look in the evening. The Aristocrat games were still packed, but so was the Penny Lane area in the next room, with one-cent games by IGT, Konami and other manufacturers. In the afternoon visit, the non-Aristocrat penny games were a little less busy.

Old three-reel penny slots remain obsolete. But video games with 15, 20, 25 or even 50 paylines, taking up to 20 coins a line are different. The average player covers all the lines --- on the 50-line 50 Lions, you get two lines per coin. Even though the average wager is only a coin or two per line, the bet size is large enough to make the game more profitable than higher-denomination machines.

Along with video technology, the other key piece to make penny slots feasible is TITO --- ticket in, ticket out transactions. Hopper jams, cost of coin inventory and moving bags of coins around the casino would be too costly to justify penny slots if all bets and payoffs were still made in coins or tokens.

Neither the poker boom nor the rise of penny slots would have been foreseen by casino operators five or 10 years ago. But times change and technology changes, and those once ice-cold games are now putting the sizzle on casino floors.

* * *

The Par-A-Dice visit was my first in a year, and there have been big changes. The Prime Rewards booth has been taken off the boat and moved into the pavilion, and 50 slot machines have been removed for a roomier, more comfortable feel. The entry-level deck feels much more open, with a high-limit table pit and high-limit slot room. Low-limit tables have been moved up a deck.

On the top deck is a video poker room. One interesting new game is Double Draw Aces --- with two or more Aces on the initial deal, you can draw twice instead of once.

In the evening, Couchman, my wife and I sampled the new menu at Sam Boyd's Steak House. Between the cold seafood sampler, fried green tomatoes with spinach, filet mignon, lobster and rack of lamb that we shared, it was a meal worth putting the diet aside for a day.

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.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski