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Slots have come a long way since they paid in candy

By Frank Scoblete


slotsSlot machines have changed very little and a lot over the years that they have been in existence. This dichotomy is easily explained. People play the machines to win money, a given that has never changed; but the mechanisms of the machines have changed from simple mechanical devices to electro-mechanical devices to super-sophisticated computer controlled devices that can even link up with other machines in other locations around a given venue or in multiple venues.

The jackpots have gone sky high over the years too and with computerized slots, millions of dollars can be on the line. This was not so when slots first came into being. The gambling city’s skyscrapers have reached for the sky and so have the jackpots of some of today’s slot machines.

The late 1880s and early 1900s saw rather limited jackpots. The first slot machines gave out rewards such as candy or cigars since winning real money was usually against the law. Of course, players could “trade in” their candy and cigars for money. One step removed equaled legal.

These cigar and candy machines were called Trade Stimulators and the trade was cigars and candy for money. Travel back in time to the late 1980s and early 1990s you would find many machines that had blank rectangles as symbols. Those rectangles used to be gum symbols. Although they were now “blank” just think of them as pictures of gum labels.

When the electro-mechanical machines came into the casinos around 1963, big jackpots could be offered. Now with the computerized slots, the sky’s the limit as I said (well, almost). Take a look at the jackpots being offered by machines such as Megabucks and Wheel of Fortune; such jackpots could never have been offered on the early machines and even on the early electro-mechanical slots.

Curiously, slots have been integrated into our culture, whether people know this or not. Language heralds history and reflects thoughts and actions and the language of slots is inculcated in our society.

In fact, much of the early slot lingo still exists in our vocabulary. Slots may have gotten more sophisticated but our vocabulary happily maintains some of the old slot sayings. Remember that sad saying of defeat—“close but no cigar”? How about calling something a “lemon” or a “real lemon”? I’ve heard this many times in my life, “That car is a lemon.” I’ve also heard, “if you get a lemon, make lemonade.”

Just saying you “hit the jackpot” comes from the use of poker in the first slots, which were often machines that used playing cards as their symbols. If you got a good job you might say something such as “that is a plum of a job.” We all know what making “a mint” means. Did you ever date a “peach” of a girl? My grand-mother used that as her mantra to me, “Frank make sure you only dates girls who are peaches.” (Unhappily I did date some girls who were the pits.)

Finally, if a girl were caught chewing gum it was considered unseemly. Why? Because those slot symbols that looked like gum came from establishments correct young ladies should not frequent. Of course, today young girls crackling and popping their gum is no longer considered unseemly—although it still might be considered disgusting. And girls inhabit the same seedy places men do and as such women are no longer considered “unseemly” because they also do so.

The early slots were mechanical devices and could be easily beaten by clever crooks who could manipulate the handles. Thus, even early on the crooks and the machines were called the “one-armed bandits.”

In point of fact, the early slot machines were outright bandits as they had a 50 percent to 75 percent payback. That meant house edges of 50 percent to 25 percent. Put into monetary term, you could expect to lose $25 to $50 for every $100 you wagered in those bandits. There was little competition in the early days of slot machines because these were found only here and there. Today the competition is decidedly fiercer.

Today’s casinos would never advertise such banditry; if they did, they wouldn’t last long. Players want to have some shot at winning. Even the tightest of today’s machines usually come in with at least an 83         percent payback return. Most actually come in around 88 to 94 percent. Today’s machines are also far more diverse and entertaining. With video machines all manner of “adventures” can exist for slot players, from television and movie-themed machines to superstar and cartoon-character machines.

So who should we thank as the magi who created the slot machine universe? That person would be Charles Fey who invented the Liberty Bell machine. This machine became the standard for all slot machines when it was first developed right up until the modern computer machines. Still slot machines do the same things generation after generation: You put your money in and you hope more money (or candy or cigars) will come out.

The more things change the more they remain the same.

Frank Scoblete’s recent books are I Am a Dice Controller, Confessions of a Way-ward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. All available from, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at your local bookstore.

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