Slots have an unusual place in the history of gambling because… well… consider this: Who invented blackjack? Nobody knows. It was centuries ago, and nobody was keeping records. Who invented poker? Again, nobody knows. The answer is lost in the mists of time. Ditto for craps and most other gambling games. But it’s different for slots. Slot games were invented just over a century ago (and have been continually reinvented ever since), so we know almost everything about who developed what. It’s a fascinating story filled with intrigue, suspense, hope, suffering, perseverance, and even some larceny.
Thousands of people contributed to the development of slots, but a few stand out from the rest as pioneers and visionaries. Their stories are particularly interesting because their work continues to shape the slot experience. When you sit down to play a slot game, you literally can see and hear their contributions. And in a sense, you’re playing the game with them. It’s very different from traditional poker or blackjack where the “feel” of the game depends on the opponents sitting at the table. In slots, the feel is determined by the inventors, designers, and entrepreneurs who created the machine. Some of these people are living and working to this day. Others have “cashed out” and gone to the great slot game in the sky, but their influences can still be felt. Their ideas are immortalized, and their inventions continue to engage and entertain us. I’ve chosen 10 people to feature here. It could easily have been 15 or 50, but since this is an article rather than a book, I’ve picked 10 who are at the very top of the list. My apologies to anyone who feels left out. Drop me a line if you’re so inclined, and maybe we’ll do another list. But in the meantime, here is the story of slots through the eyes and lives of its most influential architects.
1 Charles Fey
Once upon a time, at the end of the nineteenth century, slots were known as nickel-in-the-slots. They were mostly poker games. You dropped a nickel in the machine, pulled a handle, and five reels would spin. The contest was five cards with no draw. It wasn’t a particularly easy game to win. Nevertheless, nickel-in-the-slots were popular, most-ly because poker was popular. There were also machines based on roulette and other contests, but they were all just mechanical versions of popular table games. Slots had no unique personality. They were essentially oddball novelties.
Enter Charles “Charlie” Fey. He was a Bavarian immigrant who loved to tinker with machines. Fey was building slots part-time in the basement of his San Francisco home in the mid 1890s. His designs were so popular that he eventually quit his job at an electrical supply business and opened a factory on Market Street. According to Fey, the new location was “the best-equipped shop west of the Mississippi”.
Apparently so, because in 1899 he created the Liberty Bell slot machine, the prototype for every modern slot contest to this day. Then, as now, the quintessential slot game had a lovable theme. There were three reels and the top prize was three bells in a row. Sound familiar? Well, in 1899, this was an entirely new slots game. And the public loved it.
Two years later, Fey built the world’s first draw poker machine and prophetically called it “the most consistent money maker in counter games that I have known”. Talk about predicting the future! Unfortunately for Fey, he would get the fame but not the fortune. The temperance movement was gaining strength at that time, and slot machines were operating in a legal gray area. Fey couldn’t get patents for his designs, so he protected his machines by not selling them. Instead, he would lease a slot, then personally install the device, and share the profits with the proprietor. That system worked well until 1905, when one of his machines disappeared from a saloon. One year later, Mills Novelty Company introduced its own version of the Liberty Bell slot machine. Yup. Mills didn’t even bother to change the name. So who was running Mills Novelty?
2. Herbert Mills
Nobody knows the exact chain of events connecting the theft of the Bell machine in San Francisco to the subsequent development of the Mills Liberty Bell in Chicago. At the very least, Herbert Mills “borrowed” the bell concept almost completely.
But to Mills’ credit, he made some important innovations to Fey’s classic design. One improvement was enlarging the windows over the reels so players could see the stops above and below the payline. This allowed players to see “near misses” and thus increased the excitement of the game. Another innovation was the development of the classic fruit sym-bols… cherries, plums, oranges, and so forth. This was useful because the games doubled as gum dispensers or “trade stimulators” in jurisdictions where gambling was prohibited. The fruit symbols told you how much gum you would win. And if the cops weren’t looking, you might get some money, too.
Herbert Mills and his sons were excellent marketers. In the years between 1906 and 1940, Mills Novelty Co. produced dozens of classic slot games on a scale far beyond anything Charlie Fey had attempted. Some of the best included Operator Bell, Roman Head, War Eagle, and Firebird. These were (and still are) beautiful machines with graceful lines and intricate designs. They attracted players in an era before blinking lights and video screens.
And, of course, Mills did not have the slot business all to himself. His designs were “borrowed” by Caille Brothers, Watling Manufacturing, and other companies who came out with their own versions of Liberty Bell and other slot games. Charles Fey didn’t give up his business, either. The father of slots continued to develop games including the first three-reel dollar slot machine in 1929.
3 William O ‘Donnell
Quite simply, William “Bill” O’Donnell is the person who brought slots into the mod-ern era. He did it at the helm of a company known as Bally Manufacturing.
These days the name Bally is often followed by the phrase, “Total Fitness”, or it’s presented in the possessive, as in “Bally’s”. And there is also a company called Bally Gaming. I won’t cross your eyes trying to explain how all these companies can have similar names and related logos, and yet somehow not be directly connected. Let’s just say that, in 1931, Bally Manufacturing was founded. The company’s core business was making coin-operated machines, mostly pinball games and vending machines, but also slots.
Bally was profitable for 27 years until the death of its founder, Ray Moloney. Then the company slid into insolvency, but it was brought back from the brink in 1963 through a buyout that was orchestrated by Bill O’Donnell, a Bally employee. He became the company’s president.
That year, Bally introduced Money Honey, the first modern-style slot machine. It had all the classic elements developed by Fey and Mills, but it also had contemporary features such as a 2,500 coin hopper, a front-opening case, and internal electrical mechanisms. Money Honey was a huge success. Bally introduced a five-coin multiplier in 1967 and the first three-line machine one year later. The company quickly became the market leader as it pushed Mills and the other manufacturers into obscurity.
At about this time, a man named Si Redd walked into O’Donnell’s office in Chicago and proposed a deal to distribute Bally coffee machines (just one of the many machines Bally was then manufacturing). O’Donnell said to Redd, “You don’t want to do that… What you want to do is go out to Reno, Nevada”. Soon thereafter, Si was running Bally Distributing in the Silver State.
4 Si Redd
William “Si” Redd was 18 years old and living in Mississippi in 1930 when he made his first deal to buy a pinball machine. The price was $16. He installed the game in a hamburger restaurant, and one week later, his investment had earned $32. Si was hooked. First it was the pinball business, and later it was jukeboxes and coffee machines. He didn’t get around to slots until he was 55. That’s when Bill O’Donnell convinced Si to buy Bally Distributing in Nevada.
Over the next eight years, Si worked with Bally to sell slot machines in the Silver State, all the while offering ideas for improving the games. Five paylines (including diagonals) was Si’s idea. He also pushed for more payoffs and a higher payback. The ideas worked.
By 1975, Bally was doing so well in the slot business they decided to buy Si out. His initial investment of $60,000 was now worth millions. Si was willing to sell, but with one condition: he wanted exclusive rights to Bally’s electronic games, such as video slots and blackjack. It’s amazing, but O’Donnell agreed to the deal. These days, it’s difficult to comprehend how Bally could have been so thoroughly outfoxed by Si Redd, but back then, reel slots were the industry standard. Few people imagined that games such as video poker would be the wave of the future. And yet, Si saw it.
Shortly after the sale, he founded the company that would one day be IGT (International Game Technology). Video poker had just been invented, and Si owned a piece of it! Then he bought Fortune Coin, another company developing video poker. Soon, he was cranking out video slots by the thousands. In just a few years, IGT quadrupled its gross sales. Bally belatedly tried to get into the video poker business in 1982, but Si sued them for breach of contract. By the time Bally finally squeezed in, IGT had established itself as the market leader in slots, a position it still holds to this day.
5 Ed Fishman
Do you have a casino players club card? Ed invented that. His company, Players Club International, revolutionized the world of casino comps. Have you ever played in a black-jack or slots tournament? Ed created the modern gambling tournament. Have you ever taken a credit card advance from a brightly-lit casino cash machine? That was Ed’s idea. Riverboat casinos? Ed was a pioneer.
Pretty amazing, huh?
Ed got into the gaming business back in 1978 when he organized the world’s first blackjack tournament. Soon, he was doing tournaments for other properties. Big events like that require a good mailing list. Ed’s was the first and the best, so he became the guru of modern casino marketing. Eventually, he was tapped to work for Resorts in Atlantic City in the early 1980s. Ed remembers, “I loved finding out what the player wanted. High rollers were not my business. My business was the average person”.
He noticed that the average person, typically a slot player, wasn’t getting comps. The only slot premiums at the time were ticket-based (like old-style arcade games). Real comps simply didn’t exist for slots and low-limit table players. So Ed invented Players Club.
Members received discounted casino hotel rooms in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, restaurant and show discounts, airline pack-ages, a newsletter, and other offers. In retrospect, these premiums might seem a bit mundane compared to the total-cashback-rewards- platinum-style of modern comp pro-grams, but in the early 1980s Players Club was the only club. Ed hired Telly Savalas, TV’s Kojak, to be the Players Club spokesman. The service amassed over 350,000 members and became the prototype for the industry. So it was Ed Fishman who brought comps to the average slots player.
6 Inge Telnaes
The problem was solved when Inge Telnaes received a patent for the “virtual stop” in 1984 (IGT acquired the patent in 1988). Telnaes invent-ed a system for playing a slot game with conceptual reels and a random number generator. A virtual game could be played with reels that had 100 stops, 1,000 stops, or whatever. Anything was possible because it was a computer simulation. The results of the virtual game were then mapped onto physical reels. So three spaces on a virtual reel might correspond to just one stop on a physical reel. Voila! The megajackpot was born!
7 Charles Mathewson
IGT was a public company in 1985, and it was having growing pains. IGT stock had fallen from a high of $18.5 to a low of $7. Si Redd was a great salesman, and he had a natural feel for his product, but even at the venerable age of 73, he was not an expert at running a big public company. He needed help, so he tapped one of his investors, Charles “Chuck” Mathewson, to be chairman of the board. Mathewson had plenty of experience heading big corporations, and he did the usual housecleaning and belt-tightening. But his stroke of genius was to push forward with progressive jackpots, products made possible by the Telnaes patent. IGT called the first one Megabucks. It was introduced in 1986, and it reshaped the slot experience. These days, a big win can be a life-changing windfall. Thanks, Chuck!
8. Steve Wynne
It’s easy to forget in 2004 that casino gambling was very different in the 1980s. Back then, only two states, Nevada and New Jersey, had casinos. Growth in Las Vegas was creeping along, and there was no guarantee that it would pick up substantially any time soon. Las Vegas’ annual visitor volume took 15 years (1973-1988) to expand from 8.4 million to 17.2 million.
But everything changed in 1989 when Steve Wynn opened The Mirage. Within five years, Las Vegas was hosting 28.2 million visitors annually, and it was 35 million by the turn of the century. Wynn’s Mirage and its sister properties – Treasure Island, Bellagio, and Golden Nugget – were largely responsible for this spike in tourism. They redefined the concept of a casino. Gambling isn’t just bet-ting; it’s entertainment, a total experience. Casinos should be fun. After all, games are supposed to be fun, right?
In many ways, this was the final piece of the puzzle for the slot industry. Wynn’s “total experience” energized the casino business and it helped to promote casino development in other states. This in turn hyper-stimulated slot machine development, particularly the entertainment aspect of slot games. Steve Wynn set the bar high, and everyone in the casino industry began to gleefully jump. New games had to be bigger, better, cooler, and always more fun to play.
9 Ernest Mooney
Have you ever played multiple-hand video poker (Triple Play, Fifty Play, and so forth)? That’s Ernest “Ernie” Moody’s invention.
He was a stockbroker in the early 1990s when he decided to jump into the casino industry. The gambling boom in Colorado was red hot, and he eventually put together an investment deal for a property that earned him a chunk o’ money and a job as a casino manager. Then Ernie decided to leave the casino and go into game development. He was inspired by the success of Shuffle Master’s Let It Ride, but his zeal was sorely tested when his ideas didn’t sell. By 1997, he was borrowing money from his parents while still developing games. Ernie says, “It’s like you have a Ferrari and it ran out of gas, but you think you can push it over the finish line”.
That’s when he hit upon Triple Play. Suddenly, the Ferrari had gas. Ernie did a deal with IGT, and multiple-hand machines became a hot trend in video poker. The inventor is still developing games, but now he’s wealthy enough to also invest in race horses. Talk about hitting a jackpot!
10 Joe Kaminkow
He’s a twenty-first-century version of Char-lie Fey. Joe Kaminkow was still in his 20s when he started a pinball-design company. He and his partners eventually sold the firm to Sega, and Joe spent the next five years supervising Sega’s pinball business in the U.S. Joe personally designed dozens of branded pin-ball games including Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Guns N’ Roses, Batman, and Baywatch.
He came to IGT as Vice President of Game Design in 1999, and has since presided over an explosion of popular slot games including I Dream of Jeannie, Beverly Hillbillies, and The Munsters.
Joe is the guy who established “Joe’s $20 test”. The goal for his design team is that an average player should get at least 15 to 20 minutes of play for $20. In a recent interview with the New York Times, one of Joe’s designers said, “He wants a machine that pays a ton of small pays, lots of medium-size plays, and a huge jackpot. In other words, he wants us to do the impossible”. Charlie Fey would have been proud.