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Best of Mark Pilarski
Al wiped his hands on his apron. He looked at a paper pinned to the wall over the griddle. Three lines of marks in columns on the paper.
Is Steinbeck making a mistake about slot machines, or did slot machines in the 1930s have scheduled pay offs instead of being completely random? Bob H.
Slot machines of today, Bob, are a distant cousin of what Bavarian immigrant Charles Fey invented in 1895. It was Fey who linked the three reels to the slide payout mechanism, creating the first, reeled, mechanical slot machine. In a gesture of patriotism, he named it Liberty Bell.
The slots of yesteryear work the same as they do today where a stop on each reel has an equal chance, although today’s symbol combinations are controlled by a Random Number Generator instead of the action of spinning reels.
Old slot machines had as a central element, a metal shaft, which supported the reels. This shaft was connected to a handle mechanism, which after a coin detector initially registers that a coin has been inserted, unlocked a brake so that the handle could be pulled. The machine then used a braking system to halt the spinning reels, with the final resting position of the reels matched to a payout system. Slots had a certain number of reels with a specific number of symbols, and each symbol, on a legitimate machine, would have had an equal chance of coming up on a spin.
All this is not to say that slot operators in bars and restaurants didn't rig out machines to pay or stiff patrons. Mechanical slot machines of the past were easy to manipulate and thereby cheat naive players. Although the dialog above in Steinbeck's book lacks machine specificity, and my only recollection of the character Al was that of a cook at a restaurant who ordered Mae to give bread to a migrant family, it is within reason that Al could have known when a jimmied machine was going to pay off.
Speaking of a rigged machine, I own a slot machine from that era, a Mills Mystery, whose stops were fiddled with by a previous owner, and it now pays the highest jackpot on every yank of the handle. It’s stored in the attic because relatives want to keep the winnings.
Gambling wisdom of the Week: “For a loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth.” ~Hunter S. Thompson