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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Slot nostalgia

24 November 2003

Dear Mark,
My first day gambling was in Reno the day President Kennedy was killed. An unlucky day to say the very least. I remember which casino I was in, Harold's Club, but I'm not quite certain what type of slot machine I was playing on when I heard the grim news. I believe, though not 100% sure, it was a triple-line machine by Bally's. The maximum jackpot was $7.50, which I hit, and I remember it having an owl near the top. Surprising what you remember the day Kennedy was shot? Does any of this help?
I am asking about this machine because I am in a position to purchase (for sentimental reasons) a Bally's triple-line, sight unseen from a friend of a friend. Would this be the machine I played 40 years ago? Clark R.

You gave me three nice clues, Clark, and they absolutely rule out Bally's triple-line slot machine. The leads were, the timeline, the $7.50 jackpot and the owl, which tell me that it was a Mills Hightop, manufactured by a Reno company called Mills Bell-O-Matic.

Bally's possibly did have a machine on the casino floor that day, (though I believe its debut was more like somewhere in 1964 than in November of '63), that model was the Money Honey, the first slot machine to have a hopper as part of its innards. This machine was the first to have electronic circuitry to read the reels, a hopper, relays for protection against slot cheating, and a brightly lit front end. The latter, mind you, was not for esthetics but for inducing play. Who'd a thunk it?

So, why is this important? Because the older slots like the Hightop could only pay as much as their stacked coin tubes could hold. A Mills slot could only guarantee a $7.50 jackpot on a nickel machine. But with a hopper, jackpots could be increased a hundredfold. Besides, Clark, it was not until 1968 — your 10th trip to Reno? — that Bally's introduced their first machine that paid on more than one line. Bally's three-line pay machine had a three-coin option. The first coin activated the middle line, the second the top line and the third brought the bottom line to life.

So, no, your friend's friend's machine was not the one that painted your young palm with nickels, but it might go nicely in your den, anyhow, and help out with party costs.

Dear Mark,
I have a question regarding the history of slot machines in Vegas and Nevada. I am working on a story for the Travel Channel called Made In America, and am doing a short piece on Vintage Vegas and gambling. Do you know where the first slot machines were manufactured? L. L.

Ja wohl! A Bavarian immigrant named Charles Fey, a San Francisco mechanic, invented the first mechanical slot machine, which he astutely named the Liberty Bell, in 1895. Fey linked the three reels to the slide payout mechanism, creating the first, exclusive, reeled gambling machine, and as the saying goes, "'twas the clang heard around the world."

His reel symbols were playing-card spots, and each spinning reel was decorated with diamonds, spades, hearts and one cracked Liberty Bell. When the bells lined up, they produced the mightiest payoff: 10 nickels. WOW!

The original Liberty Bell is on display in Reno at the Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant, on 4250 S. Virginia. I believe Fey's family still runs the Saloon. If I'm wrong, well, some reader is bound to correct me.

Fey eventually made a deal with the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago to manufacturer his machine. Mills re-engineered the game as its own Liberty Bell in 1909, which was quickly copied by Caille Brothers Company, then by Watling Manufacturing Company. By 1925, a whole slather of companies had sniffed the wind and begun making similar-type slot machines.

Gambling quote of the week: "Every time I see someone writing down past numbers at a roulette table, I want to grab his pen and notebook and yell in his face, 'It don't mean diddly squat!'" -VP Pappy

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.