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Scary Thoughts

Making the deadline before I go.

Scary Thoughts

I’m approaching a big milestone in my career as a gaming journalist. This August will mark 29 years since I wrote my first article about a gaming company—which, I’m fairly certain, means that next year, I will have written about casinos for three friggin’ decades.

That’s right. Anything that makes me feel that old must be relayed in italics. It’s downright scary.

I would like to retire, like Mr. Fahrenkopf, but alas, at 56, I’ve still got a mortgage and a car payment and weddings to pay for and other financial obligations that are in all likelihood going to lead me to write about gaming up to an age much more ripe than that of the outgoing AGA president.

I envision a 95-year-old man with a goofy white mustache, being found at his desk, his one hand on a computer keyboard and his other frozen on a slot-machine sell sheet’s information on payback percentages.

I only hope I make the deadline before I go.

Hey, maybe my caricature will age but I won’t. You know, a Picture of Dorian Gray kind of deal. I’m going to start watching that caricature closely, to see if the cartoon ages. If it does, I’ve got nothing to worry about.

In any event, I thought I would start now with occasional reflections on how things have changed in the business since 1984, when I first wrote about Bally (Bob Mullane was the CEO) and Aristocrat (Len Ainsworth was still in charge—I think he was only 90 back then).

In 1984, slot machines had reels that were spun manually by little people inside the machines. No, I’m kidding. Actually, they were powered by steam.

Alright, they had electricity, but most of them were still electro-mechanical. That meant to offer big jackpots, they had to have big initial bets, because the possible results were limited by the physical reels themselves. Universal and Bally were just bringing out the first slots using microprocessors and the “virtual reel” method of choosing results—which meant much larger jackpots could be offered that you could never win.

Maybe not “never” (is that correct?), but put it this way. You had better odds of being struck by lightning during an earthquake while writing a song that would become a No. 1 hit for Michael Jackson and later covered by both Tony Bennett and Guns ‘N Roses.

Another thing about slots in the mid-1980s was that they pretty much all looked the same. Three reels, and a handle. And you’d pull the handle, and sometimes these round things called “coins” would fall into a tray. Jackpot celebration sounds consisted of “ding.” If you were lucky, it would be followed by several other “dings.”

Thankfully, technology intervened, and before long, the “dings” were accompanied by “buzzes,” and eventually, by pictures of Gomez Addams, Jed Clampett and Gene Simmons from KISS. (Not all on the same machine, although that would be really cool.)

If you ran out of coins, you had to either go stand in line at a cage or flag down one of the employees pushing these carts of rolled coins around like they were in a grocery store.

Besides the slot machines, one thing I remember about those early days was that there were still wiseguys here and there in the industry. It was only a year after Lefty Rosenthal and Tony the Ant and the whole Stardust skimming scandal (for you youngsters out there, think DeNiro as Ace Rothstein and Pesci as Nicky Santoro in Casino).

Once in a while, I’d go into a casino executive’s office and one of these bosses would say something to me in Italian, and expect me to respond like I was from the old country. Now, I’m a generation removed from my Italian ancestors, so I only know stuff my grandmother used to say, which usually was, “Manga!” Remarkably, it always struck a chord with the old-school casino bosses.

But the mob stereotype in casinos lasted much longer than the mob itself. For years, any time I was in a casino wearing a suit, players assumed I was one of the bosses. Hey, Italian guy in a suit, right? They’d tell me their slot machines were broken, and I would assure them that I would have the slot tech whacked at my earliest convenience.

I’ll come up with more amusing recollections periodically over the next year and a half, as I plunge helplessly toward my 30th anniversary in the gaming-writer business.

Has the cartoon started to age yet?

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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