Slot Machine Addict

Slot Machine Addict – View full size file Plain Dealer Commercial casinos earn more than 60 percent of their gambling revenue from slots. There are 854,702 slot machines in the United States, according to the American Gaming Association.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — It’s Friday night at Rivers Casino, and people are crowded three and four deep around a row of Wizard of Oz slots, hoping for a turn to play.

Slot Machine Addict

The five refrigerator-sized devices are filled with lights and sounds, like pulsating carnival chambers. Each slot’s video screens are lit up with rapid-fire images of Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the rest of the film’s characters. Their faces adorn the spinning bet wheels and their digitized voices urge players to continue. “Show me your badge of courage!” growls the Cowardly Lion.

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As the video reels spin, the slot’s Bose stereo speakers blare out the ominous “OH-EE-OH” chants of Wicked Witch supporters. When a spin produces a big win, the computer running this new “sensory immersion” gambling machine changes the music to the dreamy “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and sends a shiver that vibrates through the player’s bucket seat, like a congratulatory massage.

The five middle-aged women occupying those plush seats are transfixed, their eyes glued to the screens as they methodically hit the rotary buttons every three or four seconds. No one has been up for at least 30 minutes. The crowd grows restless. “They’ll be cold by the time we get up,” murmurs a woman in gold pants.

Finally, one of the players gets up to leave, but before any of the spectators can react, her partner slips through the gap between their two machines, pressing down on each slit with one hand.

Welcome to the brave new world of gambling. When the Horseshoe Casino opens early next year, it will be packed — like its Pittsburgh counterpart and other casinos around the country — with a new generation of computer-based slots whose speed, complexity, captivating screens and illusory odds have some gambling researchers and therapists deeply concerned.

Slot Machines And Gambling Addiction In Las Vegas Stock Photo By ©ai825 143632937

For this series of stories, researched and written over the past six months, Plain Dealer science writer John Mangels interviewed more than 35 policymakers, regulators, legal experts, casino and gambling industry executives, researchers gambling addiction, treatment providers and gamblers. Mangels also reviewed thousands of pages of gambling addiction studies, policy documents and regulatory material. He visited casinos in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as well as the Pennsylvania State Gaming Laboratory, where slot machines are tested and tested.

Advanced slots are ideal money-mining machines, a quantum leap beyond the dynamic mechanical “one-armed bandits” they replaced. Researchers say they hit vulnerable parts of gamblers’ brains and can be a catalyst for out-of-control gambling, even in gamblers who have never had a problem before.

The machines use an arsenal of tactics to maximize what slot developers call “time on device” and encourage “play to the finish” — gambling until all the money is gone.

Throbbing music, hypnotic graphics and near-constant betting odds combine to lull players into a trance-like state called “the zone” that some players say they actually prefer to winning. Extending their time in the game’s sensory cocoon becomes the goal, which allows the machine to continue collecting cash.

Slot Machine Stock Illustration

Screens flash “Win!” even if the payout is less than the bet. They almost trick players into thinking they’re on the verge of a jackpot, although the odds reset on every spin. A secret, carefully programmed ratio of reward and withholding maintains suspense. And all the while, machines monitor gamblers’ behavior to help adjust future enticements to return.

Advanced slots have quickly become the most popular, most pervasive, most profitable form of casino gambling. They are also more likely to be associated with risky, excessive gambling behavior, like the Pittsburgh woman who played two slots at once.

While operators of Ohio’s new casinos regularly tout the jobs, taxes and other economic benefits the facilities will bring, there has been little public discussion of the problem and the problem gambling that will also appear.

Using an analytical model based on research, The Plain Dealer estimates that, at any given time, the four casinos will result in an additional 107,100 problem and pathological gamblers, 40,800 of them in the region. The lifetime cost to society of these addicted Ohio gamblers in bankruptcies, arrests and legal fees is at least $1.1 billion, and likely much more.

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Whether the new machines can be called completely addictive — the “crack cocaine of gambling,” as the most extreme rhetoric puts it — is a matter of heated debate. Casino industry officials cite studies showing that the rate of gambling addiction has remained low, despite the meteoric expansion of slots.

But other research shows that advanced slots are a magnet for pathological gamblers and can trigger bouts of risky gambling behavior in almost any regular player, causing them to lose track of time and spending.

“The modern slot machine has hit upon a very powerful formula of gambling interaction,” said MIT anthropologist Natasha Schull, who has studied the casino industry for 15 years and whose book on slot gambling is due out in early of 2012. “They’re designed to make you play longer, faster and longer. And they demand behaviors from everyone that seem out of control.”

Ohio voters approved as many as 20,000 slot machines — up to 5,000 per casino — when they approved commercial gambling in 2009. The constitutional amendment, which casino supporters wrote, did not provide a rationale for the number, and there was no reference to its importance in preparing the vote.

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Twenty thousand slots, combined with up to 20,000 more at the state’s racetracks, if the governor approves a racino plan, would make Ohio the fifth state with slots, ahead of casino-rich locales such as New Jersey and Mississippi. There would be one slot machine for every 288 Ohioans.

The large numbers of slots in Ohio, as elsewhere, reflect a profound technology-driven transformation of commercial gaming that began in the 1980s and is still ongoing.

Old-style mechanical slots allowed players to place only one bet at a time, on a single line of symbols that appeared in the “pay window” when the machine’s wheels stopped spinning.

The limited number of symbols — cherries, oranges and so on — that could fit on a mechanical reel meant that winning combinations appeared quite often. So the jackpots couldn’t be big or the casino would lose money. Serious gamblers considered slot machines to be cheap and boring. they concentrated on table games like blackjack and poker, leaving the slots to tourists and old ladies.

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Slot machines began using microprocessors and other digital tools in the 1980s and ’90s, and they changed the character of the machines and the gamblers they attracted — a perfect storm of technology and desire.

Computer chips and video screens do away with mechanical reels and the limits on odds, bets and jackpots they had imposed. The new slots have “virtual reels” inside the computer and invisible to the player. They make an almost infinite number of outcomes possible.

Higher odds mean jackpot amounts could increase — a bigger win for serious players. Flexible video screens give gamblers a dizzying selection of winning symbol ranges to bet on, providing a sense, albeit false, of control. And digital cameras are much faster. Avid gamblers can spin up to 1,200 times per hour.

View full sizeAssociated Press A Lucille Ball impersonator shows off the “I Love Lucy” slot, based on the 1950s TV show.

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The most sophisticated slots have a personality. Developers borrowed themes from popular TV shows and movies that appealed to the types of players casinos want to attract. With sound effects, video clips and touch screens, slots have become truly interactive, using baby boomer favorites like Capt. Star Trek’s Kirk and mobster Tony Soprano to encourage players to bet and highlight their wins

Through additional “loyalty cards”, the new slots also record megabytes of information about the gambling habits of their regular players. Casino owners use the data to identify the biggest potential losers and send incentives to keep them coming back.

Advanced slots don’t come cheap. high-end models cost more than a basic Lexus sedan. But the successful ones pay for themselves in less than six months.

It’s no surprise, then, that slots have eclipsed table games in terms of power and share of casino floor space. In Atlantic City, for example, slot machines generated less than half of casino revenue in 1978, but accounted for more than two-thirds of that, or about $2.7 billion, in 2009.

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The popularity and winning potential of advanced slots make them by far the main form of gambling faced by casino customers.

This will be particularly evident in Ohio’s four casinos, which are licensed to operate up to 5,000 slots each. That’s about double the number of a typical Las Vegas casino.

View full sizeRock Gaming LLC This artist’s rendering shows the first phase of the Horseshoe Casino, in the old Higbee’s Department Store building on Public Square.

The casino will not install the maximum initially.

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