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Gamblers cut back to penny slot machines

UNITED States gamblers may be cutting back like other consumers, but one thing they're not doing is pinching pennies.

Their spending on penny gambling machines produced about one-quarter of all slot machine revenue in Nevada last year and more in other states. In Missouri, one of few states where gambling revenue rose in 2008, more than half of all casino revenue came from penny slots. For many casinos, penny slots are producing the only kind of revenue that's rising.

Gamblers say they like the machines ¨? which were impractical before quiet paper payouts started replacing the tumbling bucketfuls of coins in a jackpot ¨? because they can play longer for the same amount of money. No matter that casinos like penny slots because they're more lucrative for the house.

"It's all just for recreation," said Kansas City resident Cora Logan, 72, who was playing a penny slot machine at Isle of Capri in Kansas City on her 42nd wedding anniversary. "When you come here, don't expect to win. If you put a lot of money in these you're crazy."

The four casinos in Kansas City, like most across the country, serve mainly local markets, as opposed to "fly-in" markets like Las Vegas, Macau and, to some degree, Atlantic City in New Jersey.

That means most casinos depend heavily on low-rollers who visit often. Logan, who said she hadn't expected to win when she and her husband walked in, was up US$100 after three hours.

"Affordability is why people love them," said Frank Legato, a slot machine expert and editor of Las Vegas-based Global Gaming Business magazine.

"Casinos just love them because the average bets are the same as the quarter or dollar games, but their house edge is bigger on these games.

"People playing penny machines are not concerned about that. They just want to have fun and play a long time with little money."

To play penny slots ¨? which include video poker machines and slots with colorful video narratives, as well as machines that look and operate more like traditional one-arm bandits ¨? gamblers place electronic bets in one or two cent increments. The machines allow wagers anywhere from one penny to US$10 or more per spin.

Gamblers feed the machines cash ¨? or credit cards, in some states ¨? and any winnings are paid out with a paper ticket that can be redeemed at a cashier's cage or money machine, or used to place more bets.

With 3-D video graphics, bonus spins and familiar story lines like "Star Wars" or "Wizard of Oz," the machines provide a form of "active participatory entertainment" that wasn't available with the old three-reel slots. That makes them especially big among people who go to casinos for the social aspect.

Technological changes have made the concept of denomination almost irrelevant, experts say. Bill Eadington, gambling institute director at the University of Nevada-Reno said the term penny slots is a misnomer because most wagers on the devices are much greater.

"There's a touch of delusion to this whole discussion," Eadington said. "The average play per spin is obviously way above a penny ¨? usually the 30 to 50 cent range, depending on the market."

That's a familiar tack among casinos as they market the entertainment aspects of gambling and lessen their focus on who is most likely to leave the casino with less than they brought in.

"I'm just here to have fun," said Stephanie Wright, 41, of Kansas City, as she played a 1-cent "Blazing 7s" machine at Isle of Capri. "My boyfriend plays cards and I like to sit and play these while he does that."

Wright used to play quarters in her roughly weekly visits to Kansas City casinos before she got hooked on penny slots. "If you want to bet the max, you can, but I go low," she said. "Sometimes I get excited and go big once in a while, but usually I don't bet that much."


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