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You Bet Your Life

Steven Weiss wants to shake up the gaming world with his 21st century vision. But will we watch more and gamble less?

July 22, 1996|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AS VEGAS — The smoke was still clearing from the Treasure Island resort's pirate ship battle on the Strip one recent evening when Patty Nicols, a vacationer from Glendora, spotted a bank of shiny new slot machines glowing seductively in hues of rust and blood red.

Nicols, an administrator in a lumber products company, crossed the posh carpet to a machine about a gangplank's-walk from the Swashbuckler bar, plopped down with a brimming change cup full of quarters and began playing a tiny part in a real-life mega-stakes battle over the future of gaming.

Fate had brought her to the highest-tech slot machine on the market, the VIG-1, for Video Interactive Games. It is a device of enormous potential, said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the savvy consumer newsletter Las Vegas Advisor. "Playing poker on this machine," he said, "is like using a nuclear reactor to make toast."

Introduced recently by an upstart company whose brilliant young chairman wants to shake up the gaming world, the VIG-1 has a 32-bit processor driving a 15-inch monitor that can reproduce 4,096 colors. Its CD-quality stereo sound system bounces with catchy jingles. It can be reprogrammed quickly and repackaged to play different games.

Here the firm was test marketing Caribbean Stud Poker, a somewhat complicated game, but one that is beautifully presented on the VIG-1. It seeks to answer the question almost everybody in the gaming industry is asking: Will the twentysomethings who grew up on video games be content with their grandfather's slot machines? In this bottom-line town that, in turn, raises an even more profound conundrum: Is this the kind of machine that people will enjoy playing so much that they'll get too wrapped up in the game and actually gamble less?

Nicols, who watched the computer-animated playing cards, vivid and lifelike, snapping smartly onto the screen, was impressed but hardly swept away. "It has a nice clear display, and the screen is great," she said, then leaned closer and frowned at two payoff tables showing what she can hope to win with her 50-cent bet. "But these graphics are a little busy. They really need to clean this up."

You might say that this machine was created by the Peter Pan of the gambling world: 33-year-old Steven A. Weiss, a millionaire computer engineer and the chairman of locally based Casino Data Systems Inc.

Weiss, an accounting genius with a vision of the high-tech video gaming world to come, is a crucial player at a time when Las Vegas realizes that technological change is at hand and yet worries about how to cope with it.

A staggering amount of money is at stake. Nevada officials report that in the fiscal year ending April 30, slot machines in Clark County, including Las Vegas, took in $3.4 billion.

Weiss has brought to the game side of the business a flair that has attracted attention from quarters as varied as Casino Executive magazine, which dubbed him "the Bill Gates of the gaming computer industry," and Forbes, which slyly noted his penchant for high-stakes poker against players such as financier Carl Icahn.

The scramble to create the future has divided the gaming community into two camps: traditionalists who believe that gamblers will always want the familiar old reel and video poker machines, and futurists who see a city wired into a higher technology. Weiss' ideas are among the most extravagant, but his success on the business side of slots gives them the clear ring of coins clattering into the fabled loud bowl.

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Greeting a visitor recently in his windowless earth-toned office near McCarran International Airport, Weiss wore his full beard and thinning sandy hair trimmed short and was tieless and casual in the anti-uniform of the computer wizard. Speaking softly, he traced his path from a game-obsessed childhood to a life of desert elegance: a 5,300-square-foot home with 18-foot ceilings, five pianos and a growing collection of sports cars. In a few months, he's planning a backyard wedding to Mary Sue Kiland, a former employee.

Born in Florida to a physician and his wife, Weiss taught himself calculus in the fifth grade. When he was 12, his family moved to Nevada, where he became engrossed first with the game of blackjack, then with video games, then computers. "I always wanted to be a video game designer from when my dad bought his first PC in 1981," he recalled, a smile playing around intense light brown eyes.

His hero was the legendary supercomputer inventor Seymour Cray. "Cray wrote an animated baseball game, with Xs and O's that he played on the console of this multimillion-dollar computer. I thought it was funny this guy had one of the most brilliant minds in computing and he wrote up a pretty sophisticated baseball game just as a pastime."

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