LAS VEGAS — The newest trend in slot machines is surfacing here after being introduced in the most unlikely of places--a California Indian casino, where slots were illegal just months ago.
Part of the credit, it seems, goes to former Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson, a strident slot machine opponent who wanted nothing to do with quarter-belching slot machines in his Golden State.
The new machines pay out by dispensing paper credit vouchers rather than noisily pouring clattering coins into the metal hoppers that are a classic fixture of one-armed bandits. Don't fret: The new machines can electronically produce the sound of dropping coins, while a thermal printer quietly issues the voucher.
The gambler can keep the ticket until he revisits the casino, or redeem it at a cashier's cage or reinsert the voucher, like currency, into another machine and keep playing.
The introduction of voucher-based slots, industry officials say, is the most significant development in slot machines since the gambling devices were upgraded to accept currency of different denominations, from dollar bills to C-notes.
The voucher technology was developed while California tribes were pushing hard to get slots allowed in California and Wilson's administration would permit only coinless machines because, at the time, the California Constitution banned Nevada-style slots.
California's tribal casinos already were using machines that spit out credit vouchers. But a voucher couldn't be transferred to another machine: It had to be taken to the cashier's cage for redemption, even if the gambler wanted to try his luck on an adjoining machine.
With the passage in California of Proposition 1A earlier this year, Nevada-style coin-clattering slots became legal in California.
But when the Barona Indian casino in San Diego County bankrolled 50 of its veteran players to try out new machines in Las Vegas for use back home, they returned with a message loud and clear: Slots are great but the coins are a pain in the bucket. They pleaded with casino management to stick with paper receipts, said Lee Skelley, a Barona Casino executive.
"They thought the Vegas machines, with the coins, would be a step up," Skelley said. "But when they came back, each one of them said they couldn't wait to get back to the tickets, because the coins were a nuisance."
Sierra Design Group, the Nevada company that was hired by various Indian tribes to develop coinless slot machines because of Wilson's edict, went one step further. It developed a system that allows the vouchers to be accepted as cash at other slot machines, so gamblers could move among the machines without handling coins.
Timing of the advancement was perfect; Barona adopted the newest technology in wholesale fashion as it modernized its casino floor.
"Barona is now state-of-the-art when it comes to slot machines," said Dave Ehlers, chairman of Las Vegas Investment Advisors, which tracks the industry. "It's one of the most progressive casinos anywhere."
Evidence of Barona's high-tech gambling: The traditional "change girls" who prowl the casino floor dispensing rolls of coins are now equipped with hand-held computers to scan the vouchers and pay off gamblers.
Barona's success has attracted the attention of casino operators throughout the country.
International Game Technology--the biggest slot machine manufacturer in the world--had been pursuing the same voucher-in, voucher-out technology, and advanced it one step further:
Its voucher machines allow the player to determine the denomination of bets on any one machine, from a penny to a dollar--or $25, depending on a machine's configuration. The casinos can also program the International Game machines to drop some coins, but pay out the balance in paper. The gambler can still also feed the machine with coins, the old-fashioned way.
The company has shared its technology with other slot manufacturers to accelerate the acceptance of vouchers in Las Vegas.
And early indications are that the new voucher slot machines will be popular among frequent gamblers at off-Strip casinos who aren't as fascinated by coins as tourists are.
Larry Anderson, trying his luck on one of the machines last week, saw advantages for both the gambler and the casino.
"I don't like coins dropping into the tray," he said. "Everyone looks at you to see what you got."
But, he noted cynically, the vouchers tend to speed up the slot play as gamblers move from machine to machine. "They want you to play as fast as you can--so you lose your money faster," he said.
The ticket slots are emerging slowly in Las Vegas, showing up so far in three neighborhood casinos. The major Strip casinos will stick with the classic slots for now because that's what tourists expect, industry experts say, although they too may eventually make the transition because the technology pares operating costs.
"Part of the entertainment value of our business is people watching the reels spin--and hearing your winnings drop in the tray," said Gordon Absher, spokesman for Mandalay Bay on the Strip. "Some customers will always want that."
The voucher-spitting slots are proving especially popular among nickel-slot players, who were once the lowly gamblers on the casino floor. Today, with machines that can play as many as 50 nickels--$2.50--with one spin, nickel players are being treated as royalty.
Casino bosses at Fiesta, where the voucher slots were first tested in Las Vegas, were unsure if the new machines would be accepted by their regular customers, said General Manager Ed Fasulo.
"It turned out they liked them," he said. "Their hands don't get dirty handling the coins, they don't have to scrape the trays to get all the coins out and they don't have to carry around the buckets."