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Obituaries

William Redd, 91; Gambling's Visionary 'King of Video Poker'

October 19, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

William "Si" Redd, son of a Mississippi sharecropper who became a multimillionaire Nevada gaming legend known as "the King of Video Poker," has died. He was 91.

Redd, founder of Reno-based gaming-machine manufacturing giant International Game Technology, died Tuesday at his home in Solana Beach, Calif., after an extended illness.

Former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller once described Redd as the state's "most innovative gaming pioneer" -- the man who transformed traditional spinning-reel slot machines into video-screen gambling beginning in the late 1970s.

"He was the primary force behind the development and distribution of the video poker machine," said Bill Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of "Gambling in America."

"He made the link between the children's Atari [video] games and gambling. It's all around this notion that the slot machine is going to look like the kiddie arcade."

Redd had had a successful, nearly four-decade-long career distributing amusement game machines and Wurlitzer jukeboxes when he arrived in Reno in 1967 to distribute slot machines for Bally Manufacturing, then the dominant gambling and recreational slot machine company.

Redd set up an affiliate, Bally Distribution Co., to serve the casino market and kept 70% of the stock himself. He soon became known as "the Slot Machine King." At the time, however, there was nothing new about gaming slot machines.

"The machines were basically a piece of iron with a lemon in the front," Redd once recalled, and casinos viewed slots as "just a convenience for the wives and girlfriends while the men played craps."

But when Redd looked at the machines, he said, "I saw the opportunity."

Inspired by the new video Pong amusement game in the 1970s, Redd and a Bally engineer used the new technology to develop video keno, blackjack and poker games.

Bally, however, didn't share Redd's enthusiasm for the potential of video gaming machines. When he decided to sell the distribution company to Bally Manufacturing in the mid-1970s, he negotiated the right to continue developing video-based slot machines.

He founded International Game Technology in 1980. It went public a year later.

Coinciding with Redd's introduction of video poker machines was the growth of so-called neighborhood casinos appealing to local residents and, Thompson said, "his machine became the most important device" in attracting players.

"Video poker machines made amateur players think they were playing a casino game rather than just pulling a handle," he said. "The downside is the machine hooked a lot of people."

One Las Vegas psychologist, Thompson said, has called video poker machines "the crack cocaine of gambling."

Their popularity sparked an entire genre of video gambling machines bearing popular-culture graphics -- everything from Elvis and Terminator machines to Betty Boop and Wheel of Fortune.

The bottom line: Before the video poker machine, traditional slot machines accounted for about 40% of casino revenues; today, Thompson said, the various machines account for about 60% of casino revenues in Las Vegas and about 75% in casinos nationwide.

The company Redd founded became the world's leading designer and manufacturer of slot machines and video gaming machines, and it controls about two-thirds of the U.S. market.

"He was really a very farsighted guy," said IGT Chairman Charles Mathewson, who remembers Redd as a shrewd businessman and a "larger-than-life character."

A member of the Gaming Hall of Fame and the Nevada Business Hall of Fame, Redd sold his controlling share in IGT in 1986 and resigned from the board of directors in 1991.

But he remained active as a gaming entrepreneur. He reportedly lost nearly $20 million with a failed offshore luxury casino, the Pride of Mississippi, in his native state. But he also developed Si Redd's Oasis, a 1,000-room resort hotel and casino off Interstate 15 in Mesquite, Nev., which he sold for a reported $31 million in 2001.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Redd told the Associated Press in 1996 when he was 84. "I'm just a country boy at heart. I believe it was the fun of the journey that I enjoyed the most."

He was born Nov. 16, 1911, in Union, Miss., and lived "so far out in the country," he was fond of saying in his Southern drawl, "you had to scare the hoot owls off the drinking dipper."

His sharecropper family was so poor that a nickel ice cream cone once a week was considered a luxury.

He began his life as an entrepreneur at age 7, selling the publication Grit for a nickel and Cloverine Salve for a dime to local farmers. He thought nothing of walking 10 miles to make a sale.

At 13, he was earning money drumming up business for a dry cleaner and laundry. "I'd go out and walk the streets and talk men into giving us the hats off their heads so we could block them," he told Forbes magazine in 1982.

While attending East Mississippi Junior College in Decatur, he took a coin-operated penny pinball machine as repayment for a $16 loan he had made. Ever the hustler, he put the machine in a local hamburger joint and offered to split the revenue with the owner.

When he checked the machine a month later, he found $32 in pennies -- and saw the future. "I couldn't believe I'd recovered my investment in one month," he told the AP. "I thought, 'This is for me!' "

Redd was a major contributor to UNLV, particularly its athletic programs. His first wife, Ivy Lee, died in 1974; his second wife, Marilyn, died in 1996.

He is survived by his wife, Tamara; daughters Vinnie Copeland of Wellesley, Mass., and Sherry Green of Mesquite; seven grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

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