You Bet Your Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

A high school graduate by 16, he enrolled at the University of Oregon and earned spending money in the state's legal card rooms. "The clubs were so rough I had to take football players with me as bodyguards." He left after a year and returned to Reno and the University of Nevada.

He took his first gaming job in 1984 at a small casino near home, compiling market data from customers quizzed as they stepped off tour buses. "I remember Steve so well because within a week or two he was recognized by everyone as one of these brilliant problem-solving people," said his first boss, Phil Bryan, who is now president of Boomtown Inc. of Verdi, Nev., and a director of CDS.

After a year Weiss got a job in Bally Gaming Systems Inc.'s slot accounting department and studied the process by which casino managers obtained data from their machines, which then took up to four days. In 1987 he formed his own company and made his mark--and soon his first million dollars--by inventing a product that revolutionized customer service: a real-time accounting and player tracking system. This allows casino workers watching a screen in a control room to immediately identify hot players. Try it and see: Just walk into any casino on the Strip and begin feeding dollars into a machine three at a time as fast as you can. Odds are you'll quickly find a host or hostess at your elbow.

After competitors such as Bally Systems and Reno-based International Game Technology Inc. came out with their own real-time systems, limiting prospects for growth, Weiss returned to his first love, the games people play.

He relies on market research showing that 98.5% of casino players cite entertainment or some reason other than economics for gaming. "Only 1 1/2% think they can go into a casino and actually beat the game. Everybody else thinks, 'Yeah, I'm going to lose, but I'm going to have some fun.' "

With that in mind, Weiss designed a slot machine prototype called Gold Fever, which he proudly showed off to a visitor in his company's R&D; lab. Gold Fever links a three-reel slot to a 67-inch TV monitor continuously showing a Western movie. But when you hit a jackpot the movie dissolves and a mine car careens down a curving tracks, exploding into a cascade of gold coins, showing the winnings being downloaded into your slot machine.

The gaming reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, Gary Thompson, said he played it at an industry show in March, and it was like nothing he'd ever played before. But it broaches the key issue of whether it's too much fun to attract serious gamblers.

Weiss described even grander ideas. One, which he has pitched to officers of Mirage Resorts Inc., the parent company of Treasure Island, is a video slot version of the hotel's pirate ship battle. He envisions a theater-size attraction with realistic ship rigging and a cannon atop each machine. Winning a jackpot lets you fire at a ship on a giant screen that drops a treasure chest showing the amount of your prize. You win the big jackpot by sinking the ship.

Mirage officials said the idea is intriguing. "It takes up a large amount of casino square footage," said Bill McBeath, Mirage vice president of marketing and gaming. "We have to evaluate it. But Steve is very innovative," he added. "He's a very savvy guy. He's a gambler, all right."

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While working hard to win over customers, Weiss has no problem attracting investors, who in March snapped up $46 million of CDS stock offered at $12.75 a share. The Nasdaq-traded stock closed Friday at 14.5.

"I do believe that the reason the stock is doing so well is that Weiss is spellbinding. He can spin a great tale," said reporter Thompson. "He is a visionary who says that people just want to play games, and younger people who are more used to Sega-type games are going to be interested in his games."

Maybe, but Weiss has far to go. Casino Data has managed to get 490 slot machines in Clark County casinos, while the Goliath of the industry, International Game Technology, has more than 125,000 in the same territory. IGT produced 66,760 slots last year, grabbing an estimated 70% of the U.S. business. Its executives are convinced that casinos aren't about to scrap the old-fashioned reel slot machine.

"There is something traditional, hypnotic, very appealing about that kind of device. It is not going to go away for the foreseeable future," said IGT marketing vice president Mickey Roemer.

Still, IGT is hedging its bet by developing "Wheel of Fortune," a multiple-screen video slot machine based on the TV show. Players will win jackpots by feeding in the coins until they collect all the letters needed to solve a puzzle. "Our initial tests say that it has some potential, but it's a complicated game," Roemer said. "And any time you have a complicated game there are some risks."

Weiss is aware that his profession is littered with failures, but he believes that his pirate ship battle and other spectacular ideas he is hatching will be sought by casinos that want traffic-building attractions that draw crowds of gamblers who might end up playing the traditional slot machines nearby. It's a concept that even Roemer acknowledges may be valid when you consider the white tigers and the performing dolphins that attract crowds at the Mirage, next door to the Treasure Island.

But there are plenty of things worse than failure, Weiss said. "You never know what twists and turns life is going to deal you. A friend of mine, Lyle Berman, has a plaque in his office that says the only misfortune in life is bad health. You never know what's going to happen, but if you keep stepping up to the plate, eventually you're going to knock one out."

The competition to create the next great slot game is intense. Acres Gaming Inc. of Corvallis, Ore., for instance, has marketed a system linking traditional machines in an exotic atmosphere. At the Hurricane Zone in the Edgewater Casino in Laughlin, Nev., bonus jackpots are signaled with special-effects thunder and lightning and a crescendo of dramatic music. As the music builds and the lightning crashes louder, players pump in the coins faster and faster, building profits for the house, said company founder John Acres said.

Another company, Las Vegas-based Anchor Gaming Inc., married a couple of time-worn ideas into a new, albeit low-tech, product called Wheel of Gold. It consists of an ordinary reel machine linked to what looks like a miniature roulette wheel on the wall above. When you win a jackpot, you hit a button to spin the little roulette wheel and determine the amount you win.

It sounds simple, but the idea has caught on big. At one point recently Anchor had sold 300 of the machines and had orders for 700 more. The company stock has skyrocketed this year from 22 to 71.

Randy Adams, Anchor's head of design and an old friend of Weiss', said gaming customers will shy away from too much computerized technology. "People don't want to play Donkey Kong; they don't want to play Star Wars," he said.

Beyond Wheel of Gold, beyond Star Wars, beyond the casino itself: What's next? How about the virtual casino, existing only in cyberspace?

Don't worry, somebody has already thought of that: International Sports Book, a World Wide Web site operated out of St. John's, Antigua, offers sports betting to players willing (and trusting) to open an account.

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Slots Go Way Back

The slot machine will soon mark its first century of commercial success. Before 1897, machines were balky but were able to play poker and dispense drink tokens and even cigars when gamblers could get them to work. Today, the top-grossing machine in North America is International Game Technology's Double Diamond, a traditional reel machine.

Some milestones in the history of the slots:

1897 -- The three-reel Liberty Bell is introduced in San Francisco by Charles Fey; it is regarded as the forerunner of the modern machine.

1906 -- Mills Novelty Co. of Chicago launches mass production, turning out 600,000 machines in the next 40 years.

1951 -- Congress passes the Johnson Act, effectively banning interstate shipment of machines.

1951 -- Mills Bell-O-Matic begins production in Reno of high-top, light-up machines that were to be the last line of high-quality mechanical slots.

1963 -- Bally Manufacturing introduces Money Honey, the first electromechanical slot, leading to development of multiple-coin play and up to five-line payouts.

1964 -- Nevada Electronics introduces first solid-state 21 machine.

1970 -- Dale Electronics introduces first successful poker machine, the Poker-Matic.

1975 -- Fortune Coin Co. introduces Video Bell, the first electronic video reel machine. Casino Electronics Inc. also introduces first video poker machine. Ironically, gamblers greeted both machines coolly and casinos stocked them as mere novelties.

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