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Best of Liz Benston
Liz Benston

Stretching out the fun time

9 December 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Sometimes, slot machine makers think they've come up with a better mouse trap, and the mice don't bite.

Consider this year's introduction of a machine feature called "Guaranteed Play."

It was hailed as a revolution in the casino industry - so promising it would even seduce gamblers who normally would walk right by slot machines.

It guarantees players a minimum number of hands or "spins" for their money. The lure for the gambler is that the guaranteed number of spins might be more than he would have had by playing the old-fashioned way until his money ran out.

There was talk of adding the guarantee feature to nearly every slot machine and table game because some gamblers value the time spent playing as entertainment and fear having it cut short by losing streak.

But some gamblers didn't buy the hype.

"I think it's kind of weird," said Steve Hogue, playing video poker and keno the other day at the Red Rock Resort. "I just didn't get it."

Guaranteed Play, offered in the Las Vegas area only at Station Casinos properties into next year, claims to offer video poker players the same odds as many regular, pay-per-hand games. But players can expect to often get more hands for their money, and thus more time, on a Guaranteed Play machine.

A poker machine, for example, promises quarter players 75 hands for $20 and dollar players 200 hands for $40.

Many players who prefer to while away time at the machines have gravitated toward "penny" slots, which extend gambling time by allowing wagers in smaller increments.

Guaranteed Play is a more radical step in that direction - drawing out play by promising a minimum number of spins for the initial bet.

That promise can appease some players who have complained a particular slot machine swallowed their money too quickly, Station executives say.

Still, some players aren't feeling satiated, and some feel deceived - even cheated - by the games, because of how they handle payouts.

Doug, a Florida resident who wouldn't give his last name, frequents Red Rock for video poker. But he quickly soured on Guaranteed Play because it requires gamblers to play through their hands before cashing out any positive balances

Also off-putting to gamblers: The credit meter starts with a zero balance and heads into negative numbers as losses grow, as opposed to credit meters on traditional slots, which begin with the positive balance of the gambler's deposit and remain in positive territory until, at worst, zero credits remain.

Either way, the same amount of money would have been lost, but one appears more painful to watch than the other.

For Doug, seeing his true losses accumulate was like watching his cash swirl down a drain. After a few spins, "you're usually down (credits) and digging yourself out of a hole," he said.

Station says the overall response to the games, hyped in an unprecedented promotion that invited more than 20,000 customers to try out the games on the company's dime, has been positive because players are gambling longer for less money.

The feature is a work in progress.

Connecticut inventor Jay Walker and slot maker International Game Technology, an investor and business partner in Guaranteed Play, approached Station executives in 2005 with the idea.

Station bosses viewed it as a milestone in the evolution of gambling that deserved more time, and further research, to flower.

Station has been gathering feedback on the machines from gamblers in focus groups and on the floor - a patient break-in for an industry where conventional slots normally have to prove their value within months or risk being pulled from the casino.

Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter, says the guarantee feature isn't for math experts who seek the highest possible return for each hand. But "there's a million positives" for casual players who want more gambling time for their money, he said.

"The public is afraid of it" but was also apprehensive of ticket machines before those overtook coin-operated slots after a few years, Curtis said.

Last month, a competitor unveiled a similar feature, "Time Gaming," that was under development a few years before the release of Guaranteed Play yet still requires regulatory approval in Nevada.

Created by Cyberview Technology, with offices in London and Las Vegas, the concept allows players to pay for a certain amount of gambling time.

After the gambler deposits his opening balance, more credits are wagered for every second that lapses before the next spin. It allows players to make a few large bets or a greater number of smaller bets over the course of the purchased amount of time. Cyberview's games show a time clock instead of a credit meter, and players can cash out winnings at any time.

Paying for time is easier for novices to grasp than paying for hands or spins, Cyberview's chief systems architect, Thierry Brunet de Courssou, said.

"Instead of sitting down and then leaving again because your money has been gobbled up in two minutes, you can come in and play for an hour while you enjoy a beer," de Courssou said. Gambling becomes predictable entertainment for couples and friends because their sessions will finish at about the same time, allowing them to plan other activities before and after, he said.

Some players have gotten over their initial skepticism of Guaranteed Play and aren't troubled by the credit meter because they know they are probably going to lose their bet anyway, said Jay Fennel, director of corporate slot operations at Station Casinos.

"Players come here knowing they're going to spend that $20 and that's in their wallet," Fennel said. "They want more time at the machine."

Even as skepticism swirls around Guaranteed Play, Station executives are even more bullish as they discuss future applications for the technology. Eventually, they say, the concept will spread to spinning reel slots and even table games as a way to package gambling offerings like any other amenity, such as a meal, a show or a hotel room.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Fennel said. "Gamblers are finicky, superstitious and very resistant to change. We are just trying to get people to try it."