Book Review: Slot Machines — America’s Favorite Gaming Device
Author: Marshall Fey
Sixth Edition, 256 pp. Liberty Belle Books, 2006, $35.00
If you’re looking for a great holiday gift for an industry colleague, or any slot machine enthusiast, why not take advantage of a rare opportunity to pick up an autographed book from a historic collector with unparalleled bloodlines?
If you happen to be strolling by 406 Market Street in downtown San Francisco, you’ll find a brass plaque stating that Charles August Fey began manufacturing slot machines on that site in 1894. It notes that he invented the first “three-reel” slot machine there. Today, the building is gone, destroyed by the infamous earthquake of 1906. However, the industry that Fey started and the machines he inspired, generate more annual income than the combined yearly revenues of live concerts and motion pictures. It can be difficult to imagine that the giant L&M “Mural,” Aristocrat “Double Neptune” or IGT “Wheel of Fortune Megatower” share any DNA with the tiny mechanical device that Fey designed. But they most definitely do.
Only three of these original” Liberty Bell” machines still exist. You can see one of them at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City (except Mondays and Tuesdays). They obtained it from collector Marshall Fey. Yes, he’s “Charlie’s” grandson.
For years before he retired, he and his brother, Frank, ran one of Reno’s most beloved restaurants: the Liberty Belle, then on the outskirts of town. There was probably never a Nevada politician, casino owner, or native Nevadan who didn’t share a cocktail or a prime rib dinner with the Fey brothers.
The place itself was also a living museum before being assimilated and demolished by the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in March of 2006. There were horse drawn wagons on the roof, and the backbar was salvaged from an early Reno gambling hall known as the Owl. The doors were from a San Francisco hotel and the entire place was filled with antique slot machines. There were nearly two dozen of them scatted amongst the booths and tables.
But if you got to know Marshall, he’d take you upstairs to the attic and show you his real collection of almost 100 historic machines (see the accompanying photo).
He started collecting because the industry was “in his blood”, and as he said last week, “they used to be affordable.”
As a TV news reporter in the early 1970s, I did more than one story about Marshall and his slot collection. It was probably those attic visits and long talks with Marshall that indirectly led me to a 30-year career in slot operations.
Marshall also became an author. To celebrate his grandfather and the history of slots, Marshall wrote the first edition of “Slot Machines” in 1983. All the photos – and there are hundreds in that book – were from those machines in the restaurant or in the attic. Later editions were subtitled “The First 100 Years” and now this latest, “America’s Favorite Gaming Device”. Over 35,000 copies have been sold. I reviewed this book almost a decade ago for another publication, but many of the comments I made then are still relevant:
When I started in this business, one of my early mentors said that everything I needed to know about slot machines was in this book. At the time, I thought the advice was patronizing. The slot machines that Fey’s grandfather had pioneered were marvels of springs and levers, but I saw little connection to or relevance with the EPROM-controlled machines of today.
In my novice opinion, there was no way the then-hip baby boomer crowd would respond to the same stimulus that motivated the flappers of the Roaring Twenties or the Silent Generation of GIs & Rosie Riveters from the 1940s.
As my career progressed, I came to realize that that advice was timeless and golden. There wasn’t any magic in Fey’s book – although it should be on every casino executive’s shelf – but what came through was the simple truth that we must constantly examine our history to see if any lessons still apply. I’ll argue that the basic human qualities that define entertainment and amusement have remained constant; it is our challenge to see if technology can restore, revive, or enhance some of them.
There are countless examples in the book. Fractional penny machines developed in Australia by Aristocrat fed the boom of today’s low-denom video games, offering highly volatile and extremely popular machines. However, the concept of two plays for a penny is right there in the book: the 1894 “Watson Combination” card and dice machine.
Think five-reelers are new? Mills first produced a double five-reeler in 1940. Multi-denom slot machines were first released on numerous upright wheel machines of the 1890s, and many will argue – with some merit – that these same machines were the inspiration for the legendary IGT “Wheel of Fortune.”
Ernie Moody, the founder of Action Gaming, revolutionized video poker by introducing the Three Play Poker, and later Five Play, in the late 1990s. Ernie most certainly came up with these concepts on his own, but if he needed any inspiration, it could be found on the “Quinette” machine made by Caille in 1901. It displayed five poker hands at a time with mechanical cards. Several other games of the day offered “skill stops” to freeze the cards or reels.
Taking time to look at concepts that worked in the past may be the quickest and easiest way to navigate the uncertain times of today. Was an old contest or promotion abandoned because it was too labor intensive? Did new regulations prohibit a marketing scheme? Did a good concept simply outlive its lifecycle? Or was it something else? And can today’s technology make what was old, new again?
In 1928, Caille added the first true jackpot to a slot machine. It was a simple cup of coins that spilled out when the jackpot bars were aligned. Bally upped the ante in 1963 with their “Money Honey” model that featured a large “coin hopper” billed as a “bottomless payout”. The basic idea was to make a lot of commotion and get more coins in the player’s hands quickly to impress nearby gamblers and allow the winners to put their jackpot right back in the slot.
Those early visible jackpot bins that players could watch fill up as they fed coins in the slot, led directly to the concept of today’s progressives. That’s a concept that is foundational with today’s hottest games: “Lightning Link” and “Dollar Link.”
You can find these game mechanics, and many more, in either this “Sixth Edition” or the earlier ones. All of them are easily found on Amazon or eBay. But if you’re at all intrigued (and want a memorable gift), why not buy a signed edition directly from the author? What could be better than getting a personalized autographed book, written by a slot legend, who’s the grandson of another slot legend – and, by the way, making sure that all of the money goes directly into his pocket (and not Jeff Bezos’)?
Marshall is now 94 and told me recently that his “warranty has probably expired.” His voice is a little weaker than when he was mixing drinks at the Liberty Belle, but he’s still selling and signing books as strong as ever. He can be reached by email at mfey@LibertyBelleBooks.com. Or you can go full old school and write a snail mail to him at his shop:
Liberty Belle Book Store
2925 West Moana Lane
Reno, NV 89509
The book is $35 plus $6 shipping. Marshall’s autograph is free.