Penny slots heat up at casinos

By Mary Perez/The Sun Herald

BILOXI — They look and sound like video games and the bonus rounds make penny slots the hottest games in town.

Not just at the Isle Casino in Biloxi, but pretty much at every jurisdiction and every casino across the country the penny machines are popular, said Mike Cray, director of casino operations at the Isle.

“The manufacturers are coming out with great themes and making them more exciting,” he said, and players have their favorites, including penguins, eBay, Wizard of Oz and Wheel of Fortune.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission reports Coast casinos have 8,078 penny slots now, compared to 6,272 in 2007 and 3,050 before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The odds of winning are still in favor of the casino. Cray said the higher denominations have a 97 percent payback, and the penny slots a 91 percent payback.

Yet, players are loyal to the new games.

“I always play penny slots,” said Theresa West of Biloxi, who on a recent visit had hit a bonus round on the Meteor Storm slot at the Island View Casino in Gulfport.

When a certain combination of symbols appear in a winning combination, the slot machine goes into a bonus round and the screen shows an animated meteor strike or other graphic to match the theme of the game.

Bonus rounds give the player a chance to win free spins or cash, depending on the machine.

“I come for the game. I don’t come to win big,” West said.

But some people do hit the jackpot.

In January, players won a $1 million Megajackpot in Colorado and a $4.1 Megajackpot in Las Vegas by playing penny slots.

And Cray said a recent penny slot jackpot at the Isle was $272,000 on a progressive Monopoly game. The term progressive means the jackpot keeps building at casinos throughout the state until one person wins.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a few pennies can get a player a new ride home from the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. Perched above a bank of slots is a bright yellow 2010 Bumble Bee Camaro valued at around $50,000 and across the casino floor is a $130,000 shiny red Audi R8.

“Where else can you bet literally 9 cents and win a $130,000 car?” asked Jake Vanderlie, vice president of slots at the Beau Rivage.

Players have to wager at least 9 cents and have their player club cards in the machine.

“It could hit at any second,” said Vanderlie. “It’s guaranteed to hit between $100 and the value of the car.”

The Beau Rivage went from last in the number of penny machines on the casino floor to the top, Vanderlie said, and are adding still more penny slots.

There is intense competition between the slot machine manufacturers to introduce the latest games, and casinos bring in players with competitions such as Island View’s Wednesday night slot tournaments for $5,000 in free play and promotions like the Beau Rivage’s Scratch it Rich for up to $2 million in cash, free play and electronics.

When Island View Casino in Gulfport opened after Hurricane Katrina, the management recognized the trend toward penny slots.

“We have a huge percentage of penny machines,” said Chad Dugger, director of slots.

“The reason why the penny slots are so popular is because of the play dynamics,” he said, and because guests can play longer on less money.

Kay Phelan of Destin, Fla., recently won $1,800 on the Tigress game at Island View. Her mother, Jo Chandler, also of Destin, Fla., was celebrating her 85th birthday at Island View.

They have been playing the slots for 10 or 15 years and Chandler said, “the interactive screen, the bonuses and sounds are so much more enjoyable.”

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