Tuesday, April 17, 2001 | 8:59 a.m.
Ever since Charles Fey invented the first three-reel slot machine in 1898, people have been devising systems to beat the device that has become the most popular type of gaming in Las Vegas.
One of the latest "how to" systems is a video entitled "James Coburn's Winning Strategies Series: Slots."
There are two other videos in the series, addressing blackjack and craps. Each video sells for $19.95 (with shipping and handling, it's $24.90).
Mark Zimmerman, producer of the series, said he doesn't need the publicity and was not interested in discussing his video, which is repeatedly advertised on cable television.
In lieu of an interview, the Sun purchased and viewed the tape, opting to let its information speak for itself:
The title is somewhat misleading. Veteran actor Coburn, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Affliction," merely lends his face to the production, acting as a host who introduces the narrator, Jack Smith. Coburn appears for less than five minutes.
"If you're an intelligent slot player who knows the odds and plays within your means, there are ways to beat the slots at their own game," Coburn declares.
The video claims to be based on books by professional gambler Frank Scoblete. It warns against doing anything illegal, such as trying to manipulate the machines.
Here's the short version of the hour-long video: Either put your coin into the slot machine, or don't.
The video offers information on how slots work, which machines to play, the best strategies, where to find the highest paybacks, money-management techniques and myths about slots.
As a kicker, the video throws in a few tips on playing video poker, which is not exactly like playing regular poker since "you're not playing against other players, you're playing against a machine," and therefore basic poker strategy can be wrong.
Some of the video poker tips include: in jokers-wild poker, never discard a joker; in deuces-wild poker, never discard a deuce.
Other advice is about slot clubs, whose members build up points by playing slot machines at the clubs' casino. The points can be used for comps, merchandise and other valuable items.
The video's advice on the clubs is to join as many of them as you can. "Almost every casino has a slot club," the video's narrator reveals.
The tape is divided into three sections: how slot machines work, basic strategies and myths.
Under the heading of "How Slot Machines Work," there are several pieces of advice, such as:
The tape's playing strategy boils down to: Play what you can afford and play for a predetermined length of time and amount of money. Also, quit a session when you have lost the last 10 spins in a row.
Among the myths dispelled on the video:
Some of the information on the tape may also be found in a book written by Las Vegan Dwight Crevelt in 1987 entitled "Slot-Machine Mania."
Crevelt is co-owner of a company called Promotional Games. He designs slots and is a consultant to the gaming industry.
One of Crevelt's latest creations is the $10-million Money Madness game at the Silver Legacy in Reno, and a game called Break the Bank, at Caesars Tahoe. He also developed a computerized tracking system in 1985 that most casino slot clubs use to follow machine play by their members.
"Slot strategy comes down to money management and not playing," Crevelt said.
He said some of the ideas in the video that he has heard about (he has not viewed the tape) are just common sense -- such as playing what you can afford.
"Go to a casino only with what you are willing to lose," he said. "Don't take an ATM card, so that you are not tempted to use it. Keep yourself in your (predetermined) loss limit. If you hit a big jackpot, get it in cash and put it away and don't dip back into it."
Crevelt said the maximum payback varies from machine to machine.
"Typically, it's in the 94- to 97-percent range," he said.
There are no laws governing how much the payback must be, but there are laws governing the minimum payout.
"In Nevada, the minimum is 75 percent," he said. "How much is paid back is determined by the slot manager of each property."
Competition among the casinos keeps the payback relatively high. Crevelt said slots, which may account for as much as 90 percent of a casino's earnings, are popular because they are simple, and there is not an "embarrassment factor."
People who don't know the rules of table games, such as poker or craps, may be embarrassed if they make a mistake, he said.
"But anybody can stick a coin into a slot and press a button," Crevelt said. "It's simple, easy and entertaining -- and you have a shot at getting something for nothing."
In the early days of Las Vegas slot machines were boring, used as a diversion for the spouses of real gamblers who were at the table games.
But by the early '90s slot machines became dominant in casinos. Today's machines are more entertaining.
"We've designed these machines to take the money as painlessly as possible, to make it entertaining and to look good," Crevelt said.
But real gamblers still avoid them. "No professional gambler makes a living off slots," he said.
Peter Ruchman, a local book store owner and recognized authority on gambling and gaming history, has watched "Winning Strategies." But it's not on the shelves of the Gambler's Book Club book store on 11th Street, alongside several other videos and books on beating the slots.
"We try to present a 360-degree point of view," Ruchman, general manager of the book store, said. "I don't believe in censorship. If you ask me what I think of slots, I'm going to be very honest with you. They take your money and give you very little value.
"In gambling, you're looking for value (the best odds). If you are a value-oriented person, stay away from slots. There are better bets in the casino."
Ruchman sniffed at some of the advice contained in the "Winning Strategies" video.
"If you're going to play the things at all, play the maximum coins," Ruchman said. "The only way to manage your money is to walk away."
But, he said, slot machines are addictive and hard to walk away from. "They're the crack cocaine of the industry. They are enticing, they talk to you, they grunt, they cheer, they do funny things.
"Manufacturers are making them interactive. They stimulate most of your senses. The 'Family Feud' machines will even argue with you."
Ruchman said slot machines are one of the worst bets in a casino. "Keno is No. 1 and then slot machines, and you can throw in the 'Wheel of Fortune.' "
Slot machines, Ruchman said, are good for people who don't want the social interaction that comes with playing table games.
"There is an entertainment value there, I guess," he said. "You get some bang for your buck."
Ruchman's review of "Winning Strategies" was short and to the point: "Basically, it's snake oil."