Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2018

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Gaming pioneer known for invention, generosity dies

When Si Redd, creator of the video poker machine, read reports that called his invention "the crack cocaine of gambling," he did not take offense.

Instead he read more and listened to experts, then went on to help those who were addicted, advising them where to go for help and urging them, if necessary, to move away from Las Vegas.

"Of course it hurts me when such things are said, I guess because it is kind of the truth," Redd told the Sun in 2001. "I never intended it to become that way, and I never could have dreamed of how successful the video poker machine would become."

William "Si" Redd, the legendary "king of the slot machines," founder of International Game Technology of Reno and former longtime owner of Si Redd's Oasis Hotel in Mesquite, died Tuesday at his summer home at Solana Beach, Calif., after a lengthy illness. He was 91 and a resident of Las Vegas.

Services for the Nevada resident of 36 years will be 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Palm Mortuary, 7600 S. Eastern Ave.

With a group of engineers at IGT, Redd created the Megabucks statewide network of gaming machines that pays multimillion-dollar jackpots and video games for keno and blackjack as well as poker. Redd admitted he did not play the machines he invented.

In addition to his gaming accomplishments, Redd was a philanthropist known for his generosity to animal rights organizations and to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Si Redd Room and the Redd Vision video screen scoreboard at the Thomas & Mack Center are named for him.

"Si is truly one of our state's pioneers, and the legacy he leaves has had a profound impact on Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada," UNLV President Carol Harter said of Redd, an inaugural inductee into the Nevada Business Hall of Fame at UNLV in 2002

"He and his late wife, Marilyn, meant a great deal to the UNLV community," Harter said, noting the couple's support for Rebel athletics, the Thomas & Mack Center and the UNLV Sports Medicine Center.

"Si certainly was a gambling original," said Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. "He had a remarkable personality and an innate understanding for what America's gamblers want and need. He was a linchpin for our industry."

David G. Schwartz, coordinator of the UNLV Gaming Studies Research Center, says Redd's place in gaming history is significant.

"He was tremendously important," said Schwartz, author of the recently released book "Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond."

"He parlayed the selling of jukeboxes into investments in coin-operated gaming machines that he sold through his Bally's Distributing Co. He got the rights to video poker and founded and built IGT into the company that today controls three-quarters of the American slot market. He was a visionary."

Chuck Mathewson, chairman of IGT and a longtime friend, said Redd "had gaming machines in his blood."

"He was everything to us -- without Si Redd there would be no IGT," Mathewson said. "He was a great salesman -- an inspirational man. Very few figures in our industry are bigger than life. Steve Wynn is one. Si Redd also was one."

Redd's son-in-law Alan Green, chief executive of Mesquite Vistas Land Development Co. and the Oasis Golf Course, two companies founded by Redd, said when others gave up on the idea of video technology early on, his father-in-law saw great potential for the devices.

"When he left Bally's Manufacturing, he retained the rights to the video technology and Bally's agreed to stay out of video machines for 10 years," Green said, "The rest was history.

"It took a couple of years for video poker to catch on, but he convinced the Doubting Thomases and enjoyed the fruits of his labor."

Redd said he never thought his inventions would become such a phenomenon.

"I honestly thought video poker would be a novelty game that people would put a few dollars into then go to the (mechanical) slots and table games," Redd said in 2001.

Later he proposed that the game also generate revenues to help those who became obsessed with -- and in debt from -- playing video gaming machines.

"I think that with the money they make today, casino operators should take $1 per machine per day and put it into a fund to help those who have become addicted to video poker," Redd told the Sun.

Just weeks after the Sun article was published, IGT pledged $50,000 a year for three years to Problem Gambling Consultants, a nonprofit treatment center for problem gambling. Mathewson said that since then IGT has given similar donations to other nonprofit organizations that fight gambling addiction.

Redd maintained that although the video poker machine had been harmful to some, he slept soundly at nights because he had given away so much of the money he made from the machines to the poor and to other worthy causes.

Born Nov. 16, 1911, in Union, Miss., Redd had a fascination with pinball machines as a teenager.

At age 18, while working as a poolroom shoeshine boy, Redd invested $16 in a Bally's Goofy pinball machine and installed it in a local hamburger joint, he told the Sun in 2001. His first week's take was $32.

By the time Redd was attending the University of Mississippi as a pre-law student, he had a thriving coin-operated machine trade.

In the late 1930s Redd made a deal with the Wurlitzer Co. to buy outdated jukeboxes, and in little time he and his Northwestern Music Co. had thriving routes in the small Illinois towns of Sterling and Dixon. Impressed with Redd's handling of the small route, Bally's gave him the lucrative Boston route.

In 1967 Bally's sent Redd to Reno, where he found instant success marketing the "Big Bertha" reel slot machines. One of his unfulfilled dreams was to build a 15-story Big Bertha slot machine in Las Vegas.

Redd formed Bally Distributing Co., to sell Bally's products. His marketing ventures soon spread to Carson City and Las Vegas.

Redd said his key to success was creating and marketing devices that were more liberal, with more jackpots than the machines of the past.

Redd developed the concept of the "99 percent payout" on dollar slots, which attracted a generation of gamblers who otherwise never would have put coins into the machines they called "one-armed bandits."

In 1978 Redd left Bally's to form his own company, first known as Sircoma and later as International Game Technology. In addition to being IGT's founder, Redd also served as its original president and chairman of the board.

After his retirement from IGT in the early 1990s, Redd was involved in several businesses, including part ownership of "The Pride Of Mississippi," a luxury off-shore gaming boat.

In 2001 Redd sold his interest in the Oasis, which he had bought as a small truck-stop casino called the Peppermill in the early 1980s. He had turned it into a resort complete with a spa and a 1,000-room hotel.

Among his many civic awards, Redd was honored on Nov. 16, 1996, by then-Gov. Bob Miller as Nevada's most innovative gaming pioneer. That same year he was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame. In 2001 Redd received the Chin's Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Redd was a member of the UNLV Gift Club Palladium Society and funded scholarships. He also hosted UNLV football training camps at the Oasis.

Redd credited much of his success in life to his mother, Nancy Redd, a religious woman who at first opposed his gaming ventures but later supported him as he gave away large sums of his money to help the disadvantaged.

"I am unquestionably the luckiest man in the world," Redd said in 2001. "I've had a great mother, three wonderful wives and a lot of fun from Mississippi to Illinois to Massachusetts to Nevada."

Redd married his high school sweetheart, Ivy Lee, in 1932. She died in 1974. A year later, Redd married a real estate entrepreneur named Marilyn, who died in 1996. In the late 1990s, Redd married a registered nurse about half his age named Tammy.

About his July-December romance with Tamara "Tammy" L. Redd, Si mused that he was no fool because he was getting old and "I decided to buy myself a nurse."

Tammy was at Si's bedside caring for him when he died, his family said.

In addition to his wife, Redd is survived by two daughters, Vinnie Copeland of Wellesley, Mass., and Sherry Green of Mesquite; seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

The family said contributions can be made in Si Redd's memory to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Foundation, P.O. Box 451006 Las Vegas, NV 89154-1006.