Slot machines to tempt gamblers with pounds 1m jackpots

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The Independent Online
YOU thought the National Lottery was the end of it? Think again. Slot machines paying out a jackpot as high as pounds 1m are likely to tempt punters in British casinos next year, in direct competition with the lottery.

Changes in gaming regulations proposed by the Home Office last week will allow casinos to link slot machines together, so as to build up a big jackpot, American-style.

"There is no reason why a bank of 16 machines linked together could not produce seven-figure jackpots, or prizes of at least pounds 500,000," says Mike Allison, chairman of Grosvenor Clubs, the largest casino group in Britain.

"We have not decided exactly how to play it yet," Mr Allison said. "Stakes may go as high as pounds 5 per machine, but we think a combination of 20p, 50p and pounds 1 coins is probably the right mix. We welcome the relaxation of restrictions and will be looking at all the possibilities."

It's a dream-like vision: pounds 1m in small change gushing, hour after hour, from the bottom of the machine. But as one million pound coins would weigh more than nine tonnes, a pounds 1m winner would have to be paid by cheque.

The pounds 1m win would follow the same course as for today's prizes: on hitting the winning line on the machine - all modern slots are programmed by computer chip - a light flashes on top, bells start ringing and the machine starts beaming out noise and light like a demented robot. An inspector is immediately called to open it up, check it has been operating correctly - and without fraud - and verify the jackpot. In American casinos, big-time winners are photographed, wined and dined, and interviewed on television as minor celebrities. A millionaire winner is a happy event but, on the laws of probability, a rare one.

That won't stop them. Players like slots because of the thrill they offer, and also because without the presence of a dealer or other players in contention, slots are user-friendly.

"I like playing machines because it is so tantalising, going higher and higher as you try to reach the jackpot," said Eddie, a player at the largest casino in the country, the Grosvenor Victoria in Edgware Road, London. Under the new proposals, the Grosvenor Victoria would be able to install 64 slot machines.

Hans, a German tourist, playing a slot machine displaying the electronic message: "Play me now - Loads of Cash" said: "I don't think there is any skill anyway." Other players disagree, claiming that after "amateur" players have spent a fortune on the slots, experts like to jump in when the machines are "hot".

Glossier establishments, like the Ritz Club in Piccadilly, would probably disdain anything so noisy as a slot machine, seeing it as a distraction from the serious business of gambling. But there seems little doubt that if the Home Office proposals get support Britain will turn into a nation of slot players.

"We are merely coming into line with the international trend," said Tom Kavanagh, Secretary of the British Gaming Board. "In our view, it is hard to argue that you cannot run a regulatory system for casinos that operate slot machines. It may be this is only the first step."

Under current regulations, which the gaming industry complains are far too restrictive, casinos are limited to only two machines each, shortly to be increased to six.

While the new proposals by the Home Office may not turn London's 21 casinos into Las Vegas replicas, they will certainly change their style. In the US, two-thirds of casino revenue comes from slot machine play. Judging from the popularity of amusement and slot machines in arcades, pubs and golf clubs, punters are likely to welcome the new regime.

The Home Office is proposing that the pay-out on slot machines should be raised from 72 per cent of the takings to 80 per cent. Gaming analysts note that this is still well below international norms.

"The return to players in Las Vegas goes as high as 95 or 96 per cent," Mr Allison said, "and in European countries it is around 90 per cent. The reason is that when casinos are operating hundreds of machines, they can afford economies of scale. We think an 80 per cent pay-out is sensible and in practice it may be more."

The easing of advertising restrictions - which at present bar casinos even from listing their addresses in yellow pages - will also be a big boost to the casino industry. In future, casinos may be allowed to print their location in phone directories, listing magazines and holiday guides.

The proposed extension of liquor licensing hours to 2am - 3am in London - will mean punters can have a drink and still gamble the night away - though drinking at the gaming tables will still be taboo.