ATLANTIC CITY - Ed Wilds and his friend Kathy Morse, both seemingly mesmerized, watched intently as the numbered wheels atop their slot machines whirled at high speed.
Audio from the 25-cent Wheel of Fortune machines simulated the applause from an audience. Other gamblers briefly stopped playing their own machines to share in the excitement with Wilds and Morse.
When the wheel stopped on Wilds' jackpot, the machine flashed 75 credits, or $18.75, well short of the maximum win of 2,000 credits or $500. It was a modest haul for Wilds, but it didn't seem to matter. He and Morse clapped as though they had just hit a huge jackpot.
"When you get the spin, that's when you can get the big win," Morse said.
Call it the appeal of the wheel.
Gamblers have been fascinated for years by the allure of spinning wheels. Although Wheel of Fortune and other spinning slot machines have been around for a long time, they never seem to lose their popularity.
Even International Game Technology, the Nevada-based maker of the Wheel of Fortune slots, isn't sure of the psychological connection between gamblers and the games. However, the company offered this simple explanation about the machines' powerful lure: They're fun.
"Modern reel-spinning games replicate the experience of the original mechanical reel-spinning slot machines. Spinning-reel games offer fun and intuitive play, which add to their continued popularity on casino floors," said Tim Shortall, vice president of Eastern Region sales for IGT.
Morse and Wilds, both of Long Island, N.Y., acknowledged they are drawn to the Wheel of Fortune slots. No, Wilds said with a chuckle, it's not because of Vanna White, the pretty letter-turner of the wildly popular TV game show that inspired the slot machine.
"It's the wheel," Wilds said matter-of-factly.
Steve Callender, a Tropicana senior executive, recalled when he used to work at Resorts Casino Hotel for Merv Griffin, the casino owner and Wheel of Fortune game inventor who died in 2007.
"He enjoyed Wheel of Fortune more than anything else because he thought it was fun," Callender said. "All you have to do is ... watch the wheel go round to see if it's going to hit. If you were lucky enough to grow up on the Boardwalk, it takes you back to the days when the wheels would spin at the arcades."
Kathleen Brown, a Tropicana customer from Edison, Middlesex County, said she enjoys playing the Wheel of Fortune machines even if she is losing. She noted that the machines are so popular that she usually has to wait for a spot to open up before she can start gambling.
"I don't know what keeps drawing me back to it," Brown said. "I have no idea what it is. I've sat here for hours at times, because they've kept me playing."
Wheel of Fortune is the superstar of slot machines. Callender called it the most popular slots game in history. For the casinos, it is probably the most profitable game ever, he added.
"It's something they are familiar with," Callender said of the attraction for gamblers. "You grow up watching Wheel of Fortune on television and come to the casino floor and - bang - there it is."
The appeal of Wheel of Fortune extends from Atlantic City to Las Vegas, and beyond. Since the game was first launched in 1996, more than $2.5 billion in jackpots have been paid on the machines at casinos across the country. No other casino game has paid out more, Shortall said.
"Ask our players. They'll say the fascination involves the potential for winning," he said.
And more than anything else, players want to win.
"I think it's an ego function. People like to be seen winning," said Jason Seelig, executive vice president of sales and marketing for New Jersey-based AC Coin & Slot, the only slot machine manufacturer on the East Coast.
Slots have evolved from the primitive one-armed bandits of yesteryear into multimedia, technological wonders. The latest slot machines feature sophisticated computer software, touch-screen technology, vivid graphics, video streaming and high-end sound systems. Adding to the entertainment are bonus features and betting options that give players more chances to win.
One of the companies at the forefront of the next generation of slot machines is AC Coin, a family-owned business in Pleasantville founded by Mac Seelig in 1978, the same year casino gambling began in Atlantic City. The company, run by Mac Seelig and sons Jason, Jerry and Jeff, is known for its whimsical designs.
"When a person sits at a slot machine, they want to be entertained," Jason Seelig said.
One of AC Coin's popular inventions is the Slotto game, which features lottery-style ping pong balls bouncing around in a display case on top of the slot machines. AC Coin's machines also make liberal use of light panels and carousel-style designs to entertain gamblers, but they don't incorporate spinning wheels.
"I think the wheel is overly done, so we stay away from it," Seelig said. "But movement is a big part of our game."
Whether they use light panels, wheels or other devices, slot manufacturers know they have to constantly update their products or introduce entirely new games to cater to the fickle tastes of the gambling public.
"There are a lot of things that go into a slot machine," Seelig explained. "I think the first thing is to make it fun. Creating a game that makes a person happy is important."
One trend that has emerged in recent years is "communal gaming." While some gamblers may prefer to play in solitude, others can join together on a gigantic Wheel of Fortune machine that offers 10 seats and allows players to share in the winnings. Those machines, known as Super Spin, are now a common site at the Atlantic City casinos, including Tropicana.
"There's a community factor associated with it," Callender said.
Bathed in bright lights and topped by a big glass dome in the middle, the communal Wheel of Fortune machine looks like a spaceship preparing to blast off when the wheel spins.
Judy Smith and Rose Markey, neighbors from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., fed a $20 bill into the 5-cent slot machine while trying it for the first time. A few spins later, they hit the bonus round.
Markey tapped the spin button again. The words "Good Luck," flashed on the screen, followed by "Watch the Wheel." Then the wheel began gyrating furiously. When it stopped, it awarded 400 credits, or $80.
"I think it's cool," Markey exclaimed. "Anytime you win is good."
Callender smiled as all of the hoopla unfolded. The lights, the music and the spinning wheel all added to the excitement of winning.
"It's a sensory thing," Callender said. "There have been a lot of variations of the game, but it's still based on the spinning wheel."
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