Slot machines and players at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, in Atlantic City. Danny Drake

ATLANTIC CITY — Annabelle Pilkington usually plays dollar and $5 slot machines. She says she does well on them.

But a penny “Wheel of Fortune” machine at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa managed to get some of her action. Despite the fact that she did not know what symbols to watch for, the progressive jackpot of more than a half-million dollars glittering on the machine managed to catch her eye.

“I never played pennies, but because these two people hit, I thought I’d try it,” said Pilkington, of Huntington, N.Y. “I figured if they could win, I could win, too.”

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“Those two people” are lucky players who won multimillion-dollar jackpots playing penny machines at Borgata last month. One player from Staten Island, N.Y., won nearly $3.5 million. Less than two weeks later, a player from Ocean County hit for more than $4.9 million.

Pilkington and her husband, John, who spun the reels at a nearby machine, said they tried the penny “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” game — with its $2.6 million top prize — but switched to “Wheel of Fortune” after a bout of bad luck.

And if they don’t win their fortune on the Wheel? Annabelle Pilkington said she would go back to her dollar machines, and her husband said he would go to the blackjack tables.

Penny slots have come a long way from the dives in downtown Las Vegas, where casual players or down-and-out gamblers would bet 1 or 2 cents at a time in hopes of turning a few bucks into a long playing session with some free drinks.

These days, the term “penny slot” is often a misnomer, although it is possible to play 1 cent at a time on some machines. But many of the newer ones require more than a few pennies to get the reels spinning.

The minimum bet was 80 cents on the penny progressive “Wheel of Fortune” machine, where Rhonda Gershenoff, of Oakland, Bergen County, stared intently at the screen as the video reels spun. The jackpot was $538,468, smaller than she prefers to play for, but she sat down there because that bank of machines delivered a major prize last month, she said.

In fact, it was the machine to her immediate right that paid out the $3.5 million, Borgata spokesman Brian Brennan said. The jackpot was lower because it reset to $500,000 after the big win, he said.

“People think it’s only a penny, but you’re actually playing $4 a spin,” Gershenoff said. You have to play the maximum number of coins to win the jackpot, and she would be “pretty devastated” if the symbols lined up and she didn’t bet enough to take the prize.

Gershenoff said she likes the game because the bonus rounds give her many different ways to win. So far Friday, she had been doing pretty well. Last month, she won $25,000, which she said went into her children’s college fund.

How they work

Penny slot machines can offer huge jackpots because they are part of a “wide area progressive” network connecting all the casinos in the city that offer a particular game, said Jaclyn March, spokeswoman for International Game Technology, based in Nevada, which makes the “Wheel of Fortune” games. A portion of players’ losses contributes to the progressive jackpot until it hits, and then the prize is reset to a predetermined amount.

IGT has paid out more than $5.3 billion in MegaJackpots in Atlantic City, March said.

The wide-area progressives operate within a gaming jurisdiction, said Roy Shanahan, marketing communication specialist for Chicago-based WMS Industries, another slot manufacturer. While each Atlantic City casino offers some type of progressive slot, players here do not contribute to Nevada jackpots, or vice versa.

The casinos lease the wide-area progressive games from the manufacturer, and pay a percentage of the take or a set fee, Shanahan said. When the jackpot hits, the manufacturer pays out the prize money.

The penny and nickel progressive machines are taking up a larger share of space on casino floors, as they become more popular with players than higher-denomination machines, Shanahan said.

“You can cover many lines for a lower amount of money, so you have more chances to win on any spin,” Shanahan said. “The chance at a big win is very appealing to players.”

Not to mention that winning $4.9 million on a $4 “investment” is a pretty good return, he said.

Pennies to dollars

Penny slot machines have become more and more popular with Atlantic City players since they were introduced with little fanfare in 2002 at Tropicana Casino and Resort.

Atlantic City’s casinos averaged a total of 8,653 penny and two-cent slots in 2010, compared with 7,707 in 2009, the state Casino Control Commission says. Last year, the machines took nearly $806 million from players, up from nearly $747 million in 2009.

The Borgata has nearly 1,500 penny slot machines, 67 of which are connected to a wide-area progressive jackpot, Brennan said. The maximum bet ranges from $1.25 to $5.

The newer machines are more appealing to players, Brennan said. A bank of “Sex and the City” games was added to the casino in June, and Brennan said he has yet to walk by them and see an empty seat.

“Pennies are the most popular games on the floor,” said Mario DiGuiseppe, vice president of casino operations at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. “For the first time, you start seeing penny games in the high-limit slot rooms.”

The image of the penny games has changed dramatically, for both players and casinos, DiGuiseppe said.

 “A lot of the players who used to play dollars, because of the economy, have shifted to lower denominations,” DiGuiseppe said.

Rarely is someone seen playing just a few pennies at a time, DiGuiseppe said. Most gamblers will bet at least one coin on every possible line on the screen.

“I can get a lot more coin-in on the lower-denomination games,” DiGuiseppe said.

And the casino keeps more of the money bet on the penny slots than it does on the games played for higher stakes. In general, the higher-denomination machines pay back more to the player than the lower ones.

For example, Borgata kept 12 percent of the money wagered in its penny and 2-cent slots in December, compared with 8 percent of the money played in the dollar machines, Casino Control Commission statistics show. At the Taj Mahal, 12 percent of the money bet in the 1- and 2-cent machines went into the house coffers, as opposed to 6 percent of the dollar-machine wagers.

That means if Annabelle Pilkington does not hit that half-million-dollar “Wheel of Fortune” penny jackpot, she will probably do better to go back to the dollar games she usually plays. She won’t hit the big one, but she’ll probably keep more of her money.

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