During a recent morning at the El Cortez, Phyllis Henry heard a noise that has become all but extinct on Las Vegas casino floors. It was the ching-ching-ching of coins crashing down from a machine into a metal tray.
In this case, it was $200 worth of quarters from a Double Double Bonus Poker game. After logging the win in the notebook she uses to track her slot play, Henry began dumping fistfuls of the quarters into an old cottage cheese container.
“I’ve already put $100 in it and I’ve only been here for about 30 minutes,” said Henry, 84. “I only play these machines and the Joker Poker ones. I play the (coin machines) because it’s what I’ve always done all the years I’ve played. I guess I like to get my fingers dirty.”
Smudgy hands — courtesy of the grime that has collected on the coins — once were common among players, but no longer. At casinos here and around the country, it’s becoming harder to find coin slot machines. They long ago gave way to machines that operate on paper money and a ticket-in/ticket-out system, now the industry standard.
But some casinos still offer coin machines partly for nostalgia’s sake but also to appeal to players like Henry, who said she visits El Cortez nearly every day. The casino offers about 175 coin-operated machines, which is believed to be the most of any Las Vegas property.
“We have all the latest and greatest (machines) on our slot floor, but we intend on keeping a selection of coin machines,” said Adam Wiesberg, general manager at El Cortez. “We have a process where we take away some games every month that don’t get as much play, but we have players who love these machines.”
Wiesberg said the old machines were built well, and the in-house technicians at El Cortez could usually fix any malfunctions. Sometimes, that work includes tracking down old parts that are no longer in circulation.
“It takes a special set of skills to be able to maintain 175 coin games,” Wiesberg said. “Most people coming up in the industry now have no knowledge of coin machines.”
Henry is far from the only El Cortez regular who regularly plays its old-style machines.
Just before Henry collected on her $200 win, Helen Iwata, 88, could be seen a short walk away playing one of the casino’s Joker Poker coin games.
Iwata, who also plays at the downtown casino almost every day, has been coming to the El Cortez since 1965.
“I knew Jackie Gaughan,” Iwata said of the late owner of the casino and hotel. “He was very nice, just like the staff here today. He would talk to me in the elevator. He was very down-to-earth. I play all the machines, but these are my favorite.”
Keeping that connection with longtime players is important for the employees at El Cortez, many of whom have worked there for a decade or longer, said Rick Ronca, the casino’s slot director.
“When you go to a place where it’s just ticket-in and ticket-out, you don’t really need any (maintenance) staff for that,” Ronca said. “Here, our staff is critical to us. They know each regular customer by name. They greet them and talk to them. I don’t have an employee who’s been here less than eight years. The average is probably about 30 years.”
For the newer casinos, Wiesberg said, fully automated machines are more profitable because there isn’t a need for a staff member to service a broken-down coin machine.
“We require more labor,” Wiesberg said. “Our ownership still appreciates that connection with the customer, which many places have gotten away from. They’ve gotten away from it because there’s no money in it, but for us, it’s a legacy that we’re trying to maintain. Our customers are loyal.”
As sometimes happens with vintage items, some of the old pull-handle coin games, which are in a different area on the casino floor, have even become a tourist draw at El Cortez.
“People from all over the world come to play these pull-handle games,” Wiesberg said. “There’s not many of these left in the city. Maintaining these, with the pull-handles and all the reels, can be tough. On the weekends, we’ll have people lined up to use these and we’ve gotten press from all over the world on them.”
Players can also use paper dollars on most of the old pull-handle games, but the validating technology inside them is so dated, El Cortez staff had to have a local metal fabrication firm create a bracket piece for the machines that enabled use of new bills.
Those machines also can take dollar tokens, which, like the rest of the coins that come through the El Cortez floor, are counted every night. Around $30,000 worth of quarters and $3,000 in nickels are counted in the casino’s coin room on a nightly basis. The different denominations are sorted by a machine and placed into bags.
On a recent morning, rows of $400 quarter bags were stacked atop each other, waiting to be taken to the bank.
Those handling the money in the coin room wear jumpsuits with no pockets and pass by a security guard with a metal-detecting wand each day when they leave.
It’s the work performed by the maintenance folks, coin-counters and security personnel that make it possible for people like Phyllis Henry and Helen Iwata to keep playing the games they love.
“I go home in the afternoon to take care of my dog,” Henry said. “By the time I get done every day at about 2:30 or 3 o’clock, my hands will look like I’ve been in a coal mine all day. It’s the way I started years ago and it’s just the way I play.”