Gulf Coast a graveyard for thousands of slot machines - Friday 14th of October 2005

C.J. "Mac" McClendon spent years installing slot machines on the Gulf Coast. These days, hes exhuming them from the steely graves of wrecked casino barges.

When Katrina leveled the Gulfport and Biloxi area, the powerful hurricane silenced about 18,000 slot machines.

Some washed into the sea. Looters ran off with others. And the vast majority of the machines — about 75% — were destroyed.

"I cant think of anything that is even close to this," said Mike Ulmer, North American casino services manager for International Game Technology, the worlds largest maker of slot machines.

After taking care of their employees, Reno-based IGT and other big slot makers are sifting through the twisted casino barges, trying to salvage machines and reclaim the ones they leased to the gambling companies.

They havent found much to save at the 13 casinos that dotted the Mississippi coast.

On Monday, McClendon and two IGT technicians descended on the Copa Casino in Gulfport to remove 17 of the approximately 1,250 ruined machines that once operated there.

The casino barge was lifted from its moorings and tossed into the port, coming to a halt on the asphalt, where ocean waves continued to pound it, continuously drenching the machines in salt water.

Inside the Copa, battered and broken slot machines littered the casino floor, forming row after row of metallic corpses. All the favorites were there: The Wheel of Fortune, Lobster Mania, Enchanted Unicorn and Cleopatra. A pair of Regis Philbin machines were still standing in one corner.

"Its hard to write off Regis," said McClendon, casino services manager in IGTs Gulfport office.

But a pair of workers soon toppled the heavy machines. Regis had suffered the same fate as his noisy brethren. The ocean had ended their coin-gobbling careers, destroying their electronic innards and causing them to rust.

"Imagine throwing your computer into the ocean, drying it out and seeing how it works," said McClendon.

Nearly all the slot machines that took money had been opened, evidence that Copa employees had removed most of the coin and cash.

But some 5-cent machines still had nickels in them. In one area of the casino, a dozen or so buckets were filled with thousands of nickels.

"Quite frankly, the priority was getting the paper money out," explained Rick Quinn, the Copas chief executive. "Were still working on getting the last of the nickels out of here."

Quinn said looters climbed aboard the Copa, but didnt get away with any real money since the machines had been mostly emptied. The machine tokens, he added, were worthless.

"There was looting taking place all over the coast," he said.

Dan Lee, chairman and chief executive of Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., said thieves sneaked into his casino and tried breaking into the machines and security carts that hold money.

He said they almost got lucky — coming close to discovering roughly $400,000 that was inside a locked cash cart and left in the casino during the storm. Pinnacle recovered the money, Lee said. Armed guards now protect the casino.

State gambling regulators are supposed to keep track of every slot machine, but Katrina has made that task unrealistic. For instance, its unclear how many machines the ocean swallowed.

"Basically, its impossible to account for each and every one of those lost," said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

IGT had about 1,000 games in the area. The recovered machines, which can cost between $10,000 and $12,000, are being shipped to IGT headquarters, where theyll be either scrapped or repaired if possible.

With people always devising ways to cheat the machines, IGT isnt taking any chances. Not every one-armed bandit has turned up and the company intends to protect its sophisticated software that controls who wins and who loses.

Ulmer said IGT is looking at writing new computer programs to make sure future jackpots are legitimate. People could possibly manipulate the jackpots if they managed to get their hands on certain machines.

"When we go in there and verify a jackpot well be able to see whether its an old program that somebody stole during the storm or a new one."

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