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“Si Redd might have had a bigger impact on American casino gambling than anyone else . . . King of the Slots is a well-researched look into the life of an important, but undeservedly lesser-known, gaming pioneer. It deserves a place in everyone's library.”

 

David G. Schwartz, Director, UNLV Center for Gaming Research Las Vegas, Nevada

King of the Slots:

William “Si” Redd

 

 

Published 2010

by Praeger Publishing,

Santa Barbara, California

 

 

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BOOK SUMMARY

William Silas "Si" Redd was born on the lowest rung of life's social and economic ladder on November 16, 1911. He was the second born son of Marvin and Nannie Redd, sharecroppers who toiled the thin, grudging soil of a small east central Mississippi farm.

At seven-years old, Si made his first tentative step into the world of commerce, selling Grit magazines and Cloverine brand salve door to door in rural Mississippi. At seventeen he accepted a used, 1932 "Goofy" penny pinball machine as payment on a $16 loan to a friend. That single machine launched Redd on a career in the coin-operated amusement machine business that would last nearly three-quarters of a century, and carry him to the very pinnacle of wealth and business success.

Redd built successful coin-operated machine routes in Mississippi and Illinois through the depths of the Great Depression, owning and servicing thousands of pinball, amusement and food vending machines and jukeboxes. He married his high school sweetheart, and they started a family. Much of Redd's amazing success was based on his tremendous sales ability and his personal charisma. He was the embodiment of the old story of the salesman who could sell ice to Eskimos. But as Redd progressed further and further up the ladder of business success, it became apparent that his great sales ability alone was perhaps not enough. He was very poor at math, and he never understood the intricacies of financial statements or profit-and-loss ledgers; he never grasped the importance of the fine points of law that related to his enterprises and his industry; and he was never comfortable hiring others to manage the areas where he was weak. These same professional shortcomings have stymied the careers of thousands of busines executives; but to Si Redd, they were merely temporary stumbling blocks to overcome by working harder, cleverness, and a natural instinct for the marketplace.

In 1942 Redd was offered the opportunity to buy the New England distributorship for Wurlitzer jukeboxes. For the next twenty-five years he experienced a number of financial ups and downs; but when he bumped heads with the New England Mafia in the mid-1960s, he realized it was time to move on. What followed took him to the zenith of his amazing business career, and made him arguably the most important person in the nation's growing gambling industry in the second half of the twentieth century.

An old friend, Bill O'Donnell, the president of Bally Manufacturing Company, told Redd that his company was about to enter the slot machine business in Nevada, then the only state in the union with legalized casino gambling. Because of Bally's history of shady mob affiliations, the company could not get licensed to sell their new machines in the state; and O'Donnell convinced Redd to become their distributor.

The now fifty-six year old Redd traveled to Reno, Nevada, to familiarize himself with the gambling capital. He was overwhelmed. As he walked the downtown streets of the city's casino corridor, watching the players, mesmerized by the bright lights, noise and excitement, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "I'd had all those years of experience in the coin machine business, and here was an opportunity that I never dreamed existed," Redd enthused. He called his wife in Boston the next morning and told her to begin packing.

When Redd arrived in Nevada in 1967, casino gambling had changed little since it had been legalized in the state in 1931. Craps, blackjack and other table games were king; slot machines were abided only as a necessary evil, something to keep the wives and girlfriends occupied while the menfolk played at the tables. Slot machines had not changed since the invention of the three-reel Liberty Bell - the infamous one-armed bandit - in 1899. One man, Si Redd, believed it was a fertile field, ripe for change.

Bally's "Money Honey" slot machines were the very first to integrate new Apollo moon landing-era electronic technology into what had heretofore been strictly mechanical machines. It was a major breakthrough, but casino owners failed to recognize the significance of it. That is, until the glib, smooth-talking sharecropper's son from Mississippi hit town. Over the next decade his Bally Distributing Company would turn Nevada on its ear. With a genius for spotting where the market was heading, and an uncanny instinct for knowing what the customer wanted, Redd introduced a plethora of new, improved slot games, and gamblers flocked to them, exponentially increasing casino profits and overall gaming revenues. In only a few years Redd had also muscled his way into the burgeoning Southern Nevada market, until he controlled distribution of almost 95 percent of all slot machines in Nevada. But he had barely scratched the surface.

By the mid-1970s Bally wanted to buy Redd's distribution company, and a three-year period of negotiation began. Redd had assembled a talented team of engineers and electronic experts, mostly refugees from California's slumping aerospace industry, who had been quietly developing a new generation of slot machine games. At the head of the list were video games, particularly a new game called video poker that Redd instinctively realized had fabulous potential. Bally didn't agree; and when Redd's deal to sell the distributorship to the company was finalized, he had snookered them and retained the rights to the video games. It was a consummate Si Redd deal, and it would change the face of the gaming landscape.

After his sale to Bally, Redd started a new firm, A-1 Supply Company. It included his slot machine development division, some other existing machines he had held onto after the sale, a number of small casinos he had purchased, and an extensive slot route operation for selling the company's machines. In 1981 A-1 Supply Company was renamed International Game Technology, or IGT, headquartered in Reno. As casino gaming proliferated throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, IGT would become the world's leading manufacturer of slot machines, mega-jackpot systems and player tracking software, testament to the vision and foresight of one man: William Si Redd.

In 1985 Redd sold his stake in IGT, and became a multi-millionaire. But even then, as he reached seventy-five years old, the old warhorse had no intention of slowing down. He invested and lost over twenty million dollars in a failed Mississippi gambling ship venture; but his activities did lead to that state's first-ever gaming law. He built a huge multi-dimensional resort and mixed-use community in Mesquite, Nevada; and he had his finger in at least a dozen other gaming enterprises. Finally, still active to the end, Si Redd passed away in 2002.

Redd's personal life was as colorful and exciting as his professional life, and the book also follows this thread throughout his long and fruitful years. Thrice married, the legendary entrepreneur had many wealthy and famous friends; and he would have easily earned the moniker as a flamboyant, one-of-a-kind character even if he had never achieved the status of a captain of industry. Si Redd truly squeezed the last ounce of juice out of life, personally and professionally.