The gaming industry sadly lost an icon last month when Michael “Mickey” Wichinsky passed away at the age of 90. Support poured out immediately to close friends and family, and the industry is still grieving the loss of such a gaming industry maverick.
Wichinsky was born Nov. 28, 1922, in Middletown, N.Y. He graduated as valedictorian from Hurleyville High School in New York, and then attended the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, prior to serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
He first appeared in the Las Vegas casino scene in the mid-1950s when he became a partner in the Sands Hotel and Casino. After installing the first Bally slot machines there, Wichinsky became the first distributor in southern Nevada for Bally Manufacturing. Those electromechanical slot machines, which were quite revolutionary in the late 1960s, incorporated an invention Wichinsky coined as the hopper. The hopper went on to become the standard automated device for payment of jackpots in slot machines across the globe.
During the course of his career, Wichinsky opened Games of Nevada, Game Masters and Advanced Gaming Technologies. He was always forward-thinking, developing and operating niche gaming devices, like the hopper unit and the Flip-It game. He continued to design, create and introduce new games until as recently as two months ago.
He was highly respected in the casino industry around the world, and he recently received the Nevada Gaming Commission Lifetime Achievement Award for 50 years of service to the Nevada gaming industry.
His personal factory tours were priceless for those lucky enough to participate. Wichinsky would walk through the assembly area and warehouse and show a wide range of both old and new gaming devices while telling the history of each.
Wichinsky loved what he did and took great pride in creating livelihood for hundreds of people during his career. Relationships were very important to him, and he had a wide array of friends, including a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, a waiter, an assembly line worker, front line staff, an NBA team owner, doctors, a barber, a judge and more. Many were his mentors, and in return he was a mentor to others. But more than anything, they were all friends who shared experiences, opinions, stories and an occasional lunch or dinner, according to George Levine, long-time friend and executive director of sales and marketing at Casino Data Imaging.
“His history in the gaming industry was incredible, but more so, Mickey was a loving man fiercely dedicated to his family, a great friend to many, a wonderful sense of humor, and always looking to help out people when he could,” Levine said. “He was the real deal, a treasure and irreplaceable.”
“He was not only a veteran of the Nevada gaming industry,” Levine added. “He was a pioneer.”
Bob Faiss, shareholder at Lionel Sawyer and Collins, was the Wichinsky family’s attorney for years. He took many trips with the father and son duo over the years to various hearings, and Faiss recalls Wichinsky’s commendable nature.
“Mickey Wichinsky was one of the most admirable figures in the Nevada gaming industry,” he said. “He was a soft-spoken and gentle person who conducted his business affairs with respect and integrity. His passion and talent for innovation were models for the industry.”
Glenn Wichinsky, president and general counsel at Cole Kepro International, recalls many trips he took with his father both across the country and across the globe, with his first trip to Las Vegas at age 13 and first international business trip to Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo at age 17.
“I learned about inventiveness, kindness, trust, respect and how to be non-judgmental of others from him,” he said.
Wichinsky is survived by his wife, Zola Wichinsky; son, Glenn Wichinsky; grandchildren, Robyn Hoffman, Laura Wichinsky, Jennifer Buss, David Wichinsky and Dawn Wichinsky; great-grandchildren; nephews; and nieces.
Editor’s Note: I reached out to Glenn Wichinsky for some memories of his father, and I was only able to include a few in the story above. Here, you will find additional memories of him in this online exclusive.
Reflections from a Lifetime of Memories
By Glenn Wichinsky
Although my parents divorced when I was four years old, they always instilled upon me that even if your parents are divorced, you are still a family. My father moved to Las Vegas in 1957, and I moved to New York City and then Miami as a child with my mother, sister and brother.
I would hear from my father religiously every Sunday by phone when I was growing up in North Miami Beach. I would anticipate his next trip to Florida so that we could spend time together and usually stop at Wolfie’s or Rascal House on Miami Beach with his friends for corned beef or pastrami sandwiches.
He took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play their simulated basketball game at Madison Square Garden.
He took me during the summer on his trips to place pinball machines and service them at the various hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains when he operated a pinball and jukebox route when I was very young. I remember him carrying the large panes of glass to replace on the pinball machine when a player got upset and had broken the glass with their fist in frustration. I remember the large black soldering gun and spool of solder that he would carry to repair the pinball games when they went down.
I started visiting my dad in Las Vegas by age 13. I would stay at the Sands Hotel where he was an executive and part owner. I felt so important. I would order up fruit punches to my room (as I was only a teenager), and then see countless shows in the Copa Room of the Sands while my father was working in the casino. I saw Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme so many times that I thought they were possibly my relatives. Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and many others.
He took me on his international business trips by the time I was 17. My first trip with him was to Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo. While in Hong Kong, my father was placing the first Bally slot machines in the original Lisboa Hotel in Macau. We went to Taipei as he was placing Bally gaming machines in the Officers Club at foreign US Military bases. We visited friends in Tokyo, including his dear friend Mike Kogan, founder of Taito.
He took me to the original ICE Gaming Expo in London when the show was conducted at the Old Alexandra Palace. My dad asked me to work the booth in my late teen years to exhibit his mechanical oval track horse racing machine at the show. He also arranged a date for me and I then went to see the opening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Chelsea.
My Young Adult Years and After
My father and my mother were there for me and supported me through my college studies at the University of Miami. He was also there for me when I attended and graduated law school at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge Law School in Sacramento. He was so proud of my accomplishments, as I was of his. He also always expressed praise for the family that I had personally raised.
I remember when he one wanted to try something new and outside of his business realm. He and a business friend decided to attempt to manufacture billiard balls of the quality manufactured in Belgium. In a back shop on West Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas, the various compounds were mixed carefully, placed into molds and the test set was manufactured. On the special day when the project was complete, the billiard balls were set in the rack and then the set was to be hit by a cue ball. We then all watched in anticipation and then amazement as they all split in half after impact. I think we all smiled for a moment. That was the end of that project. There was always a new and exciting project being planned and executed.
I enjoyed watching and learning from him about the gaming industry from as early as my teenage years. I would sit in the back shop at his company, Bally Sales Corp. of Nevada on South Highland Drive, and with a legal pad and pen, we would sketch out new designs together. I would also jot down reel stops and jackpot symbol placement to calculate the payout percentages for a 22 stop mechanical reel slot machine. This was in the pre-computer days when all you had was a pad of paper and a pen to determine how a game may perform.
He would join me when I was first appearing before the Gaming Control Board in Carson City in my late 20s. I remember us driving to the hearings together with our attorney, a young and upcoming gaming attorney whose name was Bob Faiss. According to my dad, he relayed the statement to me that Bob would look at him in later years and state to my father: “It all began with you.”
I learned from him about inventiveness, kindness, trust, respect and how to be non-judgmental of others.
He celebrated a surprise 90th birthday dinner at Cafe Chloe this past November with some of his closest friends and people in his life. He was so happy and so taken by the special people who shared their love and respect for him. He talked about that evening for days and weeks thereafter with a big grin on his face.
I will miss visiting with him when I land and visit in Las Vegas. I will miss our lunches and dinners together just to be together. We didn’t have to say much, as we understood each other. He loved Italian food and we followed his favorite Chef Piero wherever he was in Las Vegas. I will miss hearing from him every day by phone, but I saved over 20 voice mails from him which I will always reflect upon.
I will always remember his praise and support for what I have done in my life. He kept copies of my public speeches and shared his praise of me with others. As much as he was not very fond of politicians, he fully supported my efforts when I ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives through a runoff election in the mid 1990s.
“Well Done, Carl Cohen”
Whenever I accomplished something noteworthy in my father’s eyes, he would say to me “Well done, Carl Cohen.” The story behind this was about an old and dear family friend named Carl Cohen who was a part owner and casino executive in the Sands Hotel and later a VP at the MGM Grand Hotel.
In the mid to late 1960s, Frank Sinatra was denied casino credit at the Sands Hotel while escorting the Apollo 11 astronauts around the casino. He became enraged, stormed into the Garden Room of the hotel where Carl was having a late evening dinner, threw the dinner table toward Carl and raised Carl’s temper. Carl had nothing to do with the denial of casino credit as that decision was made by someone higher up. Carl got up and proceed to punch Frank Sinatra in his mouth, knocking out a few teeth. Sinatra left the Sands never to return. Later that next day, Carl received a hand-written note that said: “Well done, Carl Cohen.” It was signed by Howard Hughes.
He would never seek praise or personal recognition, but he so deserves the same.
A relative said to me something that is silly but sticks in my mind. She said: “Mickey was to slot machines what Colonel Sanders was to chicken.”