Macau—His cheeks were blushing from all of the fuss, but they could have just as well been pink from the burning of the flashbulb blasts. On a stage flooded in light and color and shrouded in theatrical smoke, the patriarch of the slot machine industry was his usual humble self as the Chinese photographers turned him into rock star with their barrage of camera clicks and bursts of light that bounced around the room.
Len Ainsworth began his career in gaming in 1953 after switching from being a manufacturer of dental supplies in 1953 to trying his hand at slot machines—“something I knew nothing of whatsoever.” Our teeth may be the worse for it, but looking back, what a decision that was. Now, 57 years later, Mr. Ainsworth, as he rightfully should be called, stood on stage in a ballroom at The Venetian Macao poised to receive the G2E Asia Visionary Award, an Australian joining Asians Stanley Ho and Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong on a short but growing list of distinguished honorees at this annual trade show.
Short and hunched over at age 87, Mr. Ainsworth spent nearly 15 minutes at the podium reading his prepared acceptance speech—eight pages, single-spaced—a concise history of the slot machine.
“My father had passed away and the government had kindly taken half of his estate in death duties, so I quickly realized that manufacturing slot machines for the developing Australian market had distinct possibilities,” he said. “In this I had the help of a wonderful English engineer, the late Joe Heywood, and we commenced manufacturing of our first machine. And we were well advanced with our initial quantity of 12 pre-production machines when along came a gentleman named Grant Davidson, who then said, ‘I hear you are making a slot machine.’ And we said ‘yes,’ and he said ‘do you want a distributor?’ and I said ‘maybe,’ and he said ‘I will take 100 minimum in the first year, but expect to take a great many more—and I will pay you cash in advance,’ a notion that appealed to me greatly.”
And, thus, what would become the Aristocrat slot machine was born. Mr. Ainsworth continued to regale the audience with his folksy gaming history lesson, including:
-How an American ex-serviceman applied for a sales role by telling Mr. Ainsworth slot machines would be permitted in Okinawa and then eventually laying the groundwork for placing machines throughout the Far East, notably in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and setting the stage for the success Aristocrat machines enjoy in the region today;
-How an Australian film producer tipped him off in 1960, after filming in Macau, that Stanley Ho had the gambling concession in Macau and was looking for slot machines, something Mr. Ainsworth was more than happy to deliver;
-How his first entry into Nevada in the early 1960s was marked by the realization that the machines in Australia were in “clubs owned by the members, who at that time would never have thought of cheating a machine, but in Nevada it was quite different—professional cheats would stop at nothing to cheat machines if they got half the chance” and that “the upshot of this is that we realized it was necessary to manufacture a different class of machine, one that had every possible anti-cheat device and a cabinet of solid steel;”
-How the Bally Money Honey machine with its hopper payout trumped any success Aristocrat was having both in the U.S. and abroad in the ’60s;
-How in 1978 Aristocrat introduced a library of 5-reel games and today video “5-reel machines are the international standard;”
-How “around 1979, our friends at IGT assumed distributorship of our equipment for the U.S.,” perhaps a subtle dig at his “friends” who were later accused of using their clout in Nevada to keep Mr. Ainsworth from getting licensed there; and
-How “in the almost 60 years that I have been manufacturing machines, we have invented a whole host of features that are apparent in almost every make of machine manufactured today, and I hope that we have in some small way contributed to lifting the entertainment level and thus the income-producing capacity of slot machines throughout today’s world.”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Ainsworth, who retired from Aristocrat in 1995 and now runs Ainsworth Game Technology as executive chairman. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd in the ballroom and then joined other dignitaries trailing a traditional lion dance to officially open the trade show. The drumming and symbol-clashing eventually stopped, but the Santa Claus-like twinkle in Mr. Ainsworth’s eye never did. In anticipation of writing this from Macau, I asked him where I could get a copy of his speech. He simply reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a piece of gaming history.
Aristocrat remains the clear market leader in Macau with roughly 55 percent market share, though it was impressive to see how the slot floors at the various casinos here have evolved even in the past year, with more creative offerings from all of the manufacturers. One of the hot topics here was when, if ever, slot revenue would threaten the dominance of tables in Macau. Using first-quarter numbers, slot revenue for the 14,500 units in Macau is on pace to hit roughly U.S. $950 million this year, an increase of $260 million over 2008, but way behind the projected $17.9 billion baccarat alone will do this year. Clearly, slot revenue is growing, but it has a long way to go to reach the level tables are producing.
Overall, the mood here was what you would expect it to be at the epicenter of gaming growth—one of optimism and excitement. The show did open as what the locals call “black rain” was falling outside, but that didn’t stop a short man with a tall history and a twinkle in his eye from lighting up the room.