Man's passion for old slot machines lies with restoration, not gambling


Americans love one-armed bandits. Since the late 19th century, the country's favorite gambling device has been the slot machine, with its spinning cherries, oranges, plums, bars and losing lemons.

But it has been a rocky romance because slots have faced decades of implacable opposition from state authorities and eventually from Congress.

Each time authorities imposed new restrictions -- and newspapers carried dramatic photos of police smashing machines with mauls -- slot machine manufacturers dreamed up a scheme to beat it.

Anne Arundel County businessman Steve Cohen has amassed a collection that shows some of the ingenious methods they adopted. And even he had to campaign for a change in the law so he could pursue his hobby.

Authorities opposed to gambling kept changing the legal definitions as they sought to outlaw slots. In the 1930s, 13 states enacted a bill banning all coin machines not licensed by the states and set up specific permitted categories -- not including slots for gambling.

The slots companies countered by adding vending machine features, so slots would dispense fortunes, chewing gum or cigarettes along with a spin of the wheels to sidestep the restrictions on "games of chance."

Some were converted to delayed pay-offs so a winner was "guaranteed" something on the next play, eliminating "the element of chance." Others paid off in tokens stamped "No Value," which the store or bar owners exchanged for cash.

Although the slot machine industry won most of the battles, Congress won the war in 1954 by making it illegal to transport gambling devices across state lines, said Mr. Cohen, 42, who has one of Maryland's largest collections of antique slot machines.

Southern Maryland, including Anne Arundel County, was a slot machine mecca for decades, and most of Mr. Cohen's machines were used locally. Although Mr. Cohen sells pianos and organs for a living, his real love is buying, selling and repairing antique slots.

He began as a collector, but as his expertise developed he

moved into repairing and selling as a way to upgrade his collection. Now, he said, he derives more pleasure from restoring and repairing slot machines for other people.

"Most of the machines I repair are for people's rec rooms, and I do some for the clubs on the Eastern Shore," he said, noting that a limited number of slots are permitted in private clubs there.

Mr. Cohen said his collection of machines made between 1892 and 1949 is worth nearly $200,000 and has the best of what is available in his line of interest. Consequently, he isn't looking to expand it.

"But I can't separate the business from the collection now," he said. "You take a machine that's worth $200 as-is and make it worth $1,800 when it's restored. Buying and restoring is the thing. Once they're restored, I'll sell."

Mr. Cohen said he repairs about 40 machines a year in the tiny shop he has set up in his music store, where he also restores from 15 to 18 machines. Repairs are usually done quickly, but a full restoration can take months, he said.

One common question is how the odds are set and whether slots can be rigged by the house. The answer is no. The pay-out ratio is factory-set and was 60-40 for the player through World War II, after which the player's edge increased to 83-17. The typical ratio in modern casinos is 93-7.

Among Mr. Cohen's rare machines are the ancestors of today's video poker machines. The 1896 Tibble's Success played one poker hand, while the 1906 Caille Quintet played one hand for a penny or all five for a nickel, with cigars as prizes. Another rarity is the 1898 Star, a "big wheel" machine that operates like a roulette wheel with the player betting by putting his coin in the slot for aparticular color.

These are "floor machines," which had their own pedestals and were fine examples of oak cabinetry as well. Floor machines went out of production about 1917 when the one-armed bandits designed to sit on tables or stands came in, Mr. Cohen said.

In 1981, Mr. Cohen was a leading figure in the effort that led the General Assembly to permit private ownership of machines made before 1941 and not used for gambling. The law was amended in 1984 to allow ownership of machines at least 25 years old.

Before 1981, Mr. Cohen said, he had already invested more than $10,000 in old slots and had restored most of them. When he called his insurance agent to get coverage for them, however, he learned that mere ownership was illegal and they were considered "contraband."

Mr. Cohen started his collection in 1976 when he traded an organ for a coin-operated bumper pool table to put in the game room of his split-level house. Then a friend told him about a man who wanted to sell a 1950-model one-armed bandit.

"It didn't work, but I bought it anyway and started searching for information about it, repair manuals and the like," Mr. Cohen said. "As I was looking, I ran into a couple of other machines. They were cheap then, and most weren't working. Within a year I had five machines."

He learned next about a monthly magazine devoted to coin-operated machines and submitted a small ad. Soon he was swapping information with other collectors around the country and expanding his interests.

Like all collectors, however, Mr. Cohen ran into a problem: where to put his treasures. His house began to overflow as he added more slots and other machines -- a pinball game, a couple of old Coca-Cola machines, a flashing Wurlitzer jukebox, a claw machine and a popcorn wagon.

He converted two bedrooms to slots rooms and built a new den when the former TV room was consumed by the growing collection.

"I finally went to the 'space system,' " Mr. Cohen said, "I set up a firm number of spaces, -- 20 in the house and 15 in the store -- and any time I exceeded the number of spaces, something had to go."

Even though he had a number of "fairly common" slots, Mr. Cohen said he resisted for years requests to sell any of them. But finally, the space problem arose and this led him into the business.

"I decided to upgrade the collection and started selling some off so I could keep and acquire only the best examples I could find," Mr. Cohen said.

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