Like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture, Connecticut inventor Jay Walker has spent nearly a decade examining the gaming industry. By absorbing casino trade shows, he has studied gaming's evolution from technological backwater to high-tech innovator - and he has contributed to that progress by crafting applications to help casinos make more money.
And now he has come up with his first casino product - one that is raising eyebrows for how it baits players to drop money into it. It is a video poker machine that essentially promises the gambler a certain amount of play time no matter how bad his luck.
The video poker slot machine is called "Guaranteed Play." It was conceived not in the back room of a casino or at a slot machine laboratory, but at Walker's office in Stamford, Conn. The devices, which are expected to be offered in Las Vegas casinos within six months, seem counterintuitive to the very act of gambling.
The machine allows players to buy a certain number of video poker hands up front for a set price, unlike the conventional video poker machines that may provide fewer or more hands for the money, based on the luck of the play and the gambler's decision to return any winnings to play more hands.
For example, Walker's games can offer 150 hands of "Jacks or Better" for $20 and 400 hands for $40. Those hands could take more than 20 minutes to an hour to play. Games would offer more or less hands for the money based on the type of video poker game and the odds that apply to that game.
The gambler should assume that he will lose his money - but that he will have enjoyed playing a guaranteed number of games in the meantime.
"At the movies you know you're getting about an hour and a half plus some popcorn," Walker said. "You don't have that in a casino. We can assure customers that even before they leave their house, they know they're going to be on a game for a while."
The idea of paying for gambling the way consumers pay for dinner and a movie seems to remove the ancient allure of gambling, which involves taking risks and shedding inhibitions.
Not so, Walker says.
"Human behavior is not rocket science," Walker said. "Consumers like packages. They like a bargain."
They also like security, he said. Many players are casual gamblers who throw a few bucks into a machine because they happen to be walking through a casino, he said. Other players are intimidated by gambling or are regulars who want more control over their gambling budget, Walker said.
"This industry has been selling entertainment by the minute," he said. "You're buying entertainment and not seven-second hands.
"Casinos want people to have a good time. I don't have to win to have a good time. But if I lose my money quickly and have to leave, is that fun?"
The devices represent a breakthrough opportunity for casinos to cultivate new players, said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter for gamblers.
Casinos could offer a hotel guest attending a convention $20 of video poker with the assurance that most people - even those with little to no experience or prior interest in gambling - would give it a shot, he said. Some players will end up buying more after trying out the games once or twice, he said.
"I think people are looking for ways to justify activities they want to try but think they shouldn't," Curtis said.
Walker began working with slot maker International Game Technology a few years ago to design the game. IGT also has a stake in Walker Digital Gaming, a Walker company that owns several hundred casino-related patents that are expected to be developed into IGT products over the next several years. Like Walker Digital, IGT is a prolific cultivator of patents and has more patented technology than any other gaming company.
A relative unknown in the casino world, Walker is a celebrity of sorts in the high-tech world of business patents. His biggest success is Priceline.com, a Web site and a billion-dollar business that lets customers name their price for airline tickets and other merchandise.
Walker is not an inventor of gadgets, nor does he fit the stereotype of the shy scientist tinkering away in a lab. He is a marketer and a salesman, a persuasive man who is as adept at pitching his ideas as he is in coming up with them.
That Walker patents concepts rather than gizmos has made him a controversial figure.
His company, Walker Digital, has been accused of patenting ideas that are obvious or already on the market.
That's unlikely to happen with Guaranteed Play, which offers players a simple yet unusual choice on the welcome screen: "Dozens of hands, one low price" or "Buy games one at a time."
IGT has been testing the machines at some local casinos. For many players, the opportunity to gamble for a certain amount of time is more attractive than chasing the off chance that a smaller initial bet can last several hours - or yield a big jackpot.
In focus group tests, players have said they like the ability to see where their money is going, said John Daley, IGT's director of video poker.
"Our biggest challenge has been players who say it's too good to be true," Daley said. "They're looking for the catch."
That catch may be as simple as giving up $20 or $40 rather than $3 every few minutes. While there's always the chance for a win, the house edge is against players in the long run. Many players don't keep track of their losses and feel they have "won" if they make back a fraction of what they put into a slot machine.
The games will allow casinos to create value packages that bundle gambling time with other items such as spa treatments, show tickets and gourmet dinners, Walker said.
Casino managers can pitch their games to bargain-hunters by selling more hands per dollar during the week when casino floors are slower or the same number of hands for less money, he said.
The gaming industry presents a particularly rich vein for patent developers to mine, Walker said.
"It's a young, highly regulated industry" where regulations are just catching up to high-tech developments on the horizon, he said.