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Casinos Trading Slot Machines For Games Requiring Skill


As if they didn't have enough, casinos are always looking for new ways to make money. Now, rather than focusing on traditional games of chance like roulette or slot machines, they're toying with new games based on skill. David Kestenbaum of NPR's Planet Money podcast went to Atlantic City to play.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The game was a simple one - throw a ball through a ring 10 feet off the ground 15 feet away, otherwise known as a basketball free-throw shooting contest.

KAMAL HUNT: I'm pretty sure I'm going to win. My chances are very, very high.

KADEZIA HUNT: My chances are looking good. I'm going to win. I'm going to beat him, so it doesn't matter, OK?

KESTENBAUM: That's Kadezia (ph) Hunt and her brother Kamal. They’d come to the Borgata Casino, paid $20 each, for a chance at winning thousands. Though unlike most casino games, chance did not have much to do with it. Someone said you should go interview that guy over there - Ed Palubinskas - the guy with the ring.

What's that ring you're wearing?

ED PALUBINSKAS: That's an LA Lakers. I was a shooting coach for the Lakers.

KESTENBAUM: Any player in particular?

PALUBINSKAS: Guy by name of Shaq - I worked with him.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) Guy by the name of Shaq.

PALUBINSKAS: Yeah, we - I improved him from 38 to 69.

KESTENBAUM: Percent free-throw shooter?

PALUBINSKAS: Yeah, biggest improvement in history.

KESTENBAUM: Ed is in his mid-60s, balding, wire-rimmed glasses and a total ringer.

What percentage free-throw shooter are you?


KESTENBAUM: Ed stepped up to the line - every shot perfection.

In, in - this is the greatest free-throw shooting I've ever witnessed in my entire life. In - oh.

He just missed one. One potential problem with a casino offering a skill-based game, like a free-throw contest, is that only one person comes - Ed. Who would want to go up against Ed?

Apparently, plenty of people - hundreds and hundreds came. A lot of them were young. That was one of the reasons for this experiment. Young people apparently don't want to sit quietly in front of slot machines. Casinos worry about that.

Part of the appeal of games with dice and cards is that anything can happen. But even in games of skill there are still surprises. Shaq's free-throw coach amazingly got knocked out. And when the pool finally narrowed to two finalists, neither was a ringer. One was a first grade teacher. The other finalist - a guy named Wayne Nelson - had a very surprising strategy. He hurled every ball off the backboard, which was genius. He'd realized something about these hoops.

WAYNE NELSON: I used to have one of these backboards when I was younger. And it's a dead backboard - no bounce. It works, you know?

KESTENBAUM: Just hurl it against the backboard?

NELSON: Hurl it against the backboard - same spot. It goes in(laughter).

KESTENBAUM: There are all kinds of skill - being good at free-throws and just being smart. Off the backboard in - off the backboard in.


KESTENBAUM: Nelson ended up losing to the first grade teacher, but he still took home $6,000. I cheered, though some of that prize money came from me. I paid $20 to compete, made one basket out of 15. I was sure I would hit more. And we all were.

Lots of people who had lined up to compete told me they were going to make all their shots. No one did. In that sense, games of skill are not that different from games of luck. At the slot machine, we think we'll be the lucky one. At the free-throw line, we think we'll sink them all. Overconfidence - that's how casinos stay in business. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.