Jack Harpster. King of the Slots: William “Si” Redd. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010. 273 pages.
Si Redd might have had a bigger impact on American casino gambling than anyone else in the years 1960 to 1990. He’s got some big competition–Jay Sarno, Steve Wynn, and Kirk Kerkorian are a few names that spring to mind. But those three, for the most part, changed the way casino in Las Vegas look. Redd helped change the blueprint of casinos around the country, and possibly the world.
Redd was a distributor for Bally’s in the years when the slot-maker pioneered in the electro-mechanical market, creating machines with more entertainment value and higher jackpots. Without these machines, slots would likely have not eclipsed table games in revenue, as they did in the 1980s. Later, he founded International Game Technology (IGT), and did more to bring video poker and wide-area progressives to wide popularity on the casino floor than anyone else. Redd wasn’t an engineer–he was a salesman. This doesn’t diminish his important to the development of new slot technologies; casino managers needed to be convinced to give the new machines a chance, and Redd had few rivals as a salesman. He also had the vision to encourage innovation and invest in developing new ideas that others might have turned down.
In King of the Slots, Jack Harpster traces Redd’s career, from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son in rural Mississippi, to his start in the coin-operated amusement business with pinball machines and later jukeboxes, to a successful career as a machine route operator and distributor, to a second career in Nevada as a slot salesman and, eventually, manufacturer. Harpster packs an incredible amount of detail–based on exhaustive research–into this biography, giving the reader a surprisingly vivid portrait of Redd. He is to be commended for drawing on a range of sources and melding them into a readable story.
Despite his renowned philanthropy, Redd wasn’t all sweetness and light–as a hard-headed negotiator, he didn’t always make those he did business with happy. Towards the end of his life, he had a series of regulatory reverses that may have tarnished his legacy. Similarly, Redd didn’t always have the Midas touch when it came to business. It’s to Harpster’s credit that he doesn’t minimize these negatives, and they make his biography of Redd feel more balanced and more accurate for their inclusion.
Even Las Vegas and casino history buffs will learn quite a bit from King of the Slots. It’s a well-researched look into the life of an important, but undeservedly lesser-known, gaming pioneer. It deserves a place in everyone’s Nevada/gambling library.