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Game master: Shane Samole carries on his family's playful tradition

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003
photo
Samole’s products range from talking mirrors that insult you, above, to electronic games to handheld gadgets that will tell you how to mix a drink or cook a meal.

Shane Samole doesn't make the most expensive gadgets around. His inventions might not be considered cutting edge or sophisticated. In fact, some are the electronic version of a novelty store stocked with Whoopee cushions and handshake buzzers.

A talking mirror doesn't ask, "Who's the fairest of them all?" It hurls insults such as "Do you want a banana?" Then there's the Joke Master, which comes in two flavors, a G-rated version for kids (knock-knock and elephant humor), and one with an adult theme.

Don't know what's in mixed drink? Check the Bar Master, a $29.95 electronic device that looks like a handheld organizer with nothing in its memory banks but how to make a Tequila Sunrise or a Bloody Mary. Need to make a special dinner? There's the Recipe Master. Samole's catalog at Excalibur Electronics (www.excaliburelectronics.com) in Miami ranges from chess to basketball to casino games.

"Every game I make I play," Samole said. "If it doesn't play well, I don't sell it."

Games have been a Samole family tradition for years. His late father, Sidney, was credited with inventing the first commercial electronic chess game in the 1970s after watching a Star Trek episode.

Sidney Samole owned Fidelity Electronics, which produced the Chess Challenger, until he sold the company in the late 1980s. Shane Samole stayed on as sales manager until the new owners dropped games from their offerings. With a $25,000 loan from his father, Shane Samole started Excalibur in 1992. The company has about 50 employees in Miami and a dozen in Hong Kong. Factories in China produce the quirky gadgets.

The privately held company had more than $30-million in sales last year, according to the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. And that comes from selling gadgets for an average price of $29.95.

To Samole, coming up with the gadgets is a matter of filling a need, answering a question or providing a perfect gift.

The Bar Master was the result of a dinnertime conversation with friends, as people wondered about ingredients in various drinks. The Secrets of the Heart jewelry box with combination lock helped his daughter keep her little brother out of her personal possessions. The Recipe Master is great for Mother's Day, he says.

Samole has some help in the creative process. He hired a priest as a consultant for an electronic reference for the Bible. He buys content from the New York Times for a crossword puzzle game and the Recipe Master. Jackie "the Jokeman" Martling, formerly among the cast of the Howard Stern radio show, was brought aboard for the joke machines.

"Nobody doesn't like a gag gift," said Martling, noting that most of the material on the gadgets is not original. "Dirty jokes have been around forever. We didn't invent sex."

Martling says he likes that it takes only months between an idea being born and a gadget being produced.

Samole, 37, grew up in Chicago, moved to Miami in 1979, and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in business marketing. Though he says he plays a lot of games, he is particularly devoted to chess. Growing up, he played against his father to be "champion of the house." Excalibur's headquarters in Miami has a checkerboard pattern on the outside walls and an entrance like a rook piece in chess. It houses the World Chess Hall of Fame & Sidney Samole Chess Museum.

"I've always been very competitive," he said. "I've always been into gaming."

Not every game and gadget has been a success. The Night Navigator helps people identify stars, but a similar gadget to find birth signs in the sky flopped. A colorful children's chess game in yellow, green and blue didn't sell because chess-playing kids didn't want something that looked like a toy.

But that won't stop Samole from trying. He owns the rights to the old Space Invaders game, which will end up in another handheld device. And the same restaurant conversation that led to the Bar Master will lead to a series of electronic city guides for restaurants, hotels and other information.

Samole's children are continuing the family tradition. His 7-year-old daughter likes chess, and his 4-year-old son is into remote-control cars. And they love when Daddy brings his work home. It gives them something else to play with.

- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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