There it sits, in a forgotten corner of the MGM Grand Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. It’s surrounded by a hallucinogenic collection of modern slot machines — Deal or No Deal, Wheel of Fortune and Alien Vs. Predator, exploding in trippy displays of lights and music. And amidst it all, is this humble orange and chrome 1970s-era table, lit from the inside with a few incandescents and the dim digital read-outs of a bygone era. Inside the table, stand five plastic horses, lined up at the starting line of a miniature track decorated with little trees and bushes like a middle school diorama project. And gathered around the table is a collection of rough, tired, hard-on-their-luck gamblers, who are so down and out that all they’ve got left is a plastic cup full of quarters, which they dutifully pump into the table.
But then, something magical happens: the bell rings, the crowd leans in, the gate lifts up — the horses are off!
“Come on #2! Kick it in! Kick it in!”
“That’s what I like to see, #5! Keep it up!”
“Goddammit #3, don’t do this to me! Turn it around!”
The five plastic horses, mounted on a groaning old conveyer belt, jerk forward, fall back and surge ahead, their legs cemented in place despite the dramatic thunder of hooves erupting from the table’s aging speaker. The horses round the corner, and the crowd jumps to their feet, yelling encouragement to their favorites. Suddenly, horse #2 and #4 pull up from behind, jerking forward maniacally down the final stretch, and cross the finish line in a photo finish. Half the table erupts in a cheer, the other half in a groan, and the unmistakable sound of a hail of quarters striking metal fills the room.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Sigma Derby.
The greatest electronic horse racing game the world has ever known.
Sigma Derby is simple in concept. Five horses race around the track, and you bet on the two that you think will come in first and second (apparently, this is called a “quinella” in horse racing lingo, but I don’t speak that language). At the beginning of each race, players are given odds on each of the ten combinations, ranging from 2:1 to 200:1. Bet a quarter on a winning combination, and if it hits, you get a straight odds payout.
The real magic of Sigma Derby isn’t the odds or the payout, though — it’s the fact that there are ten people sitting around a table, watching little horses race. And talk about a race! Sigma Derby makes these races fun: horses fall back, shoot up from behind, and just about every race comes to a dramatic, nail-biting conclusion. Hence all the cheering and excitement. It’s really an experience. And at 25 cents a bet, how could you afford not to make a fool of yourself playing the Derby?
Sigma Derby’s Last Stand
Unfortunately, that may all come to an end soon…
Sigma Derby machines used to be a common sight in Las Vegas casinos. Even as of mid-2004, you could find them in the Hilton, Orleans, MGM Grand, New York New York, Caesar’s Palace, Imperial Palace, Riviera, Bally’s, the Excalibur, Luxor and the New Frontier — and each and every one of them was constantly surrounded by fans and newcomers alike. But over the past few years, these machines have started disappearing — mostly because a quarter isn’t worth as much as it used to be, and casinos can make more money with higher-yielding slot machines. It’s a shame, really. As of February, 2008, there is only one Sigma Derby machine remaining in Las Vegas: at the MGM Grand. I, myself, a relative newcomer to Sigma Derby, have only had the opportunity to play on that particular table.
Granted, a quick glance at the tacky vintage table and its 25-cent entry fee turns off many “serious gamblers,” but anyone that’s playing Sigma Derby couldn’t care less: it’s just that much fun. The snickers and wise-cracks roll off our backs the moment those five jumpy mechanical equines hit the tracks (which happens about once every 90 seconds).
Sigma Derby players are rabid. Just do a Google search for “Sigma Derby,” and you’ll find hundreds of discussions about the game, and even a blog completely dedicated to Sigma Derby. In fact, in June 2007, a group of fans organized The Sigma Derby Handicapper’s Challenge at the New Frontier, to determine the best Sigma Derby player in the world. (That title, of course, goes to Bob Black of Minneapolis, Minnesota.) Unfortunately, when the New Frontier closed down shortly after that epic competition, it left only one operating Sigma Derby table remaining in all of Vegas, and the fate of the competition is in turmoil. There’s even an online petition to Save our Sigma Derby Game from Extinction.
My friends and I (also rabid Sigma Derby fans, as you’ll see below) have even looked into buying a table for our own to put in our living rooms. A few months ago, we called up a gaming machine company to ask how much a Sigma Derby machine would cost. $20,000 plus delivery charges…which actually sounds like a good deal to me, and I’m a person who has never had more than a few hundred at one time.
But even better, there was an eBay auction a few weeks ago for the bargain price of $8,257.40:
Maybe not in the next few years, but one of these days, when I am wildly rich and successful – or even if I am destitute and have to sell my body to science to finance the purchase – I will own a Sigma Derby machine. That is my solemn vow.
Our latest Sigma Derby trip: It all started with ice cream sandwiches
Monday was Presidents’ Day, and everyone was off work, so I called up my buddy Ram in the late afternoon to see if he wanted to go get some ice cream sandwiches. We live in Los Angeles, and there’s this phenomenal little place called “Diddy Riese” in Westwood, where they sell delicious freshly-made ice cream sandwiches, constructed out of two giant cookies (still warm from the oven), with a generous scoop of ice cream in the middle. And they only cost $1.50. It’s an unbelievable deal, any way you look at it (even from a Sigma Derby perspective, that’s enough quarters to make SIX bets).
Long story short, after we got out ice cream sandwiches, we decided to meet up with some friends down at Playa Del Rey, bringing with us a few bags of fresh Diddy Riese cookies to share. Munching on cookies and burgers, the discussion soon turned to Las Vegas and Sigma Derby (as it often does), and someone suggested, jokingly, that we head to Vegas right then and there.
The five of us looked around the room, there was a moment of silence, a second of hesitation, and then we locked eyes and nodded. We were going to Vegas. Immediately. And we were going to make it back before 10AM the next morning, so nobody was late for work. It was the best idea ever.
We all gave ourselves quick Mohawks, chugged some energy drinks, exchanged an obnoxious number of high-fives, and hopped on the highway. Destination: Sin City.
The Sigma Derby Enthusiast Club
This wasn’t the first Vegas trip for us, though it was our first impromptu middle-of-the-night trip. I’d made the four-hour drive twice before in the past few months: for a three-day trip over Thanksgiving, and as the first waypoint on a cross-country drive in December.
Both Vegas trips, of course, had ended at the MGM Grand’s Sigma Derby table, with me screaming incoherently at the little mechanical horses, as I played for hours on a single $10 roll of quarters.
And there was always a sense of genuine camaraderie with the other Sigma players, who are always interesting characters, to say the least.
There was the Turban wearing middle-eastern guy, who was terrible at placing the bets themselves, but could call the winning horse combination within five seconds after they’d left the starting gate. “That’s 2-3,” he would say, horses #2 way behind the pack, and #3 in a pathetic third place. Sure enough, within thirty seconds, #2 and #3 would surge to the front and win. (Too bad this guy’s premonitions wouldn’t extend back another ten seconds so that he could place the right bets….)
Then there was the old Asian man, who studiously wrote down every winning horse combination in a little notepad, and kept obsessive details of various statistics. I wanted to tell him that keeping track of the races was pointless, because the stats for the horses were randomly generated by a computer program at the beginning of every round…but there was something about his air that told me that he knew a lot more about Sigma Derby than I did. I pictured him as a yogi, a sensei, who would spend his weekends meditating on mountain tops, reaching a full and complete understanding of Sigma Derby
“Have you ever seen 200:1 hit?” one of us asked, referring to the longshot 200:1 odds that show up every few races.
“Oh yes, many times,” he said as he scrawled another 4-5 winning combination down on his notepad. He did not elaborate, but he spoke with such absolute conviction, that we didn’t argue.
That didn’t mean we didn’t have our doubts. In all of our collective Sigma Derby experiences it had NEVER, EVER hit. “Many times?” We had been pumping quarters into the machine for half a day, and nothing remotely close to 200 had ever come up.
But then again, you can’t argue with a sensei.
“You just gotta bet on it”
By far the most interesting player we met was at about 1:00AM after Thanksgiving dinner, a guy named “Willy” who spent Thanksgiving alone playing Sigma Derby. Willy, who had a draping Col. Sanders mustache, a rough voice and wild eyes, looked like he’d just rolled out of a gutter. He was also self-proclaimed Sigma Derby expert. Willy informed us that he’d been at the table all night, and gave us strategy tips.
“When the 200 comes up, you’ve gotta bet on it,” he instructed, nodding his head. “You just gotta bet on it.”
Despite the recommendations from the sensei and Willy, betting on 200:1 still sounded like a terrible idea – those odds were wretched, and the chances of it hitting were slim to nil. Why waste the money?
But Willy, sat across from us the entire night, faithfully putting a quarter down on every 200:1 that showed up, saying every time “You just gotta bet on it.”
Willy was an odd chap to say the least. He was afraid of letting anyone see his quarter count, so he covered up his console with multiple cups, forming a little barrier between himself and the rest of us. And every few minutes, he would reach into his pocket, pull out a little pill crusher, grind up a white tablet and snort it. “Anyone wanna try? This’ll make you feel reeeeeaaal good,” he told us. We turned him down after we got a look at the pill case: it was women’s PMS pain medication, which he informed us he’d bought at a convenience store behind the Paris. (I think by “Real good,” he might have meant “homeless and delirious”…)
But as the night wore on, and we got to know Willy better, something happened. We all realized that he was an absolute crackpot, but his blind faith rubbed off on us. Gradually, when the 200:1 showed up, we started betting on it too, thinking to ourselves “It’s probably not going to hit, but if it does, I don’t want to be the one person at the table that misses out!”
We had all joined the Church of Willy. We sincerely believed.
At least for a few hours.
By 5:30AM, though, our faith in 200:1 — and our supply of quarters — was waning. We sleepily fed our final quarters into the table, and then bid Willy farewell. As one of us shook hands with him on the way out, he accidentally knocked over his drink. But rather than clean up the mess, he stayed put as it dripped all over his legs. Nobody was going to take Willy’s spot or steal his quarters.
As we trudged back to our hotel room, the little bit of faith we had in the 200:1 dwindled. 200:1 was never going to happen in our lifetimes. The church of Willy was a scam.
As the Vegas lights appeared in the horizon on our impromptu Presidents’ Day trip, the five of us exchanged yet another round of high-fives. The count was now at 252: we had decided to keep a running tally of high fives for the night, and had made it our goal to pass 1000 by the time we got back to LA. Excitement was in the air, and we were all eagerly anticipating all the colors, the sounds, and the little plastic horsies.
But as the Vegas skyline came closer into view, I had to get something off my chest. Something Sigma Derby related. Something absolutely devestating.
I took in a deep breath, and told the guys about my trip to Las Vegas in December, which was quite possibly the darkest moment of my adult life. All thanks to Sigma Derby.
In December, I was in the midst of a cross-country drive back home to New York for the holidays, and the two guys I was traveling with and I decided to stay in Vegas on our first night. Despite my firm belief that 200:1 would never hit, I was incredibly excited to play Sigma Derby again, and gushed profusely about the game to my friends as we walked down the Strip.
The three of us toured the various casinos for a few hours, tried our hand at a bunch of different slots and table games….but before too long, I led my friends to the MGM Grand for a rousing bout of the Derby.
As we rounded the corner, past the MGM’s live lion display, I could see the crowd gathered around that orange table, cheering excitedly. And oh man, did I get excited for some quarter racing.
Within a few races, the 200:1 odds came up. I was about to make a wisecrack about how betting on those odds was like throwing money into a wishing well…but I was aghast at what I saw. Somehow, The Church of Willy was alive and well. Dutifully, everyone at the table pulled out a quarter and bet it on the longshot every time it came up. All around the table, I could hear people repeating Willy’s mantra: “You just gotta bet on it.”
Granted, it would be awesome if 200:1 hit, but the chances against it were astronomical. How could all of these people be so blind? And brainwashed? Willy’s insane strategy wasn’t going to screw me out of my quarters again.
I took my seat at the table, and watched smugly as the horses ran their race, the 200:1 horses falling behind early and staying behind. “Of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen” I thought, as the 2:1 combination roared across the finish line. I pulled out my $10 quarter roll and pumped it into the machine.
And so, dozens and dozens of races went by, and every four or five of them, a 200:1 showed up. I started using a new strategy – a winning strategy – that did not involve “throwing my money away” on longshots. Rather, I would bet on more probable combinations, and when the big odds appeared, I would put my money firmly on the 2:1 or 3:1, and almost always net a profit. Before long, I was up $20, and feeling fantastic.
The fools around me, on the other hand, were all throwing their money away, betting on the 200:1 odds with an almost religious fervor. “You’ve just gotta bet on it,” they’d say. I’d sip my drink and shake my head, as I ran my fingers through my $20 in cold, hard quarters.
Little did I know that within moments, my world would be shattered.
It was a moment I will never forget, a moment that will live in infamy.
200:1 odds showed up, and the masses obediently placed their bets. I, on the other hand, continued with my strategy of betting on the “sure thing.”
The buzzer sounded, the gates opened up, and I could immediately feel that this race was different. I looked around the table, at the collection of hopeful gamblers, cheering for the 200:1 horse combination, each with a gleam in their eye. I looked at the horses, inching their way around the track. Everything happened in slow motion. And as the two last place horses rounded the corner and began their surge, I knew.
200 to 1.
The crowd went wild. The sound of hundreds of dollars of quarters paying out filled the casino. Complete strangers exchanged hugs and high fives.
And there I sat, distraught. Dumbfounded. Destroyed.
I buried my head in my hands.
I was defeated.
“And that’s why you’ve gotta bet on 200:1,” I warned my friends as we took the exit to the MGM Grand Casino just short of midnight.
“Wow man, Willy was right,” one of them said.
Understatement of the century.
We piled out of the car as the clock struck twelve, bursting with energy and excitement. The high five count had already surpassed 500 by the time we entered our first casino. We spent about three hours casino hopping, trying different table games, playing some video roulette, pulling a lot of slots – and losing money left and right.
By 3:00AM, we were all having a fantastic time, but we had all lost just about as much as we could stomach. It was that time. The quarters came out, and we made our way to the MGM Grand.
We gathered around Sigma Derby, and carefully took our seats, excited to cheer on some horses, but still weary of the elusive 200:1. I had learned my lesson, that’s for sure. I would never let another 200:1 go by, but I was also absolutely sure that I would never see another one hit. I had forsaken the Church of Willy, and the Sigma Derby gods had, in turn, forsaken me.
The first few races went by, and I hit a lucky streak. Pretty soon I had doubled my $10 in quarters, despite “throwing away” a quarter Willy-style on every 200:1 that appeared. The rest of the guys I was with were doing fairly well too, and like always, we had a great time cheering on the animatronic horses as they duked it out on their simulated raceway. It was so fun that we almost forgot how far in the hole we were from the last three hours’ worth of gambling.
The only other people at the derby that night were an old down-on-their luck European couple. We made some futile attempts at conversation when we first sat down, but it wasn’t until about an hour later that the ice was sufficiently broken (or they were sufficiently liquored up), and the words started flowing. They were as impressed with out spur-of-the-moment Vegas trip as we were with their accents.
We talked for quite some time, but none of us had been able to place the accents. I was pretty sure that they were Irish, but wouldn’t have been surprised if they were from Sweden, or Hungary for that matter (my European accent IQ runs about room temperature).
Finally, Ram asked the burning question: “So, where are you guys from?”
“We’re from Scotland.”
“Of course,” we all responded, nodding and pretending we’d known all along.
“Thank God you didn’t think we were Irish,” the cynical wife added.
“Oh, no, of course not!” I said, in a futile attempt to cover up my ignorance. I added, “We just weren’t sure if you had a Glasgow or Aberdeen accent,” speaking straight out of my ass.
After a few minutes, we had learned why the couple was at Sigma Derby: they were down to their last five dollars, after a very losing two days on the Strip. I was tempted to ask how much the damage was, but their faces said it all.
“Well,” I said, “Regardless of how much money you have left, you *have* to bet on the 200:1.”
The Scottish woman looked at me like I was insane, and her husband had a similar reaction. I was probably an undercover agent working for the casino, they must have figured, or just downright delusional. (I’m sure the Mohawk wasn’t helping.)
But then my other Mohawked brethren jumped in, and encouraged them further. “You just gotta bet on it.” “How stupid would you feel if it hit and everyone got it except for you?”
At first, they tried to come up with excuses, but after a few minutes of our pestering, they realized that they were coming up empty-handed. They gave in. And soon, all of us at the table were dutifully placing our 200:1 bets every time the opportunity came up, and dutifully cheering on the longshot horses, even if they routinely finished fourth and fifth.
The hours ticked by, and as our quarters diminished, the doctrine of Willy was alive and well, even if it was costing us quarters. Some would say we were paying the “idiot tax” by following that strategy, others would just walk by and snicker that we were playing Sigma Derby in the first place, but to the seven of us at that table, cheering on miniature plastic horses and betting on the slim-to-nil made perfect sense.
But certainly not from a financial perspective. By the time the clock struck 5:00, three of the people in my group had gone bankrupt, there were only two of us, and the Scots left — who had miraculously made their five dollars hold out.
By this point, we’d lost hope that 200:1 hit. We were just betting on it out of some type of peculiar devotion.
One of my friends looked at his watch. “All right guys, we’ve got to get going if we’re going to make it back to LA in time for work.”
We all nodded in agreement. I was down to my last quarter. Tony had 14 left. The Scottish couple had a handful between them. We had all but given up on any prospect of winning money.
“Okay, but let’s wait until the next 200:1 shows up before we head out. I’ve got a good feeling about this one,” I said, half joking.
My antsy employed friends agreed to stick it out for a few more races, so that we could go out in style. It had been an incredible night, and even if all of us lost on Sigma Derby, at least we had a great time doing it.
Then it showed up, the 200:1. Everyone at the table agreed, this was it, the last bet of the night. We all put all of our quarters on the 200:1 and stepped back. This was the big kahuna, the one for all the marbles.
The gate rose, the buzzer rang out, and the horses were off.
And out there somewhere, Willy was smiling down on us.
Through the exhaustion, the buzz of free casino drinks, the haze of cigar smoke, and our unbridled skepticism, we saw it happen. The two last place horses – the horses that never stood a chance – started coming up from behind. And, holy shit, did we cheer. And as those two little horses made their way up the final stretch, we cheered even louder. And as they took the lead, right at the finish line, we exploded.
200 to 1 had hit. On the last bet of the night.
Everyone jumped to their feet in sheer amazement. The high five count instantaneously passed 1,000.
The Scottish couple ran to the other side of the table and hugged us.
It was a moment of pure elation, pure insanity.
We had netted close to a grand between us. Tony’s 14-quarter bet alone pulled in $700, which was awarded to him in a combination of cash and a bucket of $100 in quarters, straight from the machine.
I won $50 from my 25-cent bet, and the Scots won over $100 as well. From quarter bets. QUARTER BETS.
But it’s not the money that mattered, so much as the fact that we won it on Sigma Derby.
When those little plastic horses run down their track, and the crowd goes wild over something that trivial, over 25-cent bets that are that inconsequential, something magic happens. It’s something that’s beyond words. It’s a collective experience that defies description.
It’s Sigma Derby. The single greatest casino game ever.