Updated June 30, 2022 - 6:59 pm
Legend has it that the first slot machine Derek Stevens ever played in Las Vegas was the Sigma Derby mechanical horse racing game.
At the Dunes Hotel in the 1980s, Stevens — now the owner of The D Las Vegas, Circa and Golden Gate Casino — saw how much fun players were having around the machine and quickly fell in love.
“We went out, got a beer, got a roll of quarters and started playing,” Stevens said. “Pretty simply, I had a ball. Everybody had a ball. I love this game.”
When Stevens bought Fitzgeralds, one of the goals was to make it “a bit of a nostalgic casino.”
“We brought in some old machines, but this really was the signature, feature machine,” he said.
On Wednesday, The D Las Vegas, formerly Fitzgeralds, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the slot machine at the casino. The 35-year-old game is now the last one in operation in Las Vegas — and possibly the world.
While other horse racing slot games are available — including Konami’s Fortune Cup sitting just steps away — bettors are drawn to the quarter-based play.
Players insert the minimum bet of one quarter, then select which two horses will come in first and second in either order. The mechanical horses then bob around the track for a minute. Bets range from 2-to-1 to 200-to-1 and cashing out brings the sweet, nostalgic sound of coins hitting the hopper.
“It’s the best,” St. Louis, Missouri, resident Kristine Kulage said while playing on Wednesday morning. “I don’t know that I would keep coming to Vegas if this was not here anymore, honestly.”
The game draws such a strong following that there’s a Facebook group filled with dedicated fans letting others know when the machine — which works on 1980s technology — is out for repair. When a coin shortage in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the success of the game, the slogan “Save Sigma Derby” was slapped on a T-shirt and hat and given to players who brought in their quarters.
Continuing that tradition, The D will hand out limited-edition T-shirts every Wednesday until Aug. 31, casino operators said. Fifty shirts, each of a new design, will be available at a random time between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to bettors actively playing Sigma Derby.
Some superfans were at The D on Wednesday, eagerly playing with about eight others and waiting for a chance to snag a special shirt to add to their collection. Monument, Colorado, resident Ski Wagasky said he’s been playing it since the white hair under his “Save Sigma Derby” cap was brown.
“It’s an analog computer that was made in 1985,” Wagasky, 72, said.“It’s a frickin’ math problem, but you still get beat so it doesn’t matter. It’s a social game because you want to be with your friends.”
Stevens said that social aspect could translate into newer casino games. Hot table games such as craps have always captured the energy and attention of a casino. Sigma Derby is the slot equivalent.
“I think from a slot perspective, I was probably most attracted to this because this is a community-based game,” he said. “You like it when the guy next [to you] hits or the guy across the way hits. I think camaraderie-based gaming is something you’re seeing now with some of the stadium gaming.”
And like the Dunes Hotel legend, Stevens hopes he can weave another myth — or marketing — into Las Vegas’ shared tale.
“Myth also has it that people who start their trip to Vegas and put their first bet on Sigma Derby, you’re generally luckier on the whole trip than people who don’t,” he said.
This story has been updated to include additional details.
McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.