For many years I played in a poker game on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Over the years a number of people rotated in and out of that game. After a while we just called it the UWS game. One year, way back around 2000 or 2001, we decided we’d all take a trip out to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. We’d try our luck in the big tournament, and we’d play our own tournament amongst ourselves to see who the best in the UWS game really was. It became a yearly tradition, one that continues to this day despite the fact that most of the characters from that card game have moved on to other cities and vastly different lives. Each year everyone meets up in Las Vegas to play the UWSWSOP and crown a new champion.
The gatherings out in Vegas could get pretty big, so one year we made a rule that each year would be one single person’s responsibility to make all the decisions for the rest of the group, and every year it would be a different person’s “year.” This year was the “Year of Rob,” and Rob wanted us to play Sigma Derby. Many of the high rollers in the UWS gang were weary of Sigma Derby when they learned it was an antique midway-style game that only took quarters. But even the high rollers were degenerate gamblers at heart, and Sigma Derby proved to be a hit.
Sigma Gaming was a Japanese gaming company that was the first non-U.S. company to be certified by the Nevada Gaming Commission. Now out of business, Sigma created the Sigma Derby game using both innovative electronic technology and low-tech mechanical elements back in the mid 1980s. The game is a very large table where little mechanical horses “race” around a track. The horse figures bounce back and forth as the game plays a monotonous galloping sound effect. They fall behind, then sprint forward, all to keep the fan interested and excited. Eventually they reach the finish line and the winners are paid.
Sigma Derby accepts only one kind of bet - a quinella. You must pick a two-horse combination and you must bet in units of a quarter. In fact, the game only takes quarters. You select your bets on a metal and LED panel at your seat. There are ten seats around the table. And for the 15 seconds between each race the odds for every combination are posted around the track on a tote board. You’ll see odds from even money all the way to 200-1.
We chose to play Sigma Derby at The D, a pretty low-key casino in downtown Vegas. It used to be called Fitzgerald’s until it was purchased and remodeled. The CEO of The D was set on having a Sigma Derby machine, so they went to California to find an old one and they fixed it up with spare parts to get it certified. Sigma Derby was once a popular game in Las Vegas. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s you could find them up and down the strip. But over time casinos opted to get rid of large, bulky games that took up a lot of floor space. Then Sigma Gaming went out of business and couldn’t service the machines any more. The machine at The D is one of only two Sigma Derby machines in all of Vegas. The other is at the MGM Grand, and on weekends the line to sit down and play can be long.
At The D on a Friday night, however, there was no line to play Sigma Derby. There were open seats as soon as we arrived. We encountered a group of very inebriated young men who were aggressively yelling and screaming at their horses during each “race.” They pounded on the glass and cursed like sailors. They were losing their quarters and they weren’t happy about it. Rob’s eyes lit up. Horse racing? Cheap, low-roller gambling? Flashing lights and bells? The faint sense of carnival degeneracy? This game was made for us.
We bought several rolls of quarters from the hostess. That’s right - actual quarters. You don’t play with vouchers or cards and there’s no slot to feed in bills. You can only play Sigma Derby by shoving actual American quarters into a slot. You then make selections on your keypad for the next race. The odds are on the board surrounding the little tiny racetrack. For our innagural Sigma Derby race, we studied the odds and tried to deduce where the sweet spot might lie. I’m not sure what any of us were thinking. I eventually spread some quarters out among a couple of combinations involving the same horse but paying a big spread in the odds. I don’t know if that strategy made any sense, mathematically speaking. It felt like it might. The bell went off, the horses took off around the track. The machine was certainly mechanical; the horses herked and jerked as they moved along the track. One horse would shoot up ahead with a big lead, only to drop back dramatically as another one bounced forward. Soon it was all over and none of us had won. The portly guys across the table from us with the backwards baseball caps pounded forcefully on the glass. “I’m so sick of this four horse! He never wins!”
I was unsure of how the guy knew these horses weren’t fillies, but I made a mental note of his tip about the four horse and decided not to bet it. I studied the odds again. This time there was a combination on the board that was 200-1! It had the dreaded 4 in it, but I decided I had to bet at least one quarter on it. Then I looked for some more fake-logic and insight into the odds. I came up with a few combinations I felt made sense for some unknown reason. I punched them in, then turned to see what Rob was betting. He poured an entire roll of quarters into the slot then smashed his palm down flat on the keypad. He didn’t even look to see what his palm came up with before the horses took off again. Halfway through the race he looked down, realized he had some number of quarters bet on every combination, and exclaimed “I’m going to win!” We all gave him high fives before the race even finished. The winning quinella paid 3-1, not even enough to get halfway to even on the race for Rob.
We continued on like this for as long as our lungs could stand it (The D allows smoking on the casino floor). Eventually we realized we had lost more money on the game than we could realistically stand to win back. At that point there was no reason to do anything but load up every race on the 200-1 or whatever the longest shot on the board was. At one point this strategy paid me about $60 on a single race, but I was pretty much $100 in the hole by then. We never saw the 200-1 come in, but stories of it hitting are legion on the internet.
Here are the tips I took away from my experience playing Sigma Derby:
1. Pick two combinations with big spreads in their odds, a longshot and a favorite, and bet heavy on the favorite and lighter on the longshot.
2. Always bet the 200-1 when you see it, because you don’t want to be that guy who didn’t have a quarter on it when it hits.
3. I think a funny bit would be to read the Daily Racing Form between races.
4. Even though Sigma Derby regulars (read: broke and drunk people) will swear to you that certain horses are hot or certain others always break bad and come from behind or other horses still are “due,” I’m pretty sure there is nothing but randomness in how they finish. If anything there may be patterns in how certain odds are paid off race to race, but even that is dubious.
5. You’re not going to win any money at Sigma Derby, so have fun. Name the horses. Yell loudly for them. Celebrate when you win and crow about bad beats when you lose. Share tips with your friends. Start your own B.S. legends about the game. Do whatever you can to make sure you and the others playing are having a fun and silly time playing. That way the casino may keep these tables around a little while longer before they realize how much money they are losing not occupying that space with another bank of Betty Boop slots.
If you want to play Sigma Derby with the UWS gang, come find us next year. It’s our friend Dave’s year to be in charge, and he seemed to like it, so chances are we’ll be back.