Late one night at the Borgata in Atlantic City, my poker game broke up before I was even for the night. I was in no mood to go home still a loser, so I signed up to get in another game that was going that looked loose and wild with lots of big pots. Despite the late hour, the list for the game was as long as my arm. I gave the floorperson my initials and then went off in search of some other gambling game to whet my appetite while I waited.
It was too late to bet on racing. The race and sports book was deserted. So I wandered the casino floor. The blackjack tables were all full. The craps games that were going were already crowded. The Wheel of Fortune dollar machines were all occupied. It was, as they say, hopping that night. I was prepared to shuffle back to the poker room and sit in a chair looking at my phone for the next hour or however long it took me to get into the wild game with the big pots. Then, I bumped into Fortune Cup.
It was a jarring sight. A giant contraption on the casino floor, with a huge LCD screen on one end, encircled by individual video terminals and a large toy racetrack in the middle enclosed by a plastic bubble. Inside the bubble, every 40 seconds nine plastic racehorses and jockeys lined up at the starting gate and then were let loose into a clunky galloping trip around the circle. The screens had their computer generated names like Money God or Graceful Lotus. When the race was over, the results were posted, along with the various payoffs for the different bets. It was all music to my ears. I could bet on the horses after all! There were a handful of empty seats, so I sat down and pumped a few twenties into Fortune Cup to see if my handicapping skills would be any use on this strange, gigantic machine.
Fortune Cup first appeared in Las Vegas last year. Created by the Konami Corporation, Fortune Cup was one of a number of unusual casino games developed by the video game company, like Frogger: Get Hoppin’ and Crystal Cyclone. Fortune Cup was an attempt by Konami to capture what was popular about Sigma Derby, a mechanical horse racing game from 1985 that has developed a cult-like following around the two remaining machines in operation at The D and the MGM Grand. Sigma Derby’s parent company no longer exists, and parts and new machines are no longer being produced, but the vintage look and feel of the game has created devoted fans, and most nights it is impossible to get a seat. Sigma Derby looks a lot like Konami’s Fortune Cup, except much older and more mechanical, without any touchscreens, or screens at all. Best of all, Sigma Derby uses actual physical quarters to play.
Fortune Cup is an attempt to bring Sigma Derby into the 21st century. It not only allows players to use cash and their player cards, it also expands the betting options beyond the win bet. Players can bet to win, place, or a quinella. Odds are posted before each race, and players have 40 seconds to make their bets before the next race begins, so while the action may be faster than what racing fans are used to, it’s a lot slower than what slot machine players expect.
Usually it takes me about 90 seconds to lose $20 on a $1 slot machine. On a quarter machine, I can usually last about twice that long. On Fortune Cup, it took me nearly 20 minutes to lose $20. And I lost it by losing every single race I bet. I never once cashed a ticket in my first handful of races, choosing to bet on longshots and crazy quinellas looking for a big payoff. Just like in actual horse racing, the chalk kept winning when I bet longshots, and losing when I broke down and bet on the chalk. I don’t know how Konami was able to get that part of the horse racing experience exactly right, but kudos to them for nailing it.
The people who had joined me at the Fortune Cup game that night were well soused and enjoying themselves. They didn’t seem to know much about horse racing, but that clearly wasn’t required to play this game. Some of them were making win bets on so many short odds horses at the same time that they couldn’t possibly come out ahead, so I suppose some knowledge of basic math and probabilities might help. But beyond that, you really are just rolling with your best hunch, like roulette but with computer generated names instead of numbers.
One guy at my table was getting irrationally angry when his horses would lose. He would yell at them in the stretch as they faded, cursing their names and accusing the game of being fixed. I have to say, I could understand where he was coming from a few times, when a horse had a six or seven-length lead in the stretch and then just flat stopped and let the other horses all catch up. It even sometimes seemed like the horse was literally running backwards. Again, seeing people who just lost a race cursing the game for being rigged is actually a pretty spot-on recreation of the IRL horse racing experience. So good job on that, too, Konami.
I eventually did hit a couple of races, and honestly it felt exciting to finally see the horse I randomly chose “gallop” out to a lead in the stretch. I don’t know if that excitement was caused by the long dry spell or if it would feel like that every single time. I didn’t win often enough to know. In all, I blew about $80 before surrendering and going back to check on my spot in the poker game.
Fortune Cup is right up my alley in terms of what I want to see in a gambling game. It’s slow, I get to make choices, and people sit together and have fun playing the game together, so it engenders some camaraderie among players. What’s weird about it is that the machine takes up so much physical space. It’s hard to see the game sticking around the Borgata taking up real estate that could be used for more slot machines. But Konami reports that they are experiencing a lot of success with the machine. Not at the Borgata, or at the few properites in Las Vegas that have the machines, but in Asia. According to Konami, Fortune Cup is killing it in Vietnam and Cambodia, where people love horse racing and have welcomed the game to casino floors.
It isn’t doing bad in North America, either. But Konami says the players who are flocking to Fortune Cup are, like me, players who don’t usually play slot machines. That makes some sense. With luck, Fortune Cup might make some casino dwellers hungry for a taste of the real thing. But unfortunately, right now they only seem to have captured the things about the game that suck, like the agony of losing. If they loosened up the payoffs a little so that more players could feel what it’s like to win, maybe it will inspire more players to come root home some real horses. Otherwise it may not be long for this world, and could be trucked off to make room for more "Sex and the City" slots.
When I got back to the poker room, I found that my name was no closer to being called as when I first put it there. I decided I had two options: I could drive home, or I could go back and bet on more fake horses. I walked past Fortune Cup on my way out, and the guy from before was still losing and still mad.
“This thing sucks!”
“Not doing any better?” I asked him.
“Hell no! I swear to God these horses are running backwards. This thing is rigged!”
That cinched it for me.
“Scoot over,” I said as I sidled back up to the machine. “Let me show you how this is done.”