Elmer Sherwin According to one estimate, based on the number of stops and the number of stops corresponding to a jackpot symbol on each reel, the probability of winning the ‘Megabucks’ progressive jackpot is 1 in 49.8 million spins. Nevertheless, the late Elmer Sherwin, who died in 2007 at the age of 93, defied astronomical odds – in the order of trillions to one – to win the jackpot not once, but twice, at two different Las Vegas casinos, sixteen years apart.

Sherwin was already a 76-year-old retiree when, on November 22, 1989, he lined up the Megabucks symbols for the first time at The Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip, which had only opened to the public earlier that day, and collected $4.65 million for his $3 stake. According to a spokesman for The Mirage, Sherwin played for about an hour-and-a-half and invested about $100 before winning what was, at the time, claimed to be the largest jackpot even won on a slot machine in Las Vegas.

Evidently not entirely satisfied with winning the progressive jackpot once, Sherwin continued to pursue what he later called his ‘life’s dream’ of a second Megabucks win for the next sixteen years. The stars, or at least the Megabucks symbols, aligned for a second time at the Cannery Casino in Downtown Las Vegas on September 16, 2005, and Sherwin collected a further $21.1 million. By now aged 92, Sherwin donated much of his winnings to charitable causes, including to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which had caused catastrophic damage to cities along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, the previous month.

How Slot Machines Work The first thing to understand about modern slot machines, regardless of whether they are the electro-mechanical type, with physical reels, or the video type, with virtual reels, is that the outcome of each spin depends on random number generator (RNG). An RNG consists of highly complex computer instructions, technically known as an ‘algorithm’. By definition, it cannot reproduce randomness exactly, but does a highly passable imitation. Consequently, the outcome of each spin is, effectively, random and independent of anything that comes before, or after, in a series of spins.

The advent of virtual, rather than physical, reels means that the need for mapping symbols and spaces on the physical reels to virtual reels no longer exists. Of course, a virtual reel is not a physical entity, so a reel with 64, 128 or 256 symbols takes up no more physical space than a reel with, say, 32 symbols. Consequently, programmers can simply program virtual reels with a sufficient symbols and spaces to dramatically increase the number of possible outcomes – and, hence, the value of jackpot prizes – without worrying about the physical constraints of a slot machine cabinet.

Nevertheless, when a player pushes the button to set the reels in motion, the RNG instantaneously generates a random number corresponding to a ‘stop’ position on each reel. Unsurprisingly, each reel stops at the position dictated by the RNG and the resulting symbols indicate to the player whether it was a winning or losing spin. However, as far as the ‘real’ game is concerned, the visible reels are something of an irrelevancy; spinning reels may create a sense of anticipation and excitement but, otherwise, exist only to inform the player of the outcome of a spin. By the time the reels are spinning, the RNG has already done its work and the outcome of the spin is already determined; what happens on the video screen thereafter has no effect, whatsoever, on the game.

Amy Nishimura Late on the morning of Monday, December 22, 2003, less than 24 hours into her annual holiday to Las Vegas from her home in Kaunakakai on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Amy Nishimura held aloft a cheque for $8.92 million dollars, having hit the jackpot on the ‘Megabucks’ slot machine at the Fremont Hotel.

Nishimura, who celebrated her seventy-second birthday just two days later, had apparently been playing slot machines at the Fremont Hotel since the Eighties, but was especially fond of one International Game Technology (IGT) ‘Red White & Blue’ machine. ‘My machine’, as she called it, was linked to the Megabucks progressive jackpot system, which connects hundreds of slot machines across Nevada, and cost $3 a spin to play for the jackpot payout.

Having eaten breakfast, but not yet been to bed, Nishimura had reportedly been playing the machine for about three hours when her investment of $140 or so finally paid dividends. She lined up three golden ‘Megabucks’ symbols on the pay line of the standard, three-reel slot machine – in so doing, defying odds of 16.7 million to one – and won $8,919,598 with 37 credits left to spare.

Nishimura admitted to being nonplussed, initially, but after time to reflect on her good fortune – believed to the biggest win on Las Vegas slots by a Hawaii resident since John Tippin won a Megabucks jackpot of $11.9 million nearly eight years previously – came up with some ideas about how to spend her winnings. They included paying off her mortgage, visiting Las Vegas more often and indulging her family.