Kathleen Budz had been at the slots in the New York-New York casino for only a couple of hours when the big money came along. The Chicago grandmother was seated at one of four chattering Wheel of Fortune games in the Big Apple-themed casino—a rococo affair with a mock Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and Coney Island roller coaster.
The gambling device in question is a fairly typical modern Vegas slot. Three spinning reels occupy the center of the machine. Players can wager as little as a quarter, and small jackpots—a dollar or 10—come along frequently enough to keep the action going. But the huge bonus prize is the real draw—announced by an electronic display that resembles the ticking wheel on the TV game show, placed just above eye level.
As her losses mounted to more than $200, Budz fed the machine $5 tokens, pressing the Spin button almost rhythmically—no serious slot player touches the pull handle on a one-armed bandit. To Budz, a few hundred bucks on a Vegas visit is "just entertainment." Then it happened: The symbols on the three reels matched, and the digital Wheel of Fortune began to spin, indicating a win. On the top of the machine, the jackpot was posted: $4 million. Budz couldn't read the total; she'd forgotten her glasses. But her husband, standing behind, did. "Seven digits," he yelled. "Seven digits!"
Not long ago, a scene like this would have been incomprehensible. No single slot could pay out $4 million. Not physically, and not practically. Even in constant use, it would be impossible for any single machine to collect sufficient incoming wagers to make such mammoth paydays happen.
What made Budz rich, and what has made casinos even richer in recent years, are new digital networks that connect virtually every slot machine in every casino in the country. Wheel of Fortune, for instance, is part of the MegaJackpots system, a network within 18 states and one Native American reservation that encompasses more than 8,000 machines, about half of them in Nevada. Because all these slots are wired together, every coin and bill inserted is monitored and tallied by banks of central computers, often hundreds of miles away. The maximum jackpot, advertised in flashing digits above each cluster of machines, mounts identically and simultaneously with each spin.