As I sit down to write this on the first Sunday in March, there is a $1.034 million jackpot building on dollar Wheel of Fortune slot machines in Mississippi. In New Jersey, the same game has a top prize building past $940,000, while in Nevada, it’s past $1.908 million and counting.
The big jackpot games are called “wide-area progressives,” and the wide-area world is changing.
In the last week of February, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement announced it was authorizing multistate links for wide-area progressives. Several states were said to be interested in joining the link, with South Dakota being the only other state that was named. The system is to be called “Powerbucks,” operated by International Game Technology. IGT is the slot manufacturer behind Megajackpots wide-area systems that include Megabucks, Wheel of Fortune, TV Hits — which includes Twilight Zone and Beverly Hillbillies games — and others.
Most progressives you see in casinos are not wide-areas. When you’re playing a multitiered progressive that starts jackpot of a few dollars and has several jackpots of higher levels that max out at perhaps a few thousand dollars, you’re usually playing a “local” link confined to machines in one casino. Aristocrat Technologies pioneered the format with its Hyperlink games such as Cash Express, with mini, minor, major and grand levels.
If you’re playing a single-level progressive with a modest jackpot, that’s not a wide-area either. A casino near my home long had a bank of IGT Double Diamond machines, linked to a jackpot that started at $10,000. That was a local, not a wide-area, progressive.
Wide-area progressives are the big money games, the ones that dazzle you with lifestyle-changing money. A percentage of each wager at any game in the link, even those at different casinos, goes toward a common jackpot.
Jackpots can be enormous. The largest was $39.7 million, won in 2003 by a California man on a Megabucks machine at Excalibur in Las Vegas. The odds of hitting Megabucks are a shade better than 1 in 50 million, bigger odds leading to bigger jackpots than on other wide-area progressives. Reports out of New Jersey said odds at Powerbucks would be closer to 1 in 150 million, making hitting the jackpot an extremely rare event that could lead to Powerball-sized prizes.
Up to now, wide-area links in commercial casinos have been confined to individual states. A bet in New Jersey affects the jackpot only in New Jersey casinos, and a wager in Mississippi makes no difference in what shows on the progressive meters in Louisiana.
But there is precedent for multi-state links. IGT’s Native American link includes tribal casinos across the United States. As I write this, a common jackpot of more than $750,000 is building at dollar Wheel of Fortune games, regardless of whether you’re playing in Connecticut, Michigan, Florida, California or anywhere in the United States where there are Native American casinos.
Other slot manufacturers have their own wide-area systems. Bally Technologies’ Cash Connection wide-area link includes the popular Michael Jackson: King of Pop slots along with NASCAR, Betty Boop Fortune Teller and others. WMS Gaming has gone the wide-area route with games including Wizard of Oz Ruby Slippers and Monopoly Around the World. Cadillac Jack, a major supplier of Class II games for Native American casinos, has its wide-area Cadillac Cash link.
But IGT has been the largest supplier of wide-area progressives ever since Megabucks became the first of its kind in 1986. That IGT would be in on the first commercial multi-state link is no surprise at all.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski’s weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.