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I Went To Vegas To See UNLV’s Big Slot Machine

The UNLV slot machine overhead
Dan McQuade/Defector

LAS VEGAS — Slot machines are everywhere in Las Vegas. Everywhere. They're in big casinos on the strip and little casinos off it. Also corner delis. The airport. Step into a business in Las Vegas and you might find a slot machine.

In the last few weeks, there has been another slot machine in Las Vegas in a new location—the Raiders’ stadium. Fans can’t play this one, and it’s only there a few hours a week at most, but there really has been a live, working slot machine on the sidelines of UNLV football during its last two home games.

I first learned about this slot machine in a story in The Athletic by David Ubben. The slot machine is UNLV’s version of the Turnover Chain, Miami’s prop to celebrate turnovers—though UNLV’s is designated for “momentum plays.” The machine made its debut earlier this month in a 28-24 loss to Utah State. The story had a lot of details. The slot machine is made by International Game Technology. It is real. It cost $60,000. It cannot travel to out-of-state stadiums and must be taken off the field and stored after the game. Also, it always pays out, which led to some complications, per Ubben:

IGT, for obvious reasons, never had created a slot machine that won on every pull. Doing so required mathematicians on staff to come up with an equation that crowned a winner each time the lever was pulled. That delayed the process and is part of the reason why the slot machine didn’t make its debut until Saturday, in Week 7.

This confused me a little, and perhaps a lot. For instance, I just wrote this equation: 1 + 1 = x, if x > 1, YOU WIN. I was unsure how it would take so long to come up with an equation where the slot machine always wins, since I made one in five seconds. However, I am not a slot machine mathematician. But the concept itself piqued my interest. While I was in Las Vegas, I would try to get a UNLV credential and write about the big slot machine.

While I was either denied (Eagles-Raiders) or ignored (Vegas Golden Knights) in my other attempts to get credentials last week, the UNLV Rebels were more than happy to slide me into the press box last Thursday night. The slot machine was there, glittering on the sideline, guarded by either two or three staffers the entire game.

Before the game, I attempted to get some backstory on the slot machine. UNLV said they didn’t just want a prop. But, as UNLV professor David Schwartz told me, using a real slot machine means they have to abide by Nevada’s gaming regulations. That may not mean UNLV absolutely has to have a multi-person security detail guard the slot machine—that does not pay out actual money—for four quarters. “In general, gaming is tightly regulated in Nevada,” Schwartz said, “and it's not surprising that everyone concerned would want to act with an abundance of caution around any aspect of it.”

As a tourist in the state, it does not seem like gambling is tightly regulated—but it is! The regulations are just not as onerous as those in other states, which usually have a limited number of gambling licenses.

Another thing I couldn’t figure out was why it took many weeks to come up with an equation to make the slot machine work every time. Schwartz didn’t know. IGT, which for some reason has a 24-hour media call line, initially seemed to be receptive to my inquiries. But after I got more specific—hey, why did it take so long to come up with that equation?—I was shut down. “Out of respect to your deadline and timeline,” they told me, “we should probably sit this one out.” As a result, I now fully believe that the mathematicians who work at IGT do not understand basic algebra and there is huge hole for another slot machine company to enter the market.

But whatever. Another point in The Athletic article that struck me was this: “Players weren’t sure when the slot machine would be used, and fans weren’t prepared for the sideline sideshow at Saturday’s game, either. Part of UNLV’s task is making sure the sideline and the stands know when a slot machine celebration is imminent.” I was in the stadium, ready to see if the team got its sideline act together.

I did not have long to wait. Guy Fieri did the opening coin toss, and UNLV deferred. UNLV’s opening kickoff was short, muffed by San Jose State, and recovered by the Rebels’ Vic Viramontes. They immediately had a party at the slot machine, as you can see in the above photo. When the Rebels scored a few plays later, the slot machine lit up once again.

702 is Las Vegas’ area code. (Video: Dan McQuade)

UNLV continued to pour it on in the first half. Daniel Gutierrez hit a 53-yard field goal. After a San Jose State fumble, UNLV drove 18 yards to take a 17-3 lead on a Charles Williams touchdown run. The slot machine kept lighting up.

It did not get much more use. With 16 seconds left in the first half, Williams fumbled. San Jose State recovered at the UNLV 33. They scored two plays later, and it was 17-13 at halftime. San Jose State eventually tied it at 20 on a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

The fourth quarter was quite weird. UNLV held the ball for 11:53 and was outscored 14-0. SJSU scored early in the quarter. UNLV drove down into San Jose territory and, on a 4th and 1, kicked a field goal. It was blocked; Gutierrez had hit 15 straight coming into the kick.

SJSU drove 78 yards in 2:20 to take a 27-20 lead on a Nick Nash touchdown run. Nash is the QB; he finished with 121 yards on 17 carries. The big play of the drive was a 54-yard run by a WR named Isaiah Holiness; it was his first touch of the season.

Meanwhile, the slot machine just sat there under guard.

Photo: Dan McQuade

No one was going to steal that 700-pound slot machine under the watchful eye of those two.

Still, UNLV had over seven minutes to tie the score. They got pretty close! They drove all the way down to the SJSU 11. And then this happened.

Aw, man. Look how excited backup Nick Starkel was, though!

He has the expression of the guy in the “Pon de Floor” video.

So, yeah. UNLV ran out of time despite having seven minutes to drive down the field at the end of the game, and so did not get to use the slot machine again. “I know we’re crushed,” UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. “It's the fifth game now in the fourth quarter. We feel like we're matched up. We have to make sure we go back and look at exactly how we finish a game.”

Arroyo went 0-6 last year in his first season; the Rebels are 0-7 this season despite leading at halftime in four of those games. But the slot machine gimmick is going pretty well, I suppose: Seeing the players get excited when that slot machine hits three UNLV logos or whatever was pretty fun. Still, I kept thinking back to a quote I remembered about the turnover chain, from then-Miami coach Mark Richt, while watching the game.

“If we were 4-5 and had six turnovers, I think people would probably make fun of it,” he said. “But when you win, things become cool sometimes.”

Yeah, well, despite UNLV being 0-7 and their big slot machine taking months to create and costing $60,000 … I still kind of think it’s cool. Sorry.

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