Casino Gambling

What happened to the mega-million dollar jackpots at Coast casinos?

Thomas McMillan, of Woolmarket, won over $14 million in 2009 on a slot machine at Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, the largest jackpot ever won in Mississippi. Now Hard Rock Biloxi has the first jackpot to top $1 million in almost 3 years.
Thomas McMillan, of Woolmarket, won over $14 million in 2009 on a slot machine at Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, the largest jackpot ever won in Mississippi. Now Hard Rock Biloxi has the first jackpot to top $1 million in almost 3 years. Sun Herald file

Players are winning jackpots at Mississippi Coast casinos, but it's been years since one of those jackpots topped $1 million.

That "life-changing" jackpot came three years ago in October 2015, when Evelyn H. (no last name given) of Milton, Florida, won $1.5 million at IP Casino playing the Wheel of Fortune slot machine.

Many have wondered what happened to the multi-million dollar jackpots that were more common in the years before Hurricane Katrina, and the Sun Herald reached out to the experts and the largest slot manufacturer to find out what's changed.

The last win to make it into the Top-10 all-time slot jackpots on the Coast was five years ago in February 2013 at Palace Casino, when a 73-year-old Michigan resident won $7.2 million on a WMS The Lord of the Rings penny slot.

The biggest jackpot in the state hit nine years ago at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi when the late Tommy McMillan of Woolmarket won $14.4 million on Wheel of Fortune Dollar in 2009.

When's the next big jackpot?

Mississippi remains the third "winningest" state behind Nevada and New Jersey for jackpots on a slot machine made by International Game Technology, the largest slot manufacturer in the world.

The company has paid more than $4 billion in “life-changing jackpots” of $1 million or higher. More than $500 million of that was won at Mississippi casinos.

The winningest year in Mississippi was 2003, when IGT jackpots totaled $65.6 million.

The chance for a big jackpot is building, with IGT's online jackpot tracker showing the Wheel of Fortune $5 progressive jackpot is over $1 million and the Wheel of Fortune Special Edition jackpot has reached over $2 million in Mississippi.

Big wins tend to come in cycles, said Dave Kingman, enforcement agent director for the Mississippi Gaming Commission. That happened in 2013 and again in 2015-16, when multiple jackpots of $500,000 or more were won at South Mississippi casinos. If the pattern holds to two-year intervals, 2018 could be another winning year on the Coast.

Double jackpots came less than 45 days apart in 2013 at Silver Slipper Casino. These wins "always" create lot of excitement at a casino and in a market, said John Ferrucci, Silver Slipper general manager.

Wide area progressives that link computers across the Coast or the state remain popular, he said, and provide an opportunity for players to go for big jackpots.

Silver Slipper is paying out lots of smaller jackpots, he said. "We wouldn't do anything to discourage the big ones," he said, but there is a better chance to win a smaller jackpot.

What's happening?

The Mississippi Gaming Commission goes to a casino and verifies every jackpot of $100,000 or more, Kingman said, and he reports that's happened 31 times so far this year.

"They're out there," he said of the big wins. In January a $2 million jackpot on an IGT Wheel of Fortune slot hit at Magnolia Bluffs Casino in Mississippi. In April, a Georgia woman won a $200,000 jackpot at the Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort on a $100 Double Double Gold Machine.

So why aren't players seeing more of the huge jackpots on the Coast?

“It may not be one single factor,” Kingman said.

“The players may not be playing them as much,” he said of the progressive slots, whose jackpots grow with every play until someone randomly wins. Or they may be hitting at lower numbers, he said, and not building up huge jackpots.

"A lot of people don't play max coin," said Alan Silver, who has worked in the casino industry for years and is an economic consultant in Las Vegas. To win the largest progressive jackpots, he said players must bet the maximum amount and that is why the big payouts may be reduced.

"People want that life-changing jackpot," he said, even when the odds aren't as good as on progressive machines.

Mississippi has thousands more progressive slots now (3,919) compared to pre-Katrina (636) or even five years ago (2,089), providing less chance for the jackpots to build, according to the Gaming Commission reports.

Players have a better chance to win a smaller jackpot, Kingman said, because more opportunities for this size jackpots are programmed into the computer of each slot machine. Over the life cycle of the game, which he said could be 16 million handle pulls of the game, the payout is programed for a certain number of smaller and larger wins, he said.

What are the odds?

Mississippi is one of the few states that breaks down its progressive slot wins so players can see what games return the most and how much the casinos in each region win and hold.

The April report from the Gaming Commission shows that casinos won a high of 10.25 percent for penny progressives to a low of $5.55 for nickel progressives.

State regulations require the casino win to be 20 percent or less, and all except the penny progressives were at half or less than that amount.

Not just in Mississippi

It isn't just Mississippi that is seeing fewer multi-million dollar jackpots.

New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement reports all jackpots of over $50,000 on its website. So far for 2018, there are more jackpots with lower payouts. The largest jackpot this year in Atlantic City year to date is $498,438 won on a penny Willy Wonka Bally machine at Bally Park Place, according to the report.

Wins in New Jersey for the last 5 years are:

2018 — 120 jackpots year to date, totaling $10.5 million, none over $1 million.

2017 — 135 jackpots totaling $20.2 million; 2 were over $1 million, the largest $2.6 million at Harrah's

2016 —124 jackpots totaling $21.3 million, 2 over $1 million, the largest $3.1 million at Taj Mahal

2015 — 148 jackpots totaling $20.9 million, with 1 over $1 million, the largest $1.5 million at Betfaircasino.com

2014 — 195 jackpots, $30.8 million, 3 over $1 million, the largest $2.6 million at Golden Nugget

Keeping it legal

Slot machines wins are totally random, Kingman said, no matter whether a player sits at the entrance to the casino or brings a lucky charm.

Casinos can change to a different slot machine program, he said, such as substituting to a new version of a game. “They can't change the program,” he said, or it's a felony offense.

Mississippi Gaming Commission inspects slot machines on a 3-year cycle, Kingman said, with 100 percent of the games on a casino floor inspected one year and a percentage of the new slots checked the second and third years.

And they are inspected and verified every time a player wins one of those life-changing jackpots, he said.

Coast top 10 slot jackpots

  • $14.4 million: March 2009 at Hard Rock Casino. Won by Tommy McMillan of Woolmarket on Wheel of Fortune Dollar

  • ▪$13.8 million: May 2003 at Isle of Capri. Won by Chris Loewen of Mobile on Jeopardy Quarter

  • ▪$12.8 million: March 2003 at Treasure Bay Casino. Won by David and Janice Stacks of Gulfport on Megabucks

  • $9.9 million: December 2002 at Beau Rivage Casino. Won by Barbara Jane Thornburg, Arlington, Tenn., on Wheel of Fortune Dollar

  • $8.2 million: March 2006 at Isle of Capri. Won by Katherine Salvant of Metairie. La., playing Wheel of Fortune Quarters

  • ▪$8.1 million: September 1999 at Beau Rivage. Won by Micah David Bass of Orlando, Fla., on Wheel of Fortune Dollar

  • ▪$8.1 million: March 1998 at Grand Biloxi. Won by Gary Jernigan of Opelika, Ala., on Wheel of Fortune Dollar

  • ▪$7.7 million: November 2001 at Grand Casino Gulfport. Won by Alfreda Edelinski, of Long Beach on Wheel of Fortune Quarters

  • $7.2 million: April 2005 at Grand Casino Gulfport. Won by Tom Madison of Picayune on Megabucks Dollar

  • $7.2 million: February 2013 at Palace Casino Biloxi. Won by 73-year-old Michigan resident on a WMS The Lord of the Rings penny slot. It was the largest win on a WMS wide-area progressive slot machine at the time.

Recent Coast jackpot winners

  • June 2016: Kendrick V. of Atlanta won $479,390.93 at IP Casino playing Willy Wonka

  • May 2016: Sarah Minix of Grantville, Ga., won $528,047 at Beau Rivage playing Game of Thrones

  • March 2016: Hoang N. of Pascagoula won a $530,897 jackpot at IP Casino playing The Walking Dead

  • February 2016: Lance T. of Georgia won a $616,118 jackpot at IP Casino playing Willy Wonka

  • October 2015: Matthew Manger of Sarasota, Fla., won $501,244 at Beau Rivage playing Tarzan

  • October 2015: Evelyn H. of Milton, Fla., won a $1,519,819 jackpot at IP Casino playing Wheel of Fortune

Progressive slot wins

Percentage won by Coast casinos on progressive slot machines

Slot gamesApril 2005April 2013April 2018
Number of progressive games6362,0893,919
Number of all slot games17,37914,46913,630
Percent of penny slot winsN/A8.47%

10.25%

Percent of nickel slot wins

9.47%

4.44%

5.55%

Percent of quarter wins

10.92%

4.44%

6.29%

Percent of 50 cent wins

12%

7.58%

8.93%

Percent of $1 wins

12.29%

5.18%

6.94%

Percent of $5 wins

8.58%

6.43%

6.49%

Percent of all slot wins

5.74%

6.89%

8.38%

— Mississippi Gaming Commission

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